Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Focus on Focus

A new school year is beginning. It's always refreshing to see students about to start the new zeman. Bookstores are filled with parents and children picking up their necessary seforim, school supplies, and clothing. There is a look of hope and anticipation on their faces that this will be the year…the year of success and accomplishment like never before.

As a rebbi, in my opening talk on the first day, I assure the talmidim that for them this is a new beginning. That I don’t know anything about them from before. What’s more, they themselves may not know who they really are. They may have hidden kochos that they never brought to fruition, and it is just a matter of tapping into them. Hopefully, they will all thrive and realize their true potential.


How different things are for talmidim today than when I was a young boy. Back then, a lot less was expected of us. It wasn’t that long after World War II. Klal Yisroel was still reeling from the devastation wrought upon it during Churban Europe. My parents, yichyu, like the parents of most of my friends, were immigrants facing the challenge of building a family in a strange land, working long hours to earn a parnassah. Sure they cared about my success in school and spent time with me, but their expectations weren’t very high. They were happy for me to be in a frum environment in a yeshiva and to grow up to be a “gutte erliche Yid.” Nor did we feel much pressure in school. The yeshiva system in America was still in its nascent state and was not nearly as advanced then as it is today.


Boys and girls in schools today have a much more advanced curriculum, at least in limudei kodesh, than I did as a child. Parents today are products of the American yeshiva system and are much more educated consumers than parents of my generation. They are more particular about which school to send their children and expect more from the schools, the faculty, and their children.


In every student, there is a partnership between the parents and the school. The school is expected to provide rabbeim and moros who prepare informative and inspiring lessons and are able to motivate the students to maximize their potential. On the other side of the partnership, the parents’ role in the success of their children is to do their utmost to ensure that the children come to school with the necessities to perform up to their capabilities. This involves more than just having the proper school supplies and seeing that the children do their homework. It also means making every effort that the students come to school alert and with the proper frame of mind.


We learn in this week’s sedrah of a brachah given to Klal Yisroel: “Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your land” (Devorim 28:3). These two entities are so different from one another that one wonders why they are mentioned together in the brachah. Really, they have one very important factor in common.


For a farmer to reap a plentiful bounty, he cannot merely sow seeds and leave them sprout and grow on their own. He must first make sure that the soil is right for what he is planting. The climate must be conducive for the fruit he wants to harvest. Even after the planting, he must nurture the growth by making sure that it is watered properly and that it isn’t ruined by pests in the vicinity.


It is the same with the fruits of the womb, our children. The planting, merely sending a child to school, does not automatically mean that he will flourish as a student. First, parents must ensure that the school is right for the child and that he is both physically and emotionally nurtured to be ready for a rigorous school day.


Ask any rebbi or teacher and they will tell you that, all too often, there are students who are inattentive even during the most well-prepared and inspirational lesson. It is not uncommon that the students did not get the proper amount of sleep the night before. Sometimes I ask my talmidim, ninth graders, what time they went to sleep the night before. Some of them will tell me 12 o’clock or later.


For any responsible rebbi or morah, this is especially upsetting. We invest much time preparing for class only to find that it is not being received properly because the talmid’s mind is not there due to tiredness. It’s like the mother who prepared a delicious supper only to find that the child isn’t hungry because in the last hour he indulged in nosh and has no room in his stomach for the lovingly prepared food. Rebbi’s feelings aside, it is the child who loses the most, missing out on the lesson and falling behind in class.


Speaking of nosh, here is another area where parents can help enhance the performance of their children in class. Today, it is well-known that you are what you eat. A child who eats healthier feels healthy and is generally calmer and more attentive in the classroom. This doesn’t mean that we have to start forcing our kids to eat spinach and digest cod liver oil. It does mean that at least we should have a handle on the types and amount of nosh that our children consume throughout the day.


The excess consumption of sugar and the chemicals found in many foods are known to cloud a person’s brain and make him edgy, not allowing him to sit in class peacefully. I once had a talmid who was pretty even-keeled and attentive in class. All of a sudden, for a day or two, he was bouncing off the walls. I wondered if there was something bothering him and decided to speak to him privately. Then I noticed during recess that he was carrying around a huge bag of jellybeans; a third of the bag was empty. There was the solution. I politely asked him to hand over the bag. When I returned it to him at the end of the day, I asked him to leave it at home and to moderate his eating candy. Problem solved.


