‘Everything just works together’

‘Everything just works together’

Ben Porat Yosef in Paramus opens sophisticated occupational therapy room

The Oma OT Room at Ben Porat Yosef helps the school tailor OT programs to their students.
The Oma OT Room at Ben Porat Yosef helps the school tailor OT programs to their students.

Some children thrive in classroom settings; they need nothing more than a chair, a good teacher, a secure and loving home life, and enough time and space to flourish.

Those are very lucky children.

For other kids, however, those things are necessary but not sufficient. Many kids need work on their fine motor skills, or their gross motor skills, or on how to focus, or how to come to terms with the extra energy that makes them fidget and keeps them from sitting still all day long.

Every child — every person — is different, and the more tailored an education is to the child receiving it, the better that child is likely to do.

That’s why Ben Porat Yosef, the toddler-through-eighth-grade yeshiva day school in Paramus, opened an occupational therapy room, full of such state-of-the-art equipment as a rock-climbing wall, a zipline, swings, and other devices, each of which has an educational purpose but also provides delight.

“One of the highlights of education at Ben Porat Yosef is that we recognize that every person is a world unto him- or herself, and everyone has different learning styles and needs,” the school’s director of student services, Aliza Strassman, said; Ms. Strassman oversees the OT programs.

The new room, a gift coordinated by Evan and Diana Zisholtz of Englewood in loving memory of Mr. Zisholtz’s mother, Vivian, can help not only with fine and gross motor development, but also with “motor development and muscle tone,” Ms. Strassman said. “The swings — a playground swing, a hammock swing, and a bolster swing — give different kinds of input and can work on different sensory experiences. There are fine-motor stations with different seating options — chairs, stools, and balls — that can give them some movement and help with their balance as they work at the table.”

“Some students have greater needs for physical activity; there are students with attention deficit disorder or hyperactivity, and students with sensory issues who need work on their sense of surrounding,” the head of school, Rabbi Saul Zucker, said, adding that “I don’t want to generalize,” but instead is providing an overview. “Those children have felt dysregulated in a traditional classroom, and obviously that impairs their experience of education in a significant way.” Those children often tended to act out, he said, and the adults watching them did not understand what they were seeing and did not know how to help.

Now, Rabbi Zucker said, with educators understanding the problem more clearly, schools are in a position to help in new ways.

Often, children would get occupational therapy, but it had to be done off-premises, after school hours, and that would put extra burdens on both the kids and their parents. Now, though, “we can provide OT during the school day, in the building,” Ms. Strassman said. “The teacher can talk to the OT therapist about it. They can work on a strategy together. There is a constant collaboration between the therapy and the teacher, and that carries over to the classroom.

“Equally, what happens in the classroom carries over to the OT session.

“Everything just works together.”

Vivian Zisholtz beams between her two grandchildren, Allie, left, and Kate.

About ten percent of BPY’s students, almost all of them in pre-K through fifth grade, use the OT room, Ms. Strassman said. “The need is more prevalent in the formative years,” Rabbi Zucker said. Some of those students get OT services through Bergen County’s special services department, and others have private OT therapists. Both groups of students can use the room.

The convenience provided by the room being in the school, and the therapy provided during school hours, make it even more likely that more students will use it, including some whose need for it is real but not pressing.

“Having the room on site, and having it be as sophisticated as it is, will allow more parents to take advantage of it,” Rabbi Zucker said. “Sometimes parents have to do a cost-benefit analysis,” when their children’s need for OT is low enough that the burden of having to juggle driving to and from OT with their other children’s schedules, and the other demands of their family and work lives, lead them to decide to hold off on OT. Having the room onsite solves those problems.

The room is named after Vivian Reich Zisholtz, but it’s called Oma’s OT Room; Oma is the loving name German Jews often use for their grandmothers. That’s because Ms. Zisholtz, who was an occupational therapist before she had children and then again once she became an empty-nester, was so beloved.

Ms. Zisholtz lived in Atlanta, where her children grew up; she died of breast cancer at 58, four years ago. “She was a remarkable lady, and she had an amazing life,” her son Evan said. “The Atlanta community loved her, and her friends and acquaintances still, to this day, have an amazing connection with her. The students she taught still feel connected to her, and we still hear from them about her.”

The new gym at the school that Mr. Zisholtz and his three siblings went to, the Atlanta Jewish Academy, is named in part after Ms. Zisholtz; it’s called the Vivian Zisholtz Sportsmanship Center. That’s because she cared so deeply about the values. “We all played sports, and she didn’t care what we did, how well we did, as long as we gained good character, with morals and middot,” values, he said.

“And she also wanted to make sure that each kid had individual attention and love, so that every kid who walks into the room has the love of an oma,” he continued. “That’s why we felt this room would have been so well-suited for her.”

The idea for Oma’s OT Room came from Mr. Zisholtz’s father, Dr. Barry Zisholtz, and his stepmother, Mindy Mitzner Zisholtz, and from Diana Zisholtz’s parents, Julio and Debbie Berger. “They all loved my mom, and wanted to do something in her name,” Evan Zisholtz said. “It was a beautiful gift, and it shows a beautiful relationship between machatunim,” in-laws, “which also is so special.”

They decided that an OT room would be ideal, given that Vivian was an OT therapist, and that it should be at Ben Porat Yosef because that’s where Evan and Diana’s two older children, fifth-grader Allie and second-grader Kate, go to school. Allie and Kate’s baby sister, named Vivian after her grandmother, will go there too some day.

Two of the occupational therapists who use Ben Porat Yosef’s Oma’s Room reported on their experiences there.

“I set the room up to function as a calming and soothing environment with the lights dimmed and the stars/northern lights floating around the room with soft music playing in the background,” Deborah Goldberg wrote. “The big pillow and a hammock swing were available as additional opportunities for ‘re-regulating.’ After I took a student out for OT straight from participating in the school-wide Hallel in the gym, he walked in, dropped open his mouth, ran to the pillow and simply sat back and stared at the ceiling, saying, ‘This is soooo satisfying, especially after all that loudness and busy dancing in the gym. My brain can relax now.’”

Rob Cohen is a therapist who works for Bergen County’s special services department and uses Oma’s Room. His students are excited to be in the room, he wrote. “They can’t wait to take their shoes off and play (which we all know is actually hard work). Judah loves the monkey bars. At first, he could only do two steps … now his shoulder strength has improved and he travels six before dropping down onto the crash pad!

“Anna was initially hesitant to climb the rock wall and is now scampering up (motor planning safely) and smiling as she reaches the ‘easy’ button on top. Mica is much more comfortable on the zip line; he now wants to go fast (having his feet off the ground is no longer scary)! Rachel is thrilled at how easy it is for her to now use balance equipment. Phillip engages in heavy work activities; he gets his ‘heebies jeebies’ out in the sensory room and returns to class calm and collected. At the end of sessions students need to put their shoes back on and this is a wonderful opportunity to practice shoe tying.”

And then to go back to class calmer, more balanced, and more ready to learn.

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