Elin Weinstein, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Queens, works part time for the P’TACH program at Yeshiva University High School for Girls in Holliswood. Her seven years with P’TACH are a meaningful part of her 30-year career working with children, teenagers, adults and families managing learning differences.
With the humility, deep knowledge and understanding that are characteristic of professionals in her field, Dr. Weinstein is thoughtful in sharing her observations and assessments of the emotional and social issues facing children with learning differences.
“I begin the school year by touching base with each and every child,” she says. “I reassure them of the confidentiality of our conversations and we talk about all kinds of issues, like resolving negative feelings or conflicts with other girls. We talk about fitting in with the girls in the mainstream classes.” The girls often stop by of their own volition, knowing they have an adult to talk to with a sympathetic ear who is squarely on their side.
But what is fitting in? What is the goal for these girls?
Emotions run deep. Children with learning differences often don’t know that other girls are going through the same feelings of inadequacy. Most of all, they don’t want to be seen as “stupid” by their peers. Fitting in is feeling comfortable with other kids their age; feeling “regular” or “normal.” Ultimately, the goal is making reliable friends and establishing close relationships with people.
Dr. Weinstein observes, “At the end of four years in the P’TACH program, you cannot tell the difference between the P’TACH seniors and the mainstream girls. That’s the goal.”
What about the atypical teens for whom conforming is an even greater challenge? Some children are artistic types, for instance, so learning differences or not, they would stand out as different. They may dress differently or express themselves in other creative ways. Others may be naturally shy, while still others may be first generation Americans and need help fitting in culturally.
Dr. Weinstein explains that every child is different and that the P’TACH program in all of its facets – academics, socialization and guiding children through the maturation process – takes a holistic approach to each child. Differences in personality, family circumstances as well as in learning style are taken into account
One recent graduate, a very talented artist, felt left out. Dr. Weinstein helped her understand that it wasn’t necessary to be friends with everyone in school; she should work on one friend at a time and that close friendships with one or a few girls are meaningful. This young woman grew to have close friends and found her place in the world in an arts program in Israel. “
We engineer relationships,” Dr. Weinstein says. “For the very, very shy, we implement a ‘shaping program.’ Girls are encouraged to take small steps to learn to socialize. Perhaps they first stand next to other girls or a girl they’d like to talk to. We practice a special, friendly voice for when they finally make the move to engage in conversation. The motivation to succeed socially is very strong. For the girls that deny they need help, we are always tweaking motivation.”
Children with learning differences may also have problems at home that contribute to educational and social delay. Dr. Weinstein often recommends family therapy outside P’TACH, which can change family dynamics in a very healthy way. Parents may get help individually, while others seek help for the family as a whole. In either case, Dr. Weinstein and the P’TACH staff work closely to see that the child involved progresses and feels comfortable in school while family relationships change and evolve.
Dr. Weinstein points out another aspect of the importance of fitting in with peers: friendships pull children through the hard times, with school or family or other relationships. Helping children navigate socially brings all kinds of benefits. And, the older girls at P’TACH are aware of this; they tend to mentor the younger girls, promoting a feeling of belonging.
“In the social and emotional realms, children with learning differences are the same as any other teenagers. They want the same things – acceptance and appreciation. I tell parents, ‘If you sense they’re not engaged, don’t be afraid to get help from therapists and encourage your children to reach out to other kids.’