Guiding our Girls

September 1, 2022

A Roundtable on Chinuch Habanos from Primary through Seminary

Elisheva Braun

It’s the season of crisp uniforms and patent leather shoes, of ribbons and headbands and brand-new four-inch loose-leafs.

Teachers, parents, and students of all ages are preparing for the new school year.

No one is immune to the giddy nerves that permeate the still-hot early September air.

Here at the Voice, we sat down to talk with some legendary local mechanchim and mechanchos to hear the wisdom and practical advice they have to share on chinuch habanos.

Mrs. Channy Heimfeld, Limudei Chol Principal of Bnos Bina Elementary School

My five-year-old will be taking the bus this year for the first time and she’s very nervous about it. How can I help her feel calm?

I’ll answer that as a parent. My youngest son was panic-stricken about going on the bus. During the summer before school started, I asked my older daughter’s day camp bus driver if my son could ride the bus with her. My son rode on the bus, and I picked him up at another stop ten minutes later. We did this three times until he felt completely comfortable riding the bus. This method was very effective, but if you can’t do it, talk with your child about the bus and prepare for it together.

How do you help struggling students? What can parents do to help challenged students succeed?

I recommend that younger students be tutored in school. Girls in grades 6-8 are often embarrassed to need help, so it’s usually best if they receive academic support at home. This way, their classmates don’t need to know that they’re getting extra help, and their parents tend to be more invested in the process when they watch it happen. Pre-teaching is a great option for those who need a little handholding in the classroom. The students come to school feeling prepared and it makes a huge difference in their confidence and capability. To faculty members, it is obvious when a student starts getting help, because the results usually show up quickly.

How do you accommodate students who are brighter than the rest of their class?

It depends on the child’s personality. To students with negative attitudes, everything seems simple and trivial, and they usually check out of the lesson. Kids with healthy attitudes thank Hashem that they don’t have to struggle and know that it’s okay if they understand concepts before the rest of the class. They learn to love school.

With this in mind, we must recognize that different children need different things. Some might want to do Sudokus when they’re done their work (with their teachers’ permission, of course). Others appreciate having several minutes to daydream and relax. Few want to be given extra, advanced work; they do not want to feel that they are being punished for their intelligence.

My fourth grader came home sobbing. She got in trouble and claims she doesn’t know why. What steps should I take?

Students aren’t punished for no reason. Help your child understand what occurred and decide what to do next time to get better results. This process will allow your child to develop problem solving skills, confidence, and self-sufficiency.

If you are unhappy with a decision the school’s staff has made, it is best to privately discuss the issue with the teacher or principal. The attitude you have at home will be mimicked in school by your child, so weigh your words and actions carefully.

Are extracurricular activities important? How much do you emphasize them?

Extracurricular programs are important for students who struggle academically. We like to give leadership jobs to those who need the self-esteem boost. At the same time, extracurricular jobs are sometimes taken too seriously. When the eighth graders are assigned jobs, I always tell them that I never had a job in school and I turned out just fine.

Why is homework important? How much is too much?

I believe the reinforcement of lessons is important. However, I don’t believe in overdoing it. I tell teachers that math homework can be four examples. The students should review the skills they learned, but they should not be busy with homework for hours every night.

How do you deal with bullying?

We are very on top of bullying situations and are willing to do whatever it takes to separate the bully from her victim and end the abuse. We also insist that the aggressor get social help from the school counselor. Our social worker gives lessons that empower students to stand up to bullies. If your child is being hurt, let her school know immediately.

While bullying is undeniably cruel, parents must ensure that their children are not easy targets.

Make sure your kids are hygienic, neat, and socially integrated. Although you want them to build an independent sense of self, children shouldn’t stick out in the crowd. For example, if everyone is wearing braids, braid your daughter’s hair.

When trying to foster friendships, playdates are a good starting point.

Ask the teacher or principal who is a good friend for your daughter. Don’t let her chase a classmate who’s out of her league; it’s a recipe for crushing rejection.

How do you handle the ubiquitous politics that tend to crop up among elementary school girls?

The girls usually outgrow politics by the middle of seventh grade, so this, too, shall pass. 

Occasionally, our on-staff social workers discuss friendship, middos, and boundaries with the students. The teachers often sneak social tips into their lessons. I always say that chinuch is more effective when students are blindsided by it; if they aren’t listening to a lecture about friendship, a little nugget can make a deep impression. In this way, English teachers, who aren’t seen as the class’s “spiritual influence,” have tremendous power to impact their students while teaching Chol subjects.

How do you keep the curriculum fresh and relevant?

In this industry, you can never rest on your laurels; there’s always something new to incorporate. This coming school year, we will be adding a life skills problem-solving course.

In the past few years, there has been much debate about the relevance of script. Many public schools abolished the subject but later reinstated it because they recognized that it offers cognitive benefits. At Bnos Bina, we have always kept script in the curriculum. Besides writing in script, our students practice reading in script, too.

What are some red flags parents should look out for?

