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Dave Smolar is co-founder of Kikayon Productions, creating turn-key solutions for Jewish education. Our “TORAH TIME LIVE!” Parashah Play series is now for sale! From Creation to Mt. Sinai, click on “Our Store” for more!

To start off, the plays, musicals, games, and other teaching tools I’ve created generally focus on students in grades 5-9, ages 10-14. I continue to have the honor to work alongside teachers with far more years in the field than I, as well as battle-worn parents facing all kinds of behavior every day from their kids (and their kids’ friends). So I know that it’s a universal complaint when a grown-up complains about “that one kid.”

  • “Oh that kid, he won’t sit still.”

  • “She has a comment for everything and can’t keep it to herself.”

  • “Those two: never EVER put them together. ”Why?" I ask. “Because they’re TROUBLE, that’s why.”

In this posting, I’d like to explore this issue. To begin with:

  • every child is a person, different from you and the rest of the class, with their own likes, quirks, and ever-growing bag of ideas and trepidations;

  • by age 10, it’s for kids to have an instinctual need to participate aloud in groups;

  • it’s your class or group to lead, not theirs to wrangle or hijack.

I’d imagine the worst case scenario, that as a substitute teacher, you cover a certain class for the first time without being told of a certain student’s special needs, or IEP, or personal issue with their home life. You’re in the dark. You don’t know what’s going on with them. And, no, you cannot hold up the entire lesson just for one student.

So how do you include them and not marginalize them? How to do you get that student to focus on what the group is doing? How do you get them to cheer up and forget about what might be ahead of them at home?

Please consider the following:

You can’t walk into a room of kids and expect them to behave or respond to you exactly the same way every time. I had a student who loved sports so much, she’d show up in uniform each week for Hebrew school. But when I taught the students Israeli dancing (as a fun way to introduce the first Aliyah migration of the 1880s), guess which student was the one sitting aside? I didn’t comment or shame her into doing anything because I wanted her in her comfort zone at school. And she was with us for my introductory talk, so she got the point of the lesson and contributed later on with stories of how her family came to the U.S.

What is age-appropriateness? Well, the editors of Wikipedia describe activities, reactions, and emotions “appropriate to a child's development of social skills…divided into a number of development stages based upon the child's age.” Conversely, this means you can’t present kids of a certain age with a lesson approach, critical thinking exercise, graphic art project, dramatic activity, or simple discussion that is either too far below or too far above their age level. Of course, you can, if you like, but don’t expect any results other than revolt.

When doing a post-mortem on a youth event or Hebrew school class or activity, think back on how the day ended, not how it began. If you come home from a day of teaching or a synagogue kids’ service or a family holiday event only thinking of how much you’d prepared and how psyched you were for the day…BUT your day ended with students thrown out of class, administrators coming in to see what the noise was about, art supplies everywhere, and kids feeling steamed beyond speech, well, chances are that you lost the entire class earlier in the day than you think.

Kids really want to express themselves, especially when faced with an adult. Then more they hear the adult speak, the more they want to confirm to the adult that they, too, have something to say and that they understand the material being presented. But if they don’t understand or appreciate or relate to the material, things can start to turn the wrong way.

It’s like a switch goes off in the student prompting a defense mechanism against a lesson approach or an activity that makes them nervous or confused. Students become evasive. They cut you off mid-sentence. They fire irrelevant questions at you. Suddenly, they all have to go to the water fountain, en masse. They make public service announcements: “Uh, there’s a smell in here and it’s going to make me throw up EWWWWWW.”

And finally, we get to “that one kid.” They have the most adroit toolkit in misdirecting everything around them. Some are verbal, some are physical, and some are both. I had a student who always showed up 10-15 minutes late, but when they arrived, they’d barge into the middle of the room, splay their arms into a superhero pose, and announce “I’m here now!” None of the kids ever thought it was funny, but he did it every time. [By the way, without parental and administrative support, that student will not succeed in school, no matter what you do.]

When children get intimidated by a lesson, they’ll turn against it and invariably turn against the teacher as well. No matter how much of a buddy you want to be, as the service leader or group facilitator, you’re the adult who’s making them feel less of themselves. And you’re doing it in class, which is setting them up for embarrassment. They must act quickly to grab others’ attention, to do something funny or loud or altogether disrespectful.

So what do you do? I tend to start broadly each day, giving the students or kids a big open-ended question for them to answer. And they cannot answer until they’ve time to ruminate. And better still, if they can, they should write the answer down so at least they don’t feel that others are dominating the discussion and they won’t be heard.

On many fronts, this gives the verbal, non-verbal, disaffected, even the passive student a chance to express themselves. And the open question – usually something about a moral choice they’ve made or their place in Jewish society – becomes a window into their lives and minds, a Rorschach test that can reveal not only their deep thoughts on the subject at hand but what might otherwise be bothering them that day. Most of all, on an emotional level, if they need to speak out about something, here’s their chance. And if they want to stay quiet, that’s fine.

Sometimes, I run into a kid who’s ticked off at another kid in class for some reason, and that conflict emerges, giving us a chance to air grievances openly, honestly, and early in the day.

After discussions like this that can last for anywhere from 5-15 minutes, the class really feels at peace with themselves, knows that they have a voice in the room and a say in what we do, and knows that I respect their opinions. And to be honest, sometimes “that one kid” says something in the discussion that might be tangential but ends up sending the discussion somewhere I’d not originally intended. They become the catalyst for the journey of the discussion, and they see their worth in the dialogue.

This is a long post, I know, and I’ll have more to say to expand on these ideas over time. And you’ll have more to contribute as well. For now, just assume that any student, any kid might walk in the room having a bad day, brought down by something someone else said, and can’t help carrying those emotions into the room. Given the opportunity right off the bat to either get it out of their system or just soak up the room, it’ll help them settle, cool off, and get in the game. Any kid on any day could be “that one kid,” but if you give all the kids an opening, they might just surprise themselves at what they can do.

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