Kids are balancing fasting and school during Ramadan. How to support them

Ada Tseng, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Religious News

Ramadan was a big deal in Rashad's house when she was a kid. She grew up in Chino Hills and attended Islamic private school. But when she started going to public school, she found that not a lot of kids knew about it.

So she'd invite her non-Muslim friends over to see the decorations — the lanterns and lights — and to break fast with her family. Her mom would jokingly compliment her on how she had "trained" all her friends to understand their culture.

Rashad, who started a Muslim youth mentorship program during the pandemic, said many of her mentees are nervous about fasting at school. She advises young people to find the other Muslims at their school, if possible. "That makes it a lot easier to fast when you have others there with you, to lift each other up," she said.

But your supportive community is not limited to those who share your faith, she said. This is especially important for students who may not have that many Muslim classmates.

"A lot of youth, they tend to hear the horror stories, know the bullying and all the negative things that [happens to] our community," she said. "But in reality, a lot of us at that age are very welcoming and accepting of all their friends."

Abeer Shinnawi, a veteran middle school social studies teacher who is the program lead at Re-Imagining Migration, agreed and added that a trusted teacher can help too.

"If you're too shy or don't feel comfortable speaking, maybe have that teacher who can help you promote — if that's what you want to do — or teach your peers," Shinnawi said.

How parents and teachers can help

Help students create a schedule

It's not just the fasting that makes Ramadan a challenge. Kids are also up before sunrise to eat. Then there are taraweeh prayers throughout the night — which are not required, but are an integral part of observing Ramadan in some families.

Rashad and Sattar said they ended up adjusting when they studied because it was hard to concentrate once they got more dehydrated in the afternoons.

Zakia Pathan, special education teacher at Discovery Charter School in San Jose, encourages teachers and parents to find ways to cut back on activities for their Muslim students during Ramadan if they can.

"It's supposed to be a time where you're simplifying your life," she said. "Being calm, spending time with myself and reflecting on who I am — that's a big component about Ramadan. And sometimes we don't give our kids a chance to do that."

Ask teachers and coaches for accommodations

Here are some that can help students who are fasting:

•Options for P.E. and sports: Some students will have the stamina to participate while fasting, but others will need to take a break or do lighter versions of the activities. Watch for dehydration and exhaustion.

•Options for other places to go during lunch break: Some kids might want to sit with their friends, even if they're not eating, because they think the time passes faster, said Sawsan Jaber, a high school English teacher at East Leyden High School in Illinois. Others may want to rest, nap, pray in private or work on homework in the library, a career center or a classroom.

•Flexibility with homework and exams: A lighter homework load or the ability to make up tests could be helpful. "It helps if teachers can be empathetic and understand sometimes the kids' stamina might not be there or they might not be able to fully engage in the way they normally do," Jaber said.


Why it's important to be proactive, not just reactive

Amina Shahid, who teaches English at Miller Middle School in Cupertino, Calif., recently polled her Muslim students and found that a lot of the kids didn't tell their non-Muslim teachers that they were observing Ramadan.

"They feel like their teachers don't know what it is and then they feel awkward telling them they need accommodations," she said. "Or they'll feel nervous about having to make up tests or make up the mile run in P.E., so they'll just do it even though they are fasting."

Jaber said it's important to recognize that many students — and possibly their parents too — will need help advocating for themselves.

"My parents are Palestinian refugees," said Jaber, who also consults about how to create more equity for students of color through Education Unfiltered. "So their experience growing up was so different from mine that even if they wanted to be my advocate [at school] or if they wanted to be involved in my education, no one ever gave them those tools to be able to partake. So a lot of our children today may not have the support for a variety of different reasons."

Use the month as an opportunity to teach

"There's over 2 billion Muslims around the world who are celebrating and commemorating at this time," said Maimona Afzal Berta, a school board member in the San Jose area who became the first hijabi Muslim elected to office in California in 2018.

One reason she ran for office is that her classroom — at a school in a diverse neighborhood — was vandalized with hate speech shortly after Donald Trump was elected president in 2016. That was a wake-up call.

"It's important to have some level of understanding, just like you would want for Christmas or Easter," she said.

Administrators can also send all-staff emails reminding their school community about Ramadan and offering ways they can help. Jaber penned an open letter to educators about Ramadan that's been widely shared. Educators can also download a free poster about accommodating Muslim students during Ramadan, written by Aya Khalil and illustrated by Huda Fahmy.

Though some students, like Rashad, will jump at the chance to teach their peers about Ramadan, Jaber cautioned against putting Muslim students on the spot.

Talk to a student and their family privately first, Pathan said. You don't want to make assumptions. But, "if the child is willing, or if the family is willing to share, that's a great way to introduce it into your classroom," she said.

Thomas Cendejas — who teaches religion at Loyola High School in Pico-Union — remembered a year when the students at his all-boys Roman Catholic school were excited to learn about food for Eid al-Fitr. At the end of Ramadan, a Muslim student's parents brought in pastries for the entire classroom to share.

"They're learning how to be sensitive to various traditions, and it's nice when it comes up in natural and organic ways," he said.

Rashad encourages her mentees to be open to answering questions. "I know a lot of other Muslims would say the opposite," she said. "They'd say, 'No, I'm fasting. I don't want to deal with questions.' But I honestly think answering those questions from the start clears up so many misconceptions, and it makes it easier in the long run."

"Don't be embarrassed," she added. "Part of your identity is your religion. It's something that you can own."

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