The Passover Seder for Children with Disabilities: Turning Agony Into Ecstasy

The Passover Seder is a challenge under the best of circumstances. The late starting hour, the long Haggadah reading, capped by a meal everyone is too tired to eat – it’s a bit much for adults and children alike, and even more so for kids with Attention Deficit Disorder or other learning disabilities.

There are several things everyone can do turn the potentially tiresome evening into a night of excitement and belonging. While all of the tips you’ll read apply to everyone, they are especially helpful for children with learning issues.

Some ideas are pretty obvious, but bear repeating year after year, and the one about being well-rested tops the list. While it may seem to require another Passover miracle, everyone can rest for a bit before the Seder. For some children, an actual nap will give them the energy to be part of the evening festivities and the grown-ups in their lives can sit still for a half hour after candlelighting. Some families with small children put the kids to sleep at normal bedtime and wake them up when it’s time to talk about the ten plagues and eat the Matzah.

Be sure to serve a small meal at normal time, between 5:00 and 6:00 p.m., so no one comes to the table too famished to focus. Maintaining a calm atmosphere helps, too, so have books or quiet games handy and avoid scolding.

In the weeks leading up to Passover, read stories about the holiday (PJ Library is a wonderful resource for this). These stories will keep the children thinking about the holiday and ready to share what they have read.

Closer to Passover, or even early that day, let each child choose one part of the Haggadah to present. Let the children rehearse their parts and feel really comfortable with them. If reading is something your child struggles with, let him or her present the idea without actually reading the words of the Haggadah. And be sure that each person at the table is recognized for asking a good question, presenting a significant idea or providing the answer to a Passover query. The goal is to eliminate competition and that alone will reduce stress.

One family I know prepares a seven-ounce plastic cup at each seat. Anyone who participates with a question, comment or answer gets a piece of chocolate or other Passover treat; by the end of the evening, everyone walks away with a cup of treats that symbolizes their meaningful participation.

You want to have plenty of visuals, whether pictures or actual items. A bag of plastic frogs, finger puppets and anything the children can think of will keep them at the table, ready to participate and enjoy.

Have some age-appropriate, “soft” questions prepared – questions that you know the children will be able to answer. And build in breaks for the kids; they do not have to sit like little angels throughout the entire time. (Ever notice how the adults find reasons to get up and walk around a bit?)

Provide easy-to-read Haggadahs and be sure to summarize as you go along. Interspersing the readings with songs is another way to keep children interested and participating.

Most important of all: Watch your expectations! Let the children see your pleasure when they sing or speak about the Yom Tov. Be sure to value whatever they contribute to the evening.

The Haggadah tells us about four sons, each one different from the other. They range from quite smart and knowledgeable to being unable even to formulate a coherent question. And the message of the Haggadah is that each one is worthwhile. As we reinforce the children’s participation on any level, they will feel that they themselves are an integral part of the Seder, knowing they truly belong. And that is pure ecstasy!

Have a wonderful Passover and be sure to enjoy each moment of the Seder.

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