Eighteen month aliyah update – psychological intakes that presume too much – or don’t take into account enough

A couple of days ago I enjoyed a mother daughter trip school trip to the Sea of the Galilee/Kinneretwith dd12.  This was especially nice because I began my day with a meeting with the school guidance counselor regarding dd12 and ds10 and continued carrying residual tension from this throughout the day.

This wasn’t a meeting I wanted to have or felt was necessary, but as a teacher friend told me, it would be unpleasant for me to go and it would look bad for me to refuse the appointment. When dealing with schools, one thing you have to realize is if there is ever an issue, the school structure is never at fault.  It’s always your child’s fault, or you as parents.  So they’re a bit myopic when looking at problems, because they won’t consider significant factors that might be the root cause of a problem.

The thought that kept going through my mind after this 90 minute meeting was, ‘when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail’.

Here is an example of what I mean by that:

Dd12 has gotten very limited assistance at school in learning the language – the national decision to do away with ulpan for kids was disastrous but the law is that now students are to receive in-school language instruction – at best, this has been a forty minute session twice a week.  Do you know how little this is when you’re sitting for hours in a classroom, listening to lectures with no visual prompts to give you a clue what is being discussed?  Dd is a very visual learner and I anticipated that picking up the language wouldn’t be easy for her (in contrast to our auditory learners, who have learned it the most quickly).  The assistance she’s received has been very inadequate for her needs and though she’s bright and wants to do well, she simply doesn’t yet have the language skills to make this possible.  (For example, she’s an advanced math student but once they moved from equations to verbal problems, she was unable to do the work because she doesn’t understand the questions.)

The guidance counselor told me that she’s too quiet, doesn’t seem motivated to succeed and as such she’s concerned that dd is clinically depressed.   Of course she’s quiet, she can’t comfortably converse in Hebrew yet!  She’s friendly and talkative when she’s with English speakers.  And she’s motivated when she understands the materials in front of her. What she needs is academic help in translating the school materials so she can be successful, which is what I explained to them.  But they said, ‘Oh,  we can’t offer her that.  But a nice thing the school can do for you is provide subsidized psychological treatment.’

Psychological services are the tool – ie, the ‘hammer’ – they have to offer, and she needs to be diagnosed with emotional difficulties (the nail) for them to use their tool.   So you see, if we accept their ‘help’, it won’t be what she needs, but what they have to give.  (Her tutor knows her better than anyone else in the school and was very disturbed by this assessment; she’s told the guidance counselor that dd is struggling with language acquisition, not emotional problems.)

I’ve run into something that I didn’t anticipate about living in northern Israel, where there are relatively a small number of Anglo immigrants in this part of the country.  That’s a very important fact that has some major negative ramifications.  In highly Anglo areas, families making aliyah are so common that there’s a pretty good understanding of what the behavioral norms are for families new to the country.  There’s also a lot more support.

Here in the north, we don’t have that.  Instead of support and understanding, we face unrealistic expectations and far too often, negative judgments and presumptions about our children and our family functioning. When our kids are successful and acclimate quickly, it’s taken as par for the course and not worthy of much more than a passing comment.  When there’s any kind of struggle – as it’s inevitable that there will be…you get a lot more than a comment.  In the situation with dd, limited experience with new immigrants caused the person doing the assessment to drastically underestimate the language and adjustment factors and to see pathological behavior where it doesn’t exist.

(By the way, I told the counselor that with all due respect, she doesn’t have much experience with new immigrants and isn’t taking into account the most critical factors.  She told me that she spoke to two colleagues who live in RBS and did some reading, so she’s up to speed on the topic.  But two brief conversations and doing some reading don’t equal real life experience. She’s a truly good person with good intentions, but she is limited in this situation by her lack of experience.)

As part of this conversation, it was recommended that we open a file with social services so we could get psychological counseling for our children, which I adamantly refused.  Maybe this was just a strategy to get me to accept the school subsidized offer of services which followed, I don’t know.  An Israeli friend who works in the school system was horrified and furious when she found out that we were told this – this is the kind of thing that literally can destroy a family.  I’m fortunate that I can defend myself in Hebrew; most new olim don’t have that advantage.  Someone who made aliyah thirty years ago, the mother of a large family who has a lot of personal experience with many aspects of the system asked me how I had the strength to advocate for our kids, because this is an unpleasant situation to deal with.

My naturopath told me yesterday that I’m a ‘lioness’ for my kids – and you know what, she’s right.  You have to be here, because the system will eat you up and spit you out without blinking, all in the name of ‘helping’ you.  Yes, that sounds really negative but that’s how it feels to me.  As my friend mentioned above said in Hebrew, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”.  Everyone is very nice and it’s supposedly all about ‘helping’ you, but that doesn’t mean that you’re actually going to be helped.

