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Monday, February 15, 2021

An Agent of Change: CFD’s Ritblatt Retires After 25 Years

Shulamit Ritblatt

As she looks back over a transformational career as a professor in San Diego State University’s Department of Child and Family Development, Dr. Shulamit Ritblatt remembers one particular moment of inspiration. It was her first time teaching the course CFD 590: Children With Special Needs. There were the usual lectures, discussions and class readings, but she just couldn’t shake the notion that something was missing. 

“I was starting to teach it and I realized that the students didn't have any idea about what it was like to really work with a child with special needs,” recalls Ritblatt, an expert in early childhood social-emotional development. 

So she set out to change that. 

Reaching out to the Exceptional Family Resource Center (EFRC) — a support agency for families of children with special needs — she set up a new curriculum connecting students and families. Every week, each of Ritblatt’s students would spend time with a child with special needs, and then journal about the experience. 

That approach — fostering learning through doing — soon became the backbone of Ritblatt’s teaching. Students in her CFD 536: Divorce and Remarriage course, for example, would spend time in family court, and even attend mediation sessions, parenting classes and supervised visitation sessions with parents going through divorce — all of it organized by Ritblatt behind the scenes. 

“I think, if I'm looking at everything I've done, I'm most proud of bringing in experiential learning and connecting learning and academic research with the community.” she said. “It was important to me for our students to have the knowledge, but also the ability to implement that knowledge.” 

Ritblatt retired from SDSU at the end of 2020 following 25 years on the CFD faculty, including five years as department chair. She leaves behind an impressive legacy. Ritblatt revived CFD’s master’s program and was instrumental in developing California’s first post-baccalaureate certificate program focused on addressing socio-emotional and behavioral challenges in young children, as well as a clinical track (LPCC) preparing clinicians to specialize in early childhood mental health. 

“All of this came to be because it was clear that professionals in the field didn't have the know-how to work with children with challenging behaviors,” said Ritblatt, who served as director of the SDSU Center for Family, School and Community Engagement since 2018. “We had a problem and academia needed to provide answers — this is the way I looked at it.” 

Born in Israel, Ritblatt developed her passion to make a positive difference for young children during her three years of service as a lieutenant in the Israeli Defense Forces. Her assignment was to work with troubled youths — many caught up in gangs or otherwise labeled juvenile delinquents — recruited into the army as a means of rehabilitating them. She performed home visits to meet their families, learning about their upbringings and the challenges they had faced. 

“I had a lot of success with them, but I realized that I wish I knew these people when they were young children, because we could have helped them even more,” she said. 

That realization sparked a new direction. After completing her service, she studied clinical child psychology at Tel Aviv University and embarked on a career as a therapist. After her husband’s job brought her to the U.S. in 1989, she decided to transition to a career in academia. Why impact one child at a time, she thought, when she could multiply her impact by training future early childhood professionals? 

Her career at SDSU, which began in 1995, was marked by multiple awards, including faculty honors from the College of Education, the SDSU Alumni Association and the University Senate. And she proudly notes that her former students are now everywhere — making a difference in academia, offices of education and community agencies. 

“I'm a believer and I'm a dreamer, but also I'm an executor,” Ritblatt said. “When I dream, I can make it happen. I'm happy I was able to be an agent of change.”