The Story of J

What a profoundly positive influence Dr. Norma Doft has exerted on my son J’s life!  Although J is nearly grown up now, we still think of Norma with much warmth, respect, and most of all, gratitude.Norma worked with J in social groups for eight years, beginning in first grade. During J’s Kindergarten year, he was diagnosed with a non-verbal learning disability, a key feature of which is a child’s inability to read social cues, including from peers.  Kindergarten was a disaster for J.  He met with frequent rejection, was socially isolated, bullied, and chronically anxious.  Later, in third grade, J was diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome and Asperger’s Syndrome, both of which resulted in additional social impact.  J’s life at school went from bad to worse.Initially, J participated weekly in a group with three other boys who were mostly compatible, but whose social difficulties varied and who had much to learn from each other.   As the boys took turns selecting varied forms of play, Norma guided them in areas of social reciprocity, focus on the other person, and learning flexibility when a child tended to be rigid, as J did.  She possessed an uncanny ability to understand each child, to know their triggers, vulnerabilities, volatilities, and for example, when to make a certain activity, i.e., the sand table, off limits.  Even as the group shifted and changed over the years, J felt SAFE inside Norma’s walls, and that contributed hugely to his ability to absorb the social instruction that took place there.

As I think about it, I realize that in all the years I have known Norma, I have never heard her raise her voice.  Rather, in a calm, quiet, firm way she maintained her authority with J’s group.  My son could have shut down and withdrawn completely from bewildering, painful peer interaction during these years.  Yet he did not.  He loved attending Norma’s groups, and found there a confirmation of the joy of fellowship.  I can’t overstate the difference all of this made for J during these critical developmental years.I, too, benefited greatly from drawing upon Norma as a professional resource.  She offered parenting classes, for example, and talked with small groups about techniques we could use, among them the need to know our leverage in awarding penalties and rewards to shape behavior, the use of disengagement to diffuse futile conflicts, the inverse relationship between escalation and reason, or the need to “break the set,” to remove a child from an environment that is causing a meltdown.  

Further, I consulted Norma on a private basis relatively often, as when we were confronted with the decision to remove J from a prestigious, competitive private school and place him in a special needs environment.  I found it a lonely experience to be the mother of a child with disabilities, and to face such hard decisions, but found much comfort in Norma’s considered, perceptive advice. As time passed, we noted marked improvement in J’s social interaction. By high school he took risks, led student government, and served as a student ambassador to prospective families. In general he served as a strong advocate for other learning disabled students and became something of a model citizen of his small, quirky-tolerant school.  J recently spent five days at home from college for Thanksgiving, and my husband and I marveled over how well he is doing at a fine, competitive school.  He has successfully navigated the social currents of dorm life, participated in club tennis, and has formed a niche of very nice friends.  Further, J spoke of making the dean’s list at the end of his first semester, gained acceptance into the school’s leadership program, and is making plans for a semester abroad in Granada, Spain next year.  

​He is filled with dreams and objectives for his future, and overall he feels happy.  He is having fun.  I credit Norma with so much of J’s success.  Every day he uses the lessons and confidence he learned from her, and in that sense Norma is always with him. Norma is part of who J is, and I have no doubt that she has changed his life.   

— Mother of J

The Story of E

Dr. Norma Doft changed my life for the better.  I know that is cliché, but it’s true.  The summer my older son was eight, I was terrified.  It was a miserable summer.  We had signed him up for the day camp  many kids in the neighborhood go to and he refused to get on the bus with his younger brother.  We belonged to a pool club in NJ, that we had belonged to the previous summer, and he refused to go.  Battles ensued.  Forcing, bribing, threatening, punishing…nothing worked.  Once we succeeded in getting him to the car to go to the pool, but he quickly unbuckled himself and ran inside.  Luckily we were parked on the same side of the street as our building.  His behavior was getting more and more out of control. I would grab him to control him, and that wasn’t helping, it was only escalating his and my anger.  I was terrified and his younger brother was too.  It was affecting our whole family.

Through a friend I got a list of resources for social skills groups and services.  As soon as I reached Dr. Norma Doft, I felt some comfort.   She returned my phone immediately, and spent at least a half hour with me on the phone.  She told me about both her group for E. and her parenting class.  Dr. Norma’s years of experience, plus her empathy and attention to the kids are tremendous.  I appreciated the term “highly reactive kids” to describe the children who usually end up with Dr. Norma, a very apt non-diagnostic descriptor.  In the parenting class I felt less alone and isolated, plus I learned specific tools and phrases to deescalate situations when E. got riled up.  As I used the tools the episodes passed more quickly, with less anguish.  Dr. Norma was also always responsive to quickly arrange a phone consult. 

Participating in both – the group for my son, and the parenting class for me, truly have improved my parenting and my relationship with my son.  Plus, he has developed his ability to know himself and cope.  He is more sure of himself and is able to participate more fully in family and social time.  When he needs some time to himself, to read or play by himself, I accept that.  

​Norma helped me really look at who my child is and what he can handle in different moments.  I no longer parent him as I thought I “should”, but I parent who he is. Instead of my trying to control him, I’ve actually let go more and stepped back.  The result of this is not that he’s spoiled or getting his way, he’s getting to choose.  When I give him an inch, he doesn’t take a mile, he takes an extra inch and then makes a good decision.  He is 10 years old now, and isn’t that what we want for our children, the ability to grow and make good decisions?  

Here’s an example.  Recently the boys wanted a pajama day.  We had been invited to a party in our building starting at 4 pm.  E. had been in his pajamas all day.  Before the party his brother changed.  I asked him if he wanted to change.  He said no.  I told him I was changing into real clothes and it would be nice if he would too.  He said, “No, thanks.”  I did not pick the battle of