Yeshivas Tiferes Tzvi of Chicago is creating history. This innovative institution has just altered the education landscape across America for teachers and students alike – forever.
While that seems like a bold statement, it is the unvarnished truth. Every school seeks to maximize its students’ potential, but there are those children who continue to struggle despite the staff’s best efforts. Whether it is behavioral, social, or emotional difficulties, there is only so much a school can do to address underlying issues. Parents are left with no choice but to pull their children out of school to receive crucial services – or leave their children floundering in the classroom.
With its characteristic visionary approach, YTT homed in the problem and came up with a breakthrough solution. No longer would students have to be schlepped out of school (by a parent who had to take off work) to attend a therapy session and then fall even more behind. Or suffer through the stigma of extended absences. Or worst of all – be misdiagnosed with behavioral problems and such when the core issue is really Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).
So they built a gym – in the school.
The fully-equipped, beautifully designed sensory motor gym currently services the students in their natural environment under the guidance of dedicated frum therapists. And the results are impressive.
In one case, a rebbi noticed that his student was confusing his numbers. That very day, he notified the therapist who was working with the child – and she was able to customize the session to address this challenge. Typically, when a child is recommended for services, it can be a tedious ordeal: applying for services, then waiting for an evaluation and placement. By then, precious time could be lost, and other complications could arise as well.
The gym was the brainchild of the Mashgiach, Rabbi Shmuel Tenenbaum, MSMFT, Dean of Students – and watching struggling children thrive before his eyes is a dream come true.
“The purpose of this project is to have an all-inclusive system to help our students,” Rabbi Tenenbaum enthuses. “With the school staff and therapists networking and collaborating together, we can trace the underlying difficulties in a time-efficient manner and address them with a holistic approach. No child left behind!”
SPD is a condition in which the brain has trouble receiving and responding to information that comes in through the senses. Since it can negatively impact concentration, behavior, and social abilities – as well as fine/gross motor skills – occupational therapy can serve as an indispensable support to transform a child’s entire school experience.
And for Rabbi Nosson Muller, Menahel, school experience is the operative phrase. It’s not just about the academics, but about each child’s total development as a true eved Hashem. Does each talmid have the mental and physical tools to process the lessons that the devoted rebbeim and teachers transmit?
“As a therapist, I can speak to the classroom staff to see how challenges affect classroom performance and suggest strategies,” says Mrs. Elisheva Scheinberg, OTR/L. “And monitor progress – what’s working and what’s not.”
Rabbi Tenenbaum notes that every rebbi wants his talmid to feel as comfortable as possible throughout the day to ensure an optimal learning atmosphere. But all the emotional support in the world is ineffective if the child doesn’t feel comfortable in his own skin, i.e., if he is in physical discomfort due to SPD.
The gym is housed in the YTT Exceptional Learning wing, a center in which students receive remedial or enrichment services. It is outfitted with specialized equipment to work on foundational skills as well as fine motor and visual motor challenges. Peer interaction is also encouraged and facilitated during sessions which take place alongside another student. This multi-pronged method benefits the students immeasurably. And best of all, sessions take place at a time that would least interfere with each student’s personal learning schedule.
One student even takes his spelling test during therapy each week so that the therapist can work on appropriate letter formation and spacing.
Mrs. Scheinberg shares, “I was so excited to see a copy of one student’s report, which was written so neatly and accurately!” This is a student who had previously struggled with writing legibly and always complained of fatigue in his fingers.
The $50,000 state-of-the-art gym was built thanks to the donation of a generous parent. YTT has contracted with Cornerstones Therapeutic Services, which is currently renting the space. This is a rapidly-growing therapy company which customizes its services to meet the individual needs of each child. The rent funds are applied toward a scholarship fund to help cover those children who do not have a suitable insurance plan. The provider is in the process of accepting all insurance plans, including public aid. This is a win-win situation in every sense of the word – the gym will ultimately provide for everyone’s needs, regardless of financial ability.
“The gym was designed with our children’s needs from the outset,” Rabbi Tenenbaum attests. “We wanted it to be a kid-friendly, exciting place to be so that there should be zero stigma attached. And baruch Hashem, we have succeeded.”
As for the future? YTT is not one to rest on its laurels.
The school plans to provide training for parents and teachers about SPD awareness, as well as options for neuropsychological testing and psychotherapy.
Rabbi Tenenbaum outlines the ultimate goal: “We hope that other schools will learn about the accomplishments of the sensory gym and follow suit – so that every Yiddishe child has every chance of success. Because every child is destined for greatness.”
Perhaps one student summed it up best. Walking past the gym, he asked, “How do I sign up for this?”