My husband was shocked after this meeting at how the baseline assumption was that we’re a family in crisis, despite the fact that we’ve done incredibly well in adjusting to life here.  The fact is, on paper we have significant strikes against us: 1) we’re a large family – this presumes that our children are emotionally neglected because we probably don’t have time for them; 2) we have a baby with T21 – this presumes that we’re overwhelmed with this and we can’t meet the needs of the other children; 3) we’re new to Israel – this presumes that we’re emotionally in crisis; 4) we have two kids struggling in school (never mind that everyone else is fine or that kids who were born here have difficulties in school, too!) – this presumes that they need psychological assistance – and refusing this presumes that we as parents are in denial or problematic parents; 5) we used to homeschool – this presumes that we are dysfunctional and imbalanced to begin with (since homeschooling is so uncommon in Israel).   So before we even walk in to a meeting we’re behind the eight ball.

It takes a lot of emotional energy to repeatly counter the unspoken message that something is wrong with you. I often feel like I have to prove myself – it’s not just a feeling, that’s the reality – and recognize that how I present will determine in large part the assessments that are made about my kids.  I’ve had a lot of challenges here, but I don’t think I’ve found anything as disturbing as these efforts to redefine what our family is according to their five minute glance.  It’s like they want to take away our healthy family identity and replace it with their labels.

If a child needs help, I want him to have it.  I don’t assume I have all the tools necessary and welcome the assistance of those whose strengths compliment mine.  However, it’s clear that we’re on our own when it comes to finding real solutions – if I weren’t a long time homeschooling mom used to assessing my kids’ needs and finding ways to meet them independently, I would be despairing or apathetic by now.  The current solutions include me sending academic materials with dd to work on in class (homeschooling materials- yes, I think it’s ironic), dd16 volunteering to come to dd’s school twice a week during school hours to translate materials so she’ll be able to do her assignments, looking for natural and unthreatening ways to integrate Hebrew at home, and looking for a job or volunteer opportunity where she can use her strengths and build a positive identity not dependent on school performance.  (She’s not interested in homeschooling or that would be a possibility as well. )

I didn’t anticipate that putting my kids in school would put us in the situation of being scrutinized and judged to this degree.  Being new to a country or being part of the system doesn’t mean that a family doesn’t have a right to privacy or dignity.  Even if someone had warned me about this, I would have thought that this wouldn’t be an issue we’d be likely to face since we’re a pretty strong family – but now I know that being stable doesn’t really matter.  I’ve wondered if this is harder for me to accept this kind of nosing into our lives than others (my impression is that this isn’t uncommon) since I was used to being independent of ‘the system’.  Or maybe others are having it harder than me because they aren’t as able to advocate for themselves as I am.  I really don’t know.


16 thoughts on “Eighteen month aliyah update – psychological intakes that presume too much – or don’t take into account enough

  1. I really don’t understand the problem and why your Israeli friend got so upset. By working with the school pschologist your child will end up getting the individual help she needs. I’ve done this with two of my children and its a wonderful help. They are taken out of class twice a week and tutored during that time. We are also in the north in a school with no other olim.

    1. A mom — she doesn’t need a psychologist, she needs someone to teach her Hebrew! If she can’t understand that language how is she supposed to understand what is going on in class?

    2. It seems pretty clear that Aviva’s DD12 needs additional assistance; I don’t believe that Aviva is resistant to getting help.

      But It also seems pretty clear that the help being offered is the wrong help, or that it _looks_ very wrong.

      Aviva’s DD12 needs _language_ assistance. She is being offered help via a _depression_ diagnosis.

      A medical diagnosis ends up in one’s medical record, and is used for all sorts of evaluations, not just providing the immediate help needed. A medical diagnosis also raises the question of just what sort of treatment is indicated. The utility of a diagnosis is to _direct proper treatment_, and the wrong medical diagnosis is just a way to guarantee the wrong treatment.

      Now, putting a positive spin on things, having the counselor suggest depression might get the child talking to a therapist who will realize that the core of the problem is language fluency, and that the therapist will get the child into the proper class to help solve this problem.


  2. Sounds like a really tough situation – Yashar koach for standing your ground and maintaining your self-image.
    As someone who went to a children’s ulpan, I can say that they were not a great solution either.
    Maybe your daughter could benefit from an accelerated Hebrew learning program. These are available online, e.g. through E-teacher or Ulpan Or. (disclaimer: Ulpan Or is a marketing client of mine) They are not cheap, but they are the fast and they tailor the program to your needs.
    Hope this helps!

  3. A hair brained idea: Could you find one-on-one Hebrew tutoring for your daughter in exchange for you or someone else in the family providing English tutoring for the tutor/tutor’s child? This could be a way to get what you need without spending any money. (Although yes, time is money of course!) Maybe your daughter herself could even do the English tutoring. I live in a neighborhood with lots of Israelis here in the US and I’m thinking of trying to do something like that for myself.

  4. I understand that getting the help the kid needs starts with the psychologist. Get that approval then the school uses that to give her dd the help she needs. It’s called shiluv. Could be used for ulpan help math help whatever the child needs. It’s how the school funds these extra one on one assistance. The school used the fact were olim. Didn’t even consider any stigma attached to the help.

