Guest Contributor: Gabrielle Hodes, speech and language therapist
Learning a second language is not easy for most people, but for a child with a speech and language delay/disorder, this task is even more challenging. Children with language difficulties who are making Aliyah need to be prepared for the challenges of learning a new language well in advance, and they need support throughout the initial Aliyah period and beyond.
If you are currently planning your family’s Aliyah, it is important to meet with the professionals who are working with your child in the U.S., Canada or the U.K. to discuss and establish realistic expectations regarding your child’s ability to master and thrive in a second language. It is also essential for you to understand how the Israeli educational and health systems work in Israel, and to learn what resources are available to you specifically in the neighborhood that you’re considering. These factors will be part of your decision and must be researched fully before you make Aliyah.
Be aware that if your child has difficulty with language in your country of origin, these problems may be exacerbated in Israel. As a parent, you may need to invest a lot of money and time in supporting your child, making sure his or her absorption into the school system and the social environment is successful, getting your child the help he or she needs in order to become integrated in each area of life.
The following is an overview of the resources that are available in Israel for children with language difficulties.
Understanding the Israeli School System
Children in the Israeli school system can receive assistance with language issues from a variety of sources. Keep in mind that you must bring with you, when you make Aliyah, all of the psychological and paramedical assessments for your child.
- Gan Safah (Preschool Language Unit): A Gan Safah generally involves a small group of 8 children with 2 Gananot (preschool teachers). This contrasts with the standard Gan classrooms that can legally have up to 35 children with 1 Ganenet and one Sayaat (assistant). In Gan Safah, children receive individual speech therapy, occupational therapy and emotional therapy (as needed), and the Gananot work with the children both individually and in groups. Language, social skills, communication and play skills are all part of the curriculum. For example, Aruchat Esser (10:00 am brunch), a standard feature in Israeli Ganim, is turned into an educational experience where the children prepare the meal together, make choices about what food to eat and talk about the meal. Note that the Ganei Safah frequently do not have the appropriate resources to work with children who have severe language articulation difficulty. Instead, they are good at focusing on social skills, attention and listening disorders, and language communication. A child with severe articulation difficulties may need additional speech therapy (outside of the Gan). There are countless examples of children who go through Gan Safah and really thrive.
- Ganenet Siach: A language-instruction teacher who comes into the standard Ganim for a limited number of hours each week, to work one-on-one with individual children who have language difficulties.
- Kitah Mekademet: A separate class in the school designated only for children with learning difficulties. A Kitah Mekademet is taught by a Morah L’Horaah Metakenet.
- Kitat Tikshoret: A communications-based classroom designed to give extra support to children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders.
To receive support services in the school system from the beginning of the school year, a Vaadat Hasamah (placement committee) must receive your child’s assessments and reports by the previous February. These assessments must be translated into Hebrew before they are submitted for review. Many municipalities require that these assessments are translated into Hebrew by a professional in the field, such as an educational psychologist, before they are submitted for review. The placement committee meetings are a time sensitive process that extend only until the end of May. Notice of the date for a child’s Vaadat Hasamah is given up to 15 days prior to the meeting. While some parents choose to plan a trip to Israel to participate in the Vaadat Hasamah, others choose to appoint an advocate on their behalf to represent their child’s needs.
It is important to advocate for your child and make sure that your child is receiving the support that he or she needs. A child who doesn’t succeed in the school system may feel rejected and look for social outlets outside of school where he or she can feel a sense of belonging. This dynamic is problematic; these social outlets are sometimes undesireable — and not the type of environment that the parents are seeking.
Obtaining Kupat Cholim Services
Speech therapists generally work through the Kupat Cholim (public health system) as well as in the private sector. If you are looking for a therapist through the Kupah, you can seek a speech therapist who has a private arrangement with the Kupot Cholim, or you can go to a child development center – an organization that is privately run but has arrangements with the Kupot. If your child has multiple needs, it may be best for him or her to be treated in a center, where they will have interdisciplinary meetings with several staff members to discuss the needs of your child and provide provision for them. It is important to note that many of the Kupah’s therapeutic services are only available for children up to the age of 9.
Kupot Cholim offer varying levels of service in different communities. Choose your Kupah based on it provides in the child development services near you. Find out how much you’ll have to be paying for each therapy session, and how many sessions the Kupat Cholim is prepared to subsidize, i.e. a child who needs the therapy (based on the Kupah’s assessment) can receive a certain number of sessions at a given rate. In addition, find out how many therapists are available in a particular neighborhood and what type of demand, or waiting lists, exist for these services.
You may learn that you need additional (private) insurance coverage, beyond the cost of the basic package, in order to obtain subsidized therapy sessions. For example, in Kupat Cholim Meuhedet you need to pay the highest level of coverage, Meuhedet See, if you want your child to receive emotional treatment such as horse riding therapy, art therapy or music therapy.
Most Kupot Cholim cover parental guidance and support groups with a trained psychologist or clinical social worker, for parents of children with a developmental issues.
Children who are in a recognized state school, from Gan Chova (Kindergarten) up to Kitah Tet (9th grade), are entitled to assessments and therapy through the psychological services.