On the wrapper of a well-known candy, there is a note of caution. The coloring in this food is not conducive for students’ attentiveness in class. One can constantly see boys guzzling down numerous cans of soda a day. Each can is about half full with refined sugar. Aside from being very unhealthy, as it contributes to the rise of diabetes in our country, it also makes it difficult for the student to focus in class.


Excess consumption of white flour is also a problem, as the body quickly converts it into sugar. The abundance of sugar in the system also causes one to feel lethargic after a while.


Of course, it takes extra monitoring and effort to train our children to eat properly, but aren’t we willing to go the extra mile to avoid problems in school and enhance our children’s learning abilities?


Here is another area that calls for sensibility and sensitivity. When we were children, we rarely attended a simchah. Our community was much smaller in number and there weren’t nearly as many bar mitzvahs and chasunos. Bechasdei Hashem, we have grown. Families have spread out into many branches and there are many simchos. Of course, our children attend family simchos. They come back home late at night and lose precious sleep. It is inevitable that their attention span is compromised the next day. If the simchah is local, then the problem can be avoided, but if it involves traveling from Brooklyn to Lakewood or Monsey and further, the kids are worn out.


Adults are also affected by this, but they realize that the next day they must put in extra effort to be functional. With many children, this is not the case and the next day of school is lost. Were it only one simchah over a long stretch of time, it wouldn’t be such an issue, but often, there could be numerous simchos close to each other and the student can soon find himself behind in learning. What the answer is I’m not quite sure, but we can’t ignore the fact that they compromise the child’s ability in class.


If the student must attend the chasunah, is it necessary that he also attend the sheva brachos? And must he attend every bar mitzvah? Were the student to learn in an out-of-town yeshiva, he certainly would not be attending every simchah. It is certainly a point that we must take into consideration.


Much has been written about ADD, ADHD, and other conditions that can severely limit a child’s ability to function in class. There are those naysayers who claim that these are figments of the imagination and are being promoted by the pharmaceutical companies to boost their profits. While one must always worry about labeling a child and be cautious about medicating, to totally dismiss the issue is both foolhardy and irresponsible. A class will always have more active, jittery students and others who are placid, talmidim who focus better and others who don’t. Some are more studious and others are not as motivated. This is normal.


Rabbeim and teachers are able to tell when a student’s behavior and performance are beyond the pale of normal. If they suggest that the child should be evaluated, it is prudent to take their advice seriously. This doesn’t automatically mean that the child needs medicine. A responsible professional will analyze the situation and make responsible suggestions. I have seen dramatic changes in kids who were medicated on a minimal dosage. Conversely, I have seen talmidim where parents neglected to even evaluate the child and the child continued to flounder for years. Even if a child is medicated, it isn’t a life sentence. Often, children outgrow it and learn how to focus on their own.


And finally, there are times when a rebbi or teacher is kept in the dark regarding a personal issue that the student is facing. It could be something physical or emotional, or some family hardship. People value their privacy and are entitled not to tell the rebbi about the issue. There is also the inner worry that it might hurt shidduchim. But parents should also be aware that sharing the problem with the rebbi can be a huge benefit.


Years ago, I taught a class of outstanding talmidim. There was one boy, however, who always seemed like he was in a daze. He almost never participated and I felt that he was wasting a lot of time. At first, I tried dealing with him pleasantly, but as the year progressed, I felt that I must take a tougher approach with him.


It was after Pesach when I called him in for a private talk and I expressed my disappointment at his lack of performance. The boy sat and listened. Then he suddenly broke out in bitter sobs. He bared his heart and revealed to me what had been on his mind for months. The family was going through a difficult nisayon and he couldn’t get it out of his mind. This came as a total surprise to me. Had I known this from the beginning, my relationship with him would have been totally different. I told the boy words of chizuk and assured him that whenever he is feeling down, he can feel free to talk to me. Needless to say, my approach with this boy changed drastically.


Immediately, the boy’s attitude changed. He felt that he wasn’t alone, that someone could listen to his pain. The year ended on a high note for him. It did not take long for him to be at the top of his class. Years later, when he sent me his chasunah invitation, he wrote that he still remembered fondly that conversation we had.


Of course, parents want to first be comfortable and sure that the teacher is their ally and not an adversary, but sharing information can be very beneficial for a child’s development.



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