When a child seems depressed or emotionally shut down, it’s an obvious call for help. If she is spending a huge number of hours on the phone, find out what’s going on. In general, any out-of-ordinary behavior should alert parents that something may be wrong.

It’s critical that parents inform teachers of changes that are happening at home which may affect the child, so they can get the support and understanding that they need.

How can we raise well-rounded, resilient children?

First, parents must give their children a solid sense of self-worth.

Although the school can help, self-esteem comes from the home; no one except parents can instill it at the foundational level. Every child is unique and special; find their strengths and play to them. Compliment, compliment, and compliment. Let your kids know that you’re there for them 100 percent, because if they can’t count on you, they can’t count on anyone.

With that said, there’s a fine line between being “full of oneself” and confident.

Another crucial piece is building work ethic, which is an attribute we try to instill at Bnos Bina. Although we don’t want our girls to feel overly pressured, we also want them to develop grit. Hard work won’t hurt them. In fact, it will only make them stronger. It isn’t healthy or helpful to make everything easy for children; students need to learn to handle pressure without collapsing. While are girls are never overloaded, they are challenged and held accountable.

What message would you like to share with parents?

When your child’s teacher or principal tells you that she needs tutoring, therapy, an evaluation, or any other form of intervention, they are telling you because they care. We want our students to succeed, not only academically but socially, emotionally, and spiritually. Often, when I suggest that a child needs additional support, parents react with resistance, hurt, denial, even anger. I understand the fear of stigma and the difficulty in hearing that your child is lacking, but social, emotional, and intellectual problems don’t go away on their own. The later these issues are addressed, the less effective treatment is. I’ve watched children lose years of growth because their parents had a hard time coming to terms with the fact that their child needed help and spent the time fighting reality instead of accepting it.

It’s an incredibly painful thing to witness.

Mrs. Miriam Jaffe, Menaheles of Chedvas Bais Yaakov High School 

If you could give parents of school-aged children one key piece of advice, what would it be?

If you want to raise respectful children, you need to model and demand respect for authority.

It is vital that a parent never, ever disagrees with the school in front of their child. When you do, you give your child permission to defy authority. If your child is upset about something that happened in school, coach him to move forward and continue to be mechabed the teacher.

(This brings to mind an instance when this approach backfired on me. Years ago, I lived in Chicago and sent my boys to a chassidishe cheder. My young son came home one day and excitedly told me that his morah said we are supposed to do kapparos with a chicken.

“That’s because she’s chassidish,” I told him. “We don’t use chickens for kapparos, we use money.” My son’s bottom lip started to quiver. With tears in his eyes he said, “Didn’t you tell me Morah is always right?”)

Unfortunately, Yiddishkeit is often externalized. How can we help our daughters develop an inner relationship with Hashem?

If we don’t want our children to see Yiddishkeit as a set of commandments to be robotically fulfilled, we need to educate them in why we do the things we do.

We must clarify our role in the world, our relationship with Hashem, and the part that mitzvos play.

Perhaps we need to step back and reevaluate how we teach some of the most basic concepts in Yiddishkeit.

I tell my students that the word mitzvah doesn’t literally mean commandment, it means connection. Its purpose is to bond us with Hakadosh Baruch Hu, our Creator, so we can partner with Him to bring His ohr into this world.

Ol mitzvos is not about carrying the heavy weight of mitzvos; it’s a yoke, a tool, a gift that helps us carry the burdens of life.

Chet isn’t sin, which denotes dread and fear. Chet means missing the mark. It means we need to aim and try again, higher, bigger, and better than before!

Sadly, we live in a world where our students don’t always see and feel Hashem’s love and the simchah that comes from knowing that love.

We translate yirah as fear, when it really means awe of Hashem’s greatness and our opportunity to partner with Him. Teshuvah is not about repentance, it’s about returning to the warmth of the ohr of creation. Onesh is not punitive; it’s a precious chance to reconnect.

When we understand our role in the world, Yiddishkeit becomes purposeful, meaningful, personal, happy, pleasurable, and internal.

How do you teach tznius in action and in dress?

Tznius can’t just be about covering your knees and your elbows; that would make you a pair of knees and elbows. Tznius is about letting the inner you—your G-dly essence—shine.

Tzanuah means hidden. When you are tzanuah, the hidden, inner, essential component of you is apparent.

Hatznea leches im Hashem Elokecha means that in everything you do, your pulsating neshamah can be seen. It’s not about clothes, it’s about leches—theway we go about our lives.

Hashem loves you and wants the world to see how incredible you are. The gift of tznius allows you to be the real you; to focus not on the guf but on the incredible neshamah you have inside.

What is the importance of extracurricular activities?

In today’s society, one of the most critical things we need to do is give every child a voice. It is important that every single day, every student’s voice is heard in the classroom. Production and other informal extras offer the opportunity for students to develop pride and a sense of self, whether onstage or behind the scenes. There’s another plus to projects and activities: it’s often easier to create a connection to Yiddishkeit through hands-on experiences than through formal learning. For instance, in the week after Pesach, our students made shlissel challah. We invited bubbies from A Country Place to teach them how to make it. It’s more impactful to physically make shlissel challah and honor older people than to just talk about it.

