Using Learning and Behavioral Profiles to Help Students and Campers

Many years ago, I was giving bar mitzvah lessons to Jesse, a very intelligent young man with learning differences. When he heard that I would soon begin teaching one of his classmates, as well, he told me, “You will need to teach Jon differently than you teach me. I am good with transliterating the Hebrew as I hear it, but Jon will need you to sing it and hear the different musical sequences.” What a gift Jesse was giving me a teaching strategy for working with my new student and an insight into his wonderful school for children with learning differences. It seems his school helped make students’ learning styles and differences explicit to the point that a student could understand not only his own learning style, but those of his classmates as well.

There is extensive literature on learning profiles and differentiated education. In an Edutopia article entitled “How Learning Profiles Can Strengthen Your Teaching” (August 13, 2014), education consultant John McCarthy argues, “We can start using learning profiles when we know the various ways that each of our students makes sense of content. The more we understand our students, the more efficiently we can ensure their learning successes. When we have in-depth understanding for how our students learn, there is a major impact on diagnosing student needs and planning effective supports.”

I have reflected on my experience with Jesse in my ongoing work both as a teacher and as the director of inclusion and disabilities programs at Camp Ramah in New England and throughout the Ramah camping system. I would extend McCarthy’s point about learning profiles to include temperament and behavioral styles. How can educators in any setting utilize their understanding of student learning, behavioral, and temperamental styles in their work with students and campers?

McCarthy and Jesse teach us the value of enabling students to understand the way fellow students learn and experience the world. In a classroom setting, this information is valuable in grouping students as they work together on assignments and presentations. In a less formal setting, such as a youth group or camp, the same is true. We may assign kids to Jewish electives, color war teams, amusement park groups, or tefillah groups based on their “profiles.”

Similarly, we should consider learning, behavioral, and temperamental styles when we consider class and group bunk composition. Each classroom and each bunk requires a balance of leadership styles (go-getters, quiet leaders, organizers), interests and preferences (sports, arts, academics, music), and behavioral styles (calm and passive; initiative takers; etc.). In a classroom, gender balance also matters. We should strive to group students and campers in a way that will maximize their ability to complement each other. Our students and campers will figure out the wonderful qualities their classmates and bunkmates have to offer. They will similarly come to learn and accept their shortcomings. Students and campers will “draw out” the fine qualities of their follow travelers and in return, they will be “drawn out” themselves.

This general observation and principle applies equally to neurotypical settings, disability programs, and inclusive settings. In my work with the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England, a 45-year-old overnight camping program for campers ages 13 to 18 with a range of disabilities including intellectual disabilities, autism, and cerebral palsy I get creative when it comes to bunking and otherwise grouping the campers. Some are shy and introverted; some have social skills deficits; some are nonverbal; others are gregarious and love to socialize. Some move effortlessly and some have mobility issues. We don’t necessarily bunk or otherwise group campers by age or diagnosis; rather, we recognize that campers complement each other and bring out qualities in fellow campers that are otherwise often hidden. And many seem to have the same uncanny ability as my student Jesse for noticing what others need.

Jeff, a member of our vocational training program who sometimes has difficulties modulating his behaviors, spontaneously seeks out David, a blind camper who uses a walking stick, and leads him to his various activities. In the process, David initiates conversation and keeps Jeff calm and focused. And Bryce, a physically strong young man with Down syndrome who wears hearing aids and is nonverbal, instinctively notices that Sarah is in a wheelchair and needs help being pushed to activities. While both are nonverbal, they communicate and smile the whole way to the next activity.

The same complementarity is evident in our inclusion program. In our typical camp divisions, we proudly include in all aspects of bunk and divisional life 15 campers ages 9 to 16 with a range of disabilities. We don’t initially tell campers they will have a bunkmate with such invisible disabilities as autism spectrum disorder, social skills deficits, or language processing issues. Yet, because campers are quite astute, they naturally pick up on other campers’ strengths, weaknesses, and needs. As the summer progresses, we sometimes facilitate bunk meetings to address a range of camper and bunk issues. While the meeting might initially start off addressing a certain camper’s “annoying

behavior” (for example, his stuff spreading all over the bunk, or her constant repeating, interrupting, or touching), the discussion quickly turns to other campers in the bunk and to things that are difficult for each camper. Campers are often amazing in their ability to look inward and describe their own weaknesses and need as well as their strengths. Ultimately, such discussions unify the bunk.

Admittedly, such conversations are not easy, and we have a responsibility to protect and respect confidentiality and the dignity of each camper. We are always careful in what we do or don’t disclose about a particular camper. Yet, because fellow students and campers already intuit differences, such discussions usually help validate their hunch and therefore help them be more compassionate and supportive.

Next time you are trying to figure out how to group students or campers, or are processing a difficult situation, remember Jesse’s insight think about each child’s unique profile and style and use it to bring the group together into a more unified, cohesive community.

Howard Blas has been the director of the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England for 15 years. The overnight camp program provides camping and vocational experiences for adolescents and young adults with special needs. He is also a consultant on special-needs camping programs for the National Ramah Commission, and he is the newly appointed director of the National Ramah Tikvah Network. Howard also serves as a teacher of Jewish studies and bar/bat mitzvah to students with a range of special needs and “special circumstances.” He holds master’s degrees in both social work (Columbia University) and special education (Bank Street College of Education).

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