Rabbi Reuven Kamin is at his core a philosopher and visionary whose ideas reflect more than twenty years of bringing hope and happiness to children with developmental challenges. Now at the helm of the P’TACH program at Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin Elementary and High School, this tall, slim man brings vast experience and determination to the task of enhancing the lives of students who struggle with learning.
To improve the learning experience for his students, Rabbi Kamin breaks down what is really happening in each child’s life. He takes a microscope to the child’s abilities, behavior and family life and uses his own emotions to, as he says, “paint the picture of that child’s life; walk a mile in his shoes.”
The main tenet of his philosophy is communication, first and foremost listening to the child himself. The child is the center of the universe and his point of view is crucial – yet often left out when problems arise. Teachers, parents and administrators can move a child from one school or program to another looking for the right fit while still undermining that child’s progress. Altering the environment and making suppositions about the root of a child’s problems without understanding the child’s perspective leads to misleading conclusions.
Rabbi Kamin’s advice is to “pile on the empathy. Give the child the opportunity and the space to talk – a consequence-free zone.” “
Look at their actions, too,” he says of the children who come to P’TACH from mainstream schools. “They are exhausted and frustrated that there is no output for all their effort. The shame is that the children think they are doing badly, when in fact they are trying and working their hardest.”
Next, communication between parents and school professionals is crucial. Family life is so fast-paced – everyone is multitasking – that balancing positive and negative emotions can be difficult without the help of the P’TACH program. Rabbi Kamin speaks eloquently of the challenges: “Families often face conflict in their natural tendency to bond and find common understanding versus the complexity of relationships and high expectations. Parents wonder, ‘Can’t you be like every other kid?,’ while children say to themselves, ‘I’m distracted, I’m dumb, I’m not doing well in school and family relationships. Parents fear disappointment and children often act out because they have nothing left to lose.”
Rabbi Kamin has a saying, “It’s always better to succeed and comply then fail and defy.” Finding ways for a child to work with parents and teachers offers a more beneficial path to learning; setting up a child for failure by demanding the impossible leads to low self-esteem and misbehavior.
Anger, according to Rabbi Kamin, is a mixture of failed expectations and anxiety, emotions felt by the entire family. He tries to bridge that anger by educating parents and children about the child’s specific learning differences, demystifying and destigmatizing those differences, and offering parents and students a compassionate ear.
Rabbi Kamin sees his job, and that of his staff, as managing and aligning parents’ expectations with their child’s needs and emotions. Children must be allowed to function at their own level while parents must understand that success in life can be achieved by many different means. Some children, for example, study more effectively by listening to a tape recording of a textbook than reading from it. Offering effective alternative methods of learning is key. Rabbi Kamin constructs and implements programs that challenge students on their own level, rather than an unobtainable schoolwide standard. Every day, each student rates himself – and is rated by his teachers – on a set of core behaviors: safety, respect and responsibility. The brilliance of the strategy lies in its simplicity and usefulness. The children’s goal is to beat their own average, which they work at tenaciously. Rabbi Kamin’s goal is to track those daily averages for strengths and weaknesses and use the information to coordinate with teachers and parents to make classroom learning productive and fun.
Regular communication among the staff is crucial to a child’s success. At P’TACH, educators and specialists, such as psychologists and speech therapists, know each child well and come together to assess the child’s progress. They work to pinpoint weaknesses and improve on strengths. The knowledge gained is used to develop learning strategies for teachers and is imparted to parents through in-school meetings, phone calls, notes sent home and via email. Parents get to know their children from different perspectives and in turn can more effectively communicate with their children.
The difference between P’TACH and mainstream schools is evident. “We’re doing something regular day schools can’t do. With a high teacher to student ratio, the expertise to use the latest teaching methods and a good dose of creativity, we can educate every child. Everyone has good intentions, but here at P’TACH, we have a multi-faceted approach based on communication.”
Rabbi Kamin has a wish list. To be most effective, he wants to add to the array of technologies already in the classrooms: more computers, smart boards and software. He also wants more resources for exploratory learning, such as additional field trips and materials for science experiments.
Put it all together and Rabbi Kamin’s philosophy advances the reality that success is a product of robust communication. Broad issues of school, family and success are narrowed to the point of view of the child, his parents and the necessary structures provided by a program like P’TACH, which makes learning a positive and fulfilling experience for children with learning differences.