What is the proper approach when dealing with students who have emotional and neurological struggles?

We must stop labeling our children. When we call a child disabled, we have handed her a self-fulfilling prophecy to actualize. (As an aside, many of the things we call disabilities are actually gifts. While they create difficulties is some areas, they are superpowers in others.)

There is an undercurrent of unhappiness, depression, and anxiety in this generation.

Perhaps it is because we feed unhappiness. We focus on issues and allow them to take over. 

I firmly believe that the pasukSur mera v’asei tov” is telling us to focus on the tov, not the ra.

We need to fill the minds and hearts of our precious neshamos with so much positivity (which is the core of Yiddishkeit) that there is no room for negativity and sadness.

For example, like at many other functions, Chedvas Bais Yaakov begins assemblies with a perek of Tehillim. However, we recite Perek Kuf, a perek of joy and thanksgiving. I want my students to know that there is so much to be thankful for; there is so much happiness in our lives.

How do you cater to academically weak girls? What about the above-average students?

It is because of the unavoidable variety of levels every grade has that we track our skill-based classes.

It is important that every girl do well, and she can when the material is taught on her level.

Rabbi Ari Mintz, Menahel of Bnos Chaim Seminary

What are some advantages of attending a local seminary?

It’s a big ma’alah to be solidly rooted in your home and community while being prepared for the next stage in life. In a place like Lakewood, an Ir HaTorah packed with unbelievably inspiring people and kochos, the experience is especially powerful. Another benefit of attending a local seminary is the ease of

keeping a long-term kesher with the faculty. We are available to give guidance whenever the need arises throughout our students’ lives.

What advice would you give parents who want their children to get the most out of the seminary experience?

Parents should value the Torah their daughters are learning and ask them to share divrei Torah with them on parshah, Yamim Tovim, and all areas.

What is your outlook on homework and testing?

My rosh yeshivah, Rav Meir Stern shlit”a, told me that all seminary subjects and assignments should be delivered on a high academic level. He explained that this lends a chashivus and seriousness to the learning. Following this guidance, we demand the best of our students.

How does the chinuch in seminary differ from that in elementary and high school?

Children are on the receiving end in all areas of their lives. As they get older, our students must be trained to be on the giving end, whether as teachers, mothers, wives, or simply members of society. In seminary, we teach our girls with an adult perspective of maturity and responsibility.

How does a parent’s role change as a child grows up?

On the one hand, adult children need to be treated with respect and maturity. They should be given more leeway as they grow, and their talents and individuality should be emphasized. Chanoch l’naar al pi darko refers specifically to this life stage (according to the Gemarain Kiddushin, daf lamed, amud alef).

While this independence is key, children need continued involvement, engagement, and hadrachah in every stage of life. Spend time with your daughter. Show interest in her life, try to understand the joys and hardships of this stage, and don’t ever stop expressing your love. Let your daughter know that you’re there for her while giving her space to become a responsible adult. Finding this balance—yemin mikarev u’smol docheh—is a foundational aspect of chinuch.

How can we help our girls internalize their Yiddishkeit?

When Rav Chaim founded Yeshivas Volozhin, he said that the mission of a school is to teach Torah, avodah, and gemilus chassadim. Torah is all about Hashem and His messages to us. Avodah means davening and connecting with Hashem. And bein adam l’chaveiro is critical to our connection with Hashem. When we’re taking care of others and even ourselves, we’re taking care of our tzelem Elokim. These concepts are constant avodahs and they are the cornerstones of Bnos Chaim Seminary.

What are the signs that a girl is ready to get married? How can we prepare our daughters to be good wives?

Generally, we can assume that the typical girl without problems is ready for marriage after going through the Bais Yaakov school system.

Our seminary offers classes about shalom bayis, understanding others, Yom Hachuppah, halachos of running a home, and even nurturing relationships with friends who are in different stages. Some of our teachers are kallah teachers, including Rebbetzin Forchheimer, Rebbetzin Halberstadt, Mrs. Bess, and Mrs. Bronspiegel.

In truth, we must train our children in middos, flexibility, and responsibility from day one so they can build happy marriages and homes.

What advice can you give parents who are entering the shidduch arena for the first time?

Look for a match, not for a catch. In other words, understand your son’s or daughter’s needs before you seek a shidduch for them and find a shidduch that will fill them. It’s important to make sure you’re on the same page as your child. As much time and work as that takes, it’s worth the effort.

In shidduchim, the role of the parents is to provide support, chizuk, and encouragement. Show your child that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Don’t transmit the stress, pressure, and rejection that often comes along with the process. You are your child’s support system.

How can we prepare emerging adults for the challenges of the real world?

We need to instill the proper hashkafah and tools so they can be okay in hard times. The Torah is filled with lessons to help us stay strong during difficulties and in seminary, we try to bring the lessons out in a way that is practical for day-to-day challenges. For example, in Sefer Bereishis, we focus on Avraham Avinu’s nisyonos and how he was able to withstand them. We also have nisayon-themed yemei iyun, mini-series, and speeches.