A gentle woman – and a Scholar

A special educator works with infants who have physical and cognitive disabilities at Aleh during what she calls a crucial phase.

laya scholar_521 (photo credit: Courtesy of Aleh)
laya scholar_521
(photo credit: Courtesy of Aleh)
For many, caring for babies is a fun activity, full of smiles, laughter and games. But for Laya Scholar, a former New Yorker who made aliya four and a half years ago, caring for children in Aleh’s infant development department is a lot more than just playing games. She’s shaping their future and working to enable them to reach their full cognitive potential.
At Aleh, Israel’s largest network of residential facilities for children with severe physical and cognitive disabilities, Scholar is a special educator for infant development at the organization’s Jerusalem facility.
“My medium is play,” says Scholar. “What I do is different from therapists because I facilitate the infants’ development with play. Many of of our babies don’t know how to play, but that can be taught.”
Scholar, who holds both a BA and an MA in special education, heads the team of staff members who deal with Aleh’s youngest residents, from birth to age three, and has been working with babies with disabilities for 27 years.
She says her work at Aleh is unique because there is no institution that trains educators to help cognitively and physically impaired infants. The c provides only physical therapy, occupational therapy or speech therapy. “But there’s no special educator on that team,” she says.
“If you know that problems will happen, why are we waiting?” she charges. Aside from traumas at birth and premature delivery that can lead to cognitive and physical disabilities, there are signs that indicate that a baby may have cognitive impairment. “If we see that a baby is not adjusting himself for feeding – not swallowing or breathing in coordination – these are markers that tell us something is going on,” says Scholar.
When such signs appear, early intervention is key. “We speak of the plasticity of the brain. Even if there is brain damage, at the age of zero to three, you can activate other areas of the brain that take over,” she explains.
Scholar adds that there are also learned behaviors that develop when proper treatment is not provided early enough. “There’s an issue of learned helplessness. If a baby doesn’t use certain skills, it becomes habitual [not to use them].”
Scholar says that any team of therapists dealing with special- needs infants requires an educator. “Educating zero-tothree- year-olds is imperative, and it’s probably more costeffective to give a baby what he needs as an infant than later. Some children just need that extra boost to be able to make it in the mainstream, and some will always be in a special setting but will be better off [if attended to at an earlier age].”
The mothers also plays a role in the child’s cognitive development. Often an infant specialist is needed to instruct the mother and help her and the baby bond. If the infant is not able to lift his head or coo when being held, for example, the mother may feel that her maternal instincts are off. “If he doesn’t smile back and doesn’t seem interested, then this mother-baby dance can sometimes devolve,” explains Scholar.
She says the key to overcoming this is teaching the parents, many of whom visit regularly, how to pick up on subtle elements of communication. “I can point out signs showing the baby likes his mother’s voice, like if he stops sucking or breathes differently. And this can motivate the mother, who also needs feedback, to keep talking and enable her to love her baby.”
But Scholar stresses the need for an overarching approach and not just a single-pronged treatment. “It is impossible to work with a baby at this age without seeing the full picture: his family, his medical needs, how he’s developing, what’s impairing him… It’s about his potential and how I facilitate it, which includes his cognitive potential, motor potential and potential for communication.”
Scholar says that her work as an educator is closely connected to the therapists’ work. “We take everything into account when planning cognitive goals. I know that I am going to be working on motor skills with the baby as well. He can’t play, move or discover without us helping him. It’s incumbent upon anyone who works with the baby to understand what our goals are and to integrate them into each other’s sessions.”
Aleh’s state-of-the-art medical center is also home for the residents. Scholar describes it as “a medical model, where they try to make it as homey and warm as possible.”
Therapists, nurses and volunteers all attend to the children with smiles and a gentle demeanor. As Scholar puts it, “There are a lot of mommies here, and all the children are loved. There’s a lot of warmth.”
Scholar’s favorite part of her job is to see a baby learn. “I really enjoy that spark when I see that I get the baby with me, on the same page, and from there we can learn. And it’s exciting to show a mother that the baby can learn and to show her how to help him learn.”
But dealing with babies is not child’s play. “It’s hard to see the parents struggle. The hardest thing is seeing our very sick babies. We’ve had 10 babies die since I’ve been here,” she says.
She also says she has her own internal struggles. “It’s very typical to go through soul searching when you work with babies who are extremely impaired. I did mine, and the answer came out the same: Every baby deserves the best I can give him. I don’t think this baby may not make it, I think what I can do while he is here.”
As to future hopes for Aleh’s infant wing, Scholar hopes it will expand to take in babies who are not residents. She also would like to see increased awareness on the part of the professionals “of the importance of the cognitive development and social development of babies.”
According to Scholar, her work also necessitates a strong element of faith. “Our goals are small, but who am I to say what goal is more important – just responding to my voice or walking and going to school like a regular child? This is how God created them, and if I didn’t believe that, I couldn’t do my job.”