Additional Resources in Your Community
Beyond the resources provided by the “system,” some communities offer additional resources specifically for Olim. For example, communities with large numbers of new Olim like Bet Shemesh and Modiin generally offer Chugim for Hebrew-enrichment. In addition, most communities in Israel have library story hour or Chugim in literature. You can use community email lists to find out what’s available in the area, as well as by talking to your neighborhood’s Kupat Cholim center.
Children can also receive tremendous benefit from one-on-one time with Israeli peers, babysitters, or even a Bat Sherut (National Service Volunteer). This is be particularly effective if your babysitter (or Bat Sherut) works with your child under the supervision of a speech and language therapist, who can design a program geared towards Hebrew vocabulary acquisition and language skills.
If your child is old enough to be in grade school, it is important to liaise closely with your child’s class teacher, and to prepare for the topic that is going to be taught in school the next day. If your child has learned the vocabulary ahead of time, he or she is more likely to follow what’s going on in school.
Preparing for Aliyah
Both before and after Aliyah, if English is the spoken language in your home, it is very important to integrate elements of Hebrew learning into your family’s daily routine. There are many, creative ways to accomplish this. For example, you can have a daily Rega Shel Ivrit (One Moment of Hebrew) in your home, you can read a Hebrew book to your children every afternoon, or you can watch television shows in Hebrew. In addition, the family can make a joint decision to have dinner in Hebrew every day.
Teach your children as much Hebrew as possible, before coming on Aliyah. Focus on exposing your children to vocabulary of different categories, including nouns and verbs. Teach your children common phrases, expose them to Hebrew using DVDs of music, stories or language instruction, and read them Hebrew-language books. All of these activities will help your children come to Israel in a stronger position. For the child with language difficulties, this can make a world of difference to the Aliyah experience.
Working with Young Children: In English or Hebrew?
Should a parent wait until a child has one language solidly established, before exposing the child to a second language? Or should the parent expose the child to both languages simultaneously? According to one approach, children should establish and develop one language successfully before moving on to learn a second language. Learning a first language fairly well allows children to have a frame of reference in which they can then develop further language skills. In contrast to this approach, a second approach believes that children should be exposed to both languages at the youngest possible age. There are pluses and minuses to each method.
If you believe that children should learn one language well before moving on to a second language, the question is: Which language to choose as the child’s first language? On the one hand, your child will need to know Hebrew in order to succeed in school, and perhaps he or she should start learning Hebrew first. There are therapists who advocate this philosophy for children with language difficulties, even in families that are native English speakers. However, if you don’t feel fully comfortable speaking in Hebrew and don’t have a wide vocabulary, it is preferable to focus on English first.
If you’re making Aliyah with a preschooler, you may need to decide whether to keep the child for one year in a private, English-speaking Gan, to ensure that the child has a strong first language. Or, whether or put your child into a Hebrew-language Gan so that he or she gets a head-start on Hebrew skills. It may be wise to let the child have one more year in which to strengthen the English before moving over to a Hebrew language environment. After a year of being in an English-speaking Gan, the child may be able to move into a Gan Safah the following year, making the transition less difficult.
If your child worked with the prompt method, which is a form of therapy that helps children with dyspraxia (word retrieval issues and articulation difficulties), keep in mind that this form of therapy is also available in Israel.
Keep in mind that there are some children who do not have any difficulty in their first language, but develop a language-specific difficulty when encountering a second language.
Maintaining English-Language Skills
Many parents are concerned that their children may lose English skills after making Aliyah. This is largely dependent on your new, Israeli community. If you are living in a community like Modiin or Raanana with a large number of English speakers, this should not be a concern. Rather, the focus and worry should really be geared towards enriching the Hebrew vocabulary of the children — not their English. Children in these communities are surrounded by so much English in their families, neighborhoods and schools that it’s unlikely they are going to lose the English vocabulary; and much more likely that their schoolwork may suffer because of a poorer Hebrew-language vocabulary.
Making Aliyah with School Age Children
Once the child is old enough to be in school, rather than preschool, the difficulties involved in language acquisition become greater. Many of the services offered by the Kupot Cholim are only offered until age 9. In addition, once you’re in school, it is harder to learn conversational language skills, since the language of the classroom is more academic. Whereas a Gan involves a lot of demonstration, the classroom is much more frontal and the teacher to student ratio is lower. (A Ganenenet with a helper can have up to 35 children in a Gan; in the school system, a teacher can have up to 40 children in the classroom.) Because of these differences, within a school environment, the language and vocabulary connected to play and communication is more difficult to acquire.
If you are bringing a child who is school age, make sure to discover your child’s strengths and focus on nurturing these strengths. Music, sports and dance are all wonderful opportunities to make friends and learn the language through something that is not academic or language-based.
Keep in mind that Israeli parents are expected to be in touch with their children’s teachers – to maintain constant phone and email contact. Don’t assume that if you don’t hear from the teacher, everything is OK. Rather, initiate phone calls to teachers and continue to follow up regarding your child’s experience in the classroom.
Thank you to Gabrielle Hodes for preparing this article. Gabrielle is a speech and language therapist specializing in stuttering and early language development. For further information, you can reach Gabrielle at: firstname.lastname@example.org