Three Time Windows
My name is Naomi and I have been working as a lecturer in Kibbutzim College for 12 years.
I noticed, during my years at work, that there were many students of education with learning disabilities, (learning and attention deficit disorders). Most of them had strong motivation to succeed, with great sensitivity towards each other and with good thinking and creative ability. Despite this, their learning achievements were relatively meager and those they achieved came only after much hard work in a daily struggle to survive.
I felt a strong urge to create a framework where these students would find the help they needed to realize their capabilities and aspirations and at the same time satisfy their emotional needs and maintain a good quality of life.
Thus, with the full backing of the College, I set up Mahut Center (the Center for Rehabilitation and Empowerment). At the center we developed a unique method to reach these students, to discover their abilities, and to renew their self confidence and their belief in others. Our main tool in our work is the respect and love we have for our students.
In the classic story that people with learning disorders tell about themselves, there is a recurring theme: “Something is wrong with me.” From their kindergarten days and through elementary school, the failure to comply with the normative scholastic achievements led to failure and frustration and became an outright struggle for survival in secondary school. Low self esteem led to a relatively poor quality of life as an adult. From these feelings of “mediocrity” and mere survival to the extremes of violence and crime is a short path.
We are not dealing here with a small minority of the population. The phenomena of learning disorders is quite widespread (about 15 % of the population and perhaps more) and if we translate this into real numbers on a national scale, we are talking about hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens who cannot realize their potential abilities and thus their contribution to themselves and to their community is far from optimum.
In order to show what happens in our Center, I will describe a trip through three “time windows” in the lives of our students:
1. The “survival window” (the typical way of life before they come to the center).
2. The “rehabilitation window” (the process that takes place in the Center and which should drive the momentum of change)
3. The “challenge window” (which best describes their way of life after they have learned to cope with their disabilities)
The Survival Window
Human beings are born, each one different from the other, but most of us act within a common range of abilities and limitations. Thus for instance, most children of three speak freely, six year olds are able to learn to read, adolescents are able to concentrate for hours and adults can persevere for long periods to achieve goals. Yet there are those whose functioning does not match the norm. Some suffer from learning disorders and neurological deviations that are not fully understood and therefore cannot be addressed by conventional therapy practices. Their disabilities are not visible or obvious as are those of the mentally challenged, the autistic, or the physically disabled. Without visible signs of identity, society has difficulty understanding or accepting the malfunctioning of those with learning disorders. Therefore there is little awareness in society of the need to adapt itself to their requirements. Concurrently, they do not learn ways to cope with their difficulties and adapt themselves to society. The gap between the social demands on them and their ability to meet these demands widens and with it a deep wound opens, which is both functional and emotional.
Thus, for instance, children who have reading difficulties, undergo traumatic experiences when they are called up to read aloud in class in front of their jeering classmates. Couples in love are often in conflict because they do not listen to one another and listening to one’s partner is the basis for any kind of intimacy. Parents are liable to neglect their children because they are unable to manage their own time or organize their housework. This lack of effectiveness, on the part of those with learning disorders, pervades all aspects of life and wears them down.
In this wearing down process, some manage to cope and develop all kinds of stratagems to extract themselves from difficult situations. They persuade others to work for them, often hiding their real motives. The weaker just don’t function, estranging themselves from society, despairing in their loneliness. Some fall in with street gangs, take drugs or turn violent. The stronger who are better able to endure, may find a means of expression for their natural inclinations. But they, too, usually bear the scars of frustration, anger and low self esteem.
The Rehabilitation Window
The corrective process is a long and complex one, because the damage usually begins at a very early age and continues throughout the school years and into adulthood. Therefore what is needed is complete rehabilitation and not just therapeutic treatment of cognitive learning difficulties. The rehabilitation process begins on the emotional plane. The cognitive faculties are blocked the more feelings have been hurt, and they resist. Cognitive information that is received by the student from the outside is blocked by feelings of insecurity, fear of failure, loss of faith and despair.
Therefore the corrective process must start in a secure, friendly atmosphere. The Mahut Center in Kibbutzim College functions psychologically as a home with all the deepest connotations of the concept home--acceptance, love, consent, honor, faith. At the Center, expert therapists are always present and at the service of the students, for any need, for any bad mood or momentary emotional crisis. They embrace, keep goodies on the table, flowers in the vase, a warm blanket in the winter. The Center does not function as a “hierarchy”, it has no director’s room or any other signs of status. Everybody there is equal and everyone is welcome anytime. Only in such an environment will the students begin to shed their defenses, dare to believe and trust others, and try to adopt new patterns of behavior.
At the same time that a new emotional fabric, based on receptiveness and pride in oneself is developing, the students are given the tools that enable them to find for themselves efficient learning paths. They apply learning strategies, together with older students who tutor them. There are no special support lessons in which the teacher “serves up the fish on a platter”. Instead help is given by student-colleagues that have already learned and are experienced. They supply the “hook and line” to the new students. Thus, by stages, these students become independent in their studies, and as they hone new skills and progress, they no longer need a ever-present tutor beside them. The strategies learned in the course deal with improving skills in the reading of scientific articles and technical material, study summaries, preparing texts, arranging the daily calendar, organizing their academic calendar as well as their social life. They also learn to use technology as aids in “getting organized”.
This process of rehabilitation may take years even if the formal process ends after a given time. The change in awareness and the conscious breakthrough continue their activity for years and the person is aware of the constant need to set realistic goals and find ways to a better life.
The Challenge Window
After the rehabilitation process, which takes place at the Mahut Center, the participants are aware that they have undergone a deep process of change. They are not the only ones to notice this. They receive feedback from their surroundings which indicate to them that they have become more sociable. They listen and understand. They have fewer outbursts of anger or none at all, and it is obvious to them and to others that they have become more dependable. In the scholastic milieu they are meeting with greater success and from this they derive satisfaction. They realize that their success is due to more efficient study methods rather than just longer study hours. Not less dramatic, they are able to enter into intimate relations with the opposite sex, which, in the past, they found more difficult. Some relate their first experience reading books, voluntarily attending an interesting lecture or even going to a play. Some even dare to take driving lessons, and others decide to leave their parents’ home and live as independent adults.
The prevailing notion, which I think is mistaken, that if we “correct the learning problems” of students with learning disorders, “everything will be alright” has not proved itself. Only through a deeper corrective process can they achieve independence, self confidence, and openness towards the options the world offers them. Fear of failure no longer casts its shadow over their lives. They learn to calculated risks. They stop fantasizing about unrealistic aspirations, but, on the other hand, do not reject realistic dreams. Most of all, they develop a healthy desire to contribute to the society, which they recognize, helped them to overcome their difficulties. Many of them see it as a great challenge to find children like themselves, for whom the educational system has no answers. Graduates of the Kibbutzim College, when they arrive as teachers in schools, act as “radar” to identify and assist those children who suffer in the school system because of their learning disabilities and attention deficit disorders.