Structured Flexibility in Jewish Education

January 2021

Beth Steinberg is the co-founder and director of Shutaf Inclusion Programs in Jerusalem, offering year-round informal-education programs for children and young people, with and without disabilities. Shutaf believes in inclusion for all people of all abilities, regardless of labels and perceived functioning differences. Beth is also the artistic director of Theater in the Rough,  creating engaging, theatrical experiences in Jerusalem.

What are important ideas to keep close to your heart and mind when working with participants of all abilities? Stability, creativity, flexibility and finding the certainty within your uncertainty. At Shutaf Inclusion Programs in Jerusalem, we call that Structured Flexibility, that is, setting your goals and building your program’s structure while planning and allowing for variation as it reveals itself along with the needs of each participant.

We train and mentor Shutaf camp and year-round professional staff to think this way about flexible and inclusive activity planning and goals.Things almost always don’t go as planned. Structured Flexibility is about preparing for everyone’s different needs and having a “Plan B” at the ready

  • Think flexibly as you plan, with clear goals and room for accommodation. 
  • Last minute changes can be moments for creative opportunity. 
  • Pivot your attention to the changes you need to make in the moment to achieve success. 
  • Have alternative activities at the ready in your “back pocket.” 
  • Understand (and accept) that not everyone will participate in every activity. 

Of course, that moment of facing an uncertain or changing situation is complicated and for sure challenging, for you as much as it is for your participants. Structured Flexibility is there to help, both as an inclusive teaching method as well as a personal mindset.

Winston Churchhill wrote, “The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty.”

But of course, there are days it’s hard to find opportunity at every turn. How will you find your flexibility? By grounding yourself and finding stability, emotionally and intellectually. That will give you a renewed sense of safety and security which your participants will sense and respond to, in your classroom or informal education setting. It’s opportunity vs obstacle, sort of like life itself, along with working past that internal negative message of, “no I can’t do this,” and whatever thought process and language gets in the way of your ability to be flexible.

These ideas for creative thinking and flexibility will help you whether or not you’re working in-person or online. During the pandemic, we’ve thought about this a lot when planning activities for participants who have disabilities. We’ve consistently adjusted our online activities to suit differing needs - emotional and developmental. While we had clear educational goals, our focus as an informal education program was on social success for every participant - teens and young adults with disabilities - who take part of our weekly year-round program. When we realized that many weren’t interested in online gatherings, we built offline activities into the program. When we noted that some participants habitually take over the online conversation, our staff used smaller-breakout groups to ease some participant’s entry into the conversation. When preparing online activities that were hosted on an ed-tech platform, we used videos and slideshows with voice recordings so that participants who have trouble reading could take part with greater ease.

Did it make it perfect for everyone? Of course not, but it did help the staff embrace the uncertainty with a real sense of creative opportunity. And personal contact, whether it was texts or phone calls with participants, helped us know what was working and what wasn’t, while offering that extra helping hand that often made the difference for many.

Don’t forget to sit together as a staff and evaluate successes and challenges, including those moments that were harder to respond to and solve on the spot. Using your experiences to tweak a lesson or activity that still works within your original goals is the best way to use Structured Flexibility in the moment and afterwards as part of your planning structure.

Interested in more resources for thinking and working inclusively? The Shutaf Inclusion Guide is a collection of ideas and materials for teaching developed while building an organization and a program dedicated to inclusive services for children, teens, and young adults with and without disabilities in Jerusalem. At Shutaf we’re committed to quality services for all participants of all abilities, regardless of labels, financial limitations, cultural and religious differences. It’s a continuously evolving set of ideas.

Updated: Jan. 10, 2021