  5. Yes, Aviva, five minute glance evaluations are the norm. That’s all they can put into any given case because they are dealing with classrooms full of cases. I’ve heard it’s pretty similar in the states too. It is essential to remember you know your child best and you are your child’s best advocate!
    I once had a teacher send home a long, hand written letter ripping my child to shreds about her shock over my child’s alleged misdeed, she was accused of something truly horrible. Turned out it was during recess, the teacher was not there and misunderstood the other students, thinking it was my kid…not even an apology! Just one of MANY examples. The important thing is to keep it in perspective, remember why you are sending your child to school and remember that the real and important education comes from you!
    That being said, I think “a mom” is coming from an interesting angle. In my 20 years of experience in the Israeli school system- remedial help often comes after an evaluation from an educational psychologist. You certainly don’t need a diagnosis of depression for that!
    No reason to let them unnerve you, keep strong!
    I get sooo much chizuk from your posts!

  6. The more I read about your struggles, the more I want to say, “come back”. But if that is not in the plans, would you consider moving to a more “friendly” community for the ability to get the assistance in so many places in your lives? This is the thought that keeps popping up in my head. Is moving closer to “help” really a cop out? Is it not a doable thing? You are the greatest family, in so many ways, that I have ever met, and the “abuse” dumped upon you by the “official” way of Israel doing things hurts. Much love, my friend.

  7. Continue to be strong Avivah. You are the best hope your children have for any kind of a semblance of a good life. I agree with you completely. Don’t allow them to label your children with unnecessary and very likely dangerous labels. Where there is a will, there is a way. I agree with the post that suggested exchanged english hebrew tutoring. Something like that or an online program would be preferable to dangerous labels. I am so sorry to hear that she is withdrawing because of the language difficulty. It’s completely understandable and normal for a child to react as such. A lot of people go around looking for problems in others and making mountains out of molehills, all in the name of trying to help. You are a great mother, I am confident that whatever you decide to do to fix this will be the best way. You are an inspiration to us all.

  8. I really can relate since my daughter made aliyah at age 11 -turned 14 yesterday-She is in the Ulpana in Tveria-It is clear that they do not have so much experience however they have been very kind and never questioned her mental state even when I told them I was worried-they really took a relaxed approach-mainly that it will take time and to trust her in terms of her speed of progress. They always write encouraging comments on her tests etc.I think it really is a time issue more than anything-
    In terms of things that helped-I know you are not television people , but if you could find some programing in Hebrew that interests her it helps.How is the friend situation? I think that this is the most important factor-if this is ok the rest will fall into place. My daughter does her school work in Hebrew, but all her pleasure reading is in English and I encourage her to embrace her American and English language background since this is highly valued in Israel as well. In general it does seem that in Israel-they are very into all kinds of therapies and labeling-mostly to access resources-so don’t be too put off by their suggestions-I don’t think it is so much a judgment as just working within the framework that they know.

  9. I think it is very alarming when teachers diagnose kids with ADD and then parents get medications from a family doctor. I am also alarmed at a guidance counselors’ diagnosis of depression. These are very serious mental health concerns and should not be used with any sort of flippancy. Reading an article and talking to a couple of out of town colleagues does not warrant someone capable of diagnosing clinical depression. My children have gone through many ups and downs in their 18 months of aliyah. Many of these “downs” are a “normal” part of culture shock.

  10. It is a very hard situation to be at!! You really truly need to be a lioness to fight against the system and find the best for your kids.
    I think it is ridiculous that your daughter16 has t come and help her sister during school – first of all, it is the school’s job! They are being really ridiculous!
    I am sure that you are puzzled by your family because the children are not your “typical Israeli child” (wild and loud)! The only thing you need to do is remember that YOU are normal not they.

  11. Oooh, I just want to give your dd12 a hug. She’s doing an amazing job given the circumstances. I’m really “smart” – I meshed well with the school system and did just fine. But learning a second language at the same speed as my peers/classes was like hitting a brick wall (3 times, actually, Spanish K-8, Latin 9-12, and then 6 semesters of Italian at University). My brain just couldn’t make it work.

    Of course in a traditional school system I just showed up, kept my head down, and the worst I ever got was a C, even though I never came close to learning any of the 3 languages :)

  12. You are such a terrific mother, and yes, a lioness!
    Never doubt your instincts- you’re doing great.
    I’m so sorry at this frustration for your DD12 and heartily endorse both the Hebrew TV programming ( or you can always download a movie that is acceptable on the computer if TV is not an option) or language tutoring-barter. Both great ideas.

  13. machon meir has a website with a childrens tv show on it. it is called asi v’tuvya. they produce 2 or 3 10 minute segments a week. you can subscribe for a small amt of money. but there are also shows that you dont have to pay for. maybe try watching some yourself. also menucha fuchs – maybe you know her books- used to make movies for kids that are very high quality (content)

  14. Avivah, your blog is so interesting and informative. We are planning on making Aliya and feel very lucky to be coming when our children are so young, and will hopefully be speaking Hebrew fluently by the time they reach first grade. We have 2 children (our oldest is two years old, our youngest is 2 weeks old) we are seriously considering karmiel, and I have emailed you some questions/comments.

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