Managing in Mesivta

Q: I have a 14-year-old ADHD son in a regular, local mesivta who fortunately spent all his younger years in a mainstream elementary school. We have always had Rebbeim and English teachers who were willing to work with us. We would use behavior management charts, and Rebbeim would often make him the class “monitor” to allow him to get out of the classroom during the long school day.

Because he has a lot of chein, bli ayin hara, he was able to soften the hearts of his many teachers. His elementary school principal even once told me that he was the only hyperactive child he had ever met with such self-confidence.

As our son is also very smart, he has always kept up with the class, and even willingly helps other students who are weaker in their studies. He has always had friends, as he is an exciting and kind boy. He is an organizer when it comes to after-school activities — and his classmates follow up on the details when he loses patience and interest.

To sit down and study was a chore, but he got by on his tests — even if just passing — because what he knew he knew well.

But now in mesivta, the administration takes a tougher attitude towards our son. The school learns Gemara all morning, with English beginning at 2:15. They view his calling out as “chutzpah,” and in view of certain behavior see him as a bad role-model for classmates. As it is a small school — we live out of town with no real options locally for another school — we have no choice but to work with them. My son is too immature to manage a mesivta away from home, and I can see him being asked to leave in no time.

There is no real assistant principal or guidance counselor at the school he attends now, and everything falls on the principal’s shoulders. He asked that we put our son on medication for his ADHD, which is difficult for us to accept since we’ve been able to manage without medication until now. They’re not making it into an ultimatum, but I get the feeling that it’s heading there. Any suggestions?

A: Mesivta adds on challenges to any student, due to the change in the structure of the school day. You have been quite fortunate in being able to navigate the school system until now. This is also one of the positive points of being in a small-town community. Each student can be valued (if their positive attributes are accentuated).

Mesivta involves many hours of focusing on limudei kodesh, and repetition of the material is essential in acquiring knowledge of the Gemara. This is a challenge for many of our adolescent boys — as is memorizing lines of Chumash and meforshim challenging for our daughters.

The addition of high school English studies — many of which could be taught on a college level, depending on the teacher and school expectations — only adds to the pressure. An ADHD student will find this new school schedule all the more demanding.

Is your son motivated to succeed in this school? As adolescents can often be obstinate in their approach to authority, this is an important point to consider when weighing solutions for him. Unless he has adopted a teenage oppositional attitude towards school authority, his desire to remain with his peers can push him to work beyond his previous achievements.

Since he is fortunate enough to be able to look back at previous positive achievements in his elementary school experiences, visions of success in his present environment are not far-fetched. And the positive social skills that he possesses can be accentuated when dealing with his present Rebbi and teachers, reflecting back at what “worked” when dealing with school administrations in past years.

One of the most valuable tools used in family therapy is this very concept. When a family/couple has a successful week, the therapist needs to look back at the week’s occurrences to see what “went right.” Whatever positive interactions and attempts to improve one’s life situation were previously successful need to be repeated on a more conscious level, as often positive behavior is not such a thought-out endeavor.

On a practical level, your son can role-play with you ways of behaving towards his Rebbi that show more respect. If there is no assistant to the principal, you can pay another person on the school staff a small fee, and this person can be responsible for working with your son if any issues come up. If, in the end, your son’s behavior does greatly affect the classroom setting and his own academic performance, a trial period of medication for him may be quite beneficial.