There have been a lot of discussions recently about the challenges children with disabilities face in virtual education. It’s a discussion that Yona Schaap Zalesch, an occupational therapist, can weigh in on.
Schaap Zalesch, 37, moved to Park Heights from Denver with the intention that most of her work would be in person. When COVID-19 inevitably changed that, she realized that there are advantages to helping kids virtually. For example, she appreciates that she can coach the entire family rather than only the student.
Schaap Zalesch majored in psychology with a minor in biology before attaining her master’s in occupational therapy. She works mainly in schools with children with special needs and autism. She grew up in New Jersey and is the mother to four kids: Shimmy and Adira, who attend Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, and Huvie and Ora, who attend Bais Yaakov of Baltimore. The family belongs to Suburban Orthodox Congregation Toras Chaim, and her husband, Leib, a Beth Tiloh teacher, frequently attends Congregation Darchei Tzedek.
What was moving to Baltimore like?
We had been in Denver for 11 years. As a teacher, my husband was passionate about teaching in a smaller, out-of-town community [like that]. There was a lot we loved about it. At a certain point we felt our kids needed more educational opportunities, which Baltimore certainly has. We also have roots here. … In July of 2019, we took two minivans, plus a moving van, and drove across the country for a week and a half. [Our first night in Baltimore,] we slept in sleeping bags our neighbors gave to us. We had a really warm welcome. Every Friday, neighbors were dropping off flowers and desserts and cards for Shabbos.
We felt like we were in the twilight zone when we moved here. Denver was not tiny, but completely different. Here, the kosher supermarkets are huge, you run into people everywhere, and the school — my daughter’s school [in Denver] was the entire size of her grade here. Suburban Orthodox is significantly bigger than our synagogue in Denver. It’s nice to be around the corner from it, the prayer service is lovely, the rabbi is welcoming, and we like the diversity within the membership.
But we’re still finding our place in the community, too. Having the first year be under COVID-19, it slowed down our life and became lonely. But there were positives in that I was able to spend more time with my family, and my kids really have handled the transition well.
What have the High Holidays been like for you this year?
We made it work. I’m actually watching them set up the sukkah on our deck now.
For Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we went to our friend’s backyard. They started a minyan in their backyard during COVID, with tents set up. It was harder to do it with little kids, so my husband and I took turns going.
I loved that we were able to hear a lot of shofar blowings around the community. My family have always been shul-goers. This was the first time I haven’t been in a shul so often. But on the bright side, my kids get to see me daven at home, which is important.
What are your hopes for the new year?
To me, I’ve never been one of those who’s afraid of getting older. Another year is just a mark of progress. To me, we’re always on a journey.
But I guess my kids had a great transition this last year, so I hope that continues. My No. 1 priority is everyone’s health and mental health.
Speaking about mental health, let’s talk about your job more.
I completely love my job. It took me a little while to get there. … I have a lot of things I
am extremely passionate about, and my work gives me something to focus that energy on. I spend a lot of time thinking about what the kids need to be successful. In a school, I can see their natural environment and how they’re reacting to it. Of course, some kids are accessing school remotely and still need to work at that.
I advocate very strongly for kids to listen to what their body is telling them, and help them practice emotional regulation. We work on executive functioning skills.
Are those skills useful for adults, too?
Many of my students have difficulty with emotional and physiological regulation. Recognizing the physical signs of stress, fear, anger, and frustration is very challenging, especially as those feelings are just beginning and are more easily prevented. This challenge often continues into adulthood and can be challenging for neurotypical children and adults as well. It benefits all of us to reconnect to our bodies – whether that is through meditation, mindfulness, exercise, or other self-care initiatives such as taking time for ourselves, getting enough sleep, and eating a healthy diet. We often feel too busy to listen to our body signals, so we stop recognizing them. The best way to help our body and mind stay physically and mentally healthy is to recognize what signs our body gives us when we are struggling. Maybe our heart beats faster, maybe we clench our fists or our teeth, maybe our faces turn red.
Learning what these signs are, and what strategies to use when we see/feel them occurring, is a skill that benefits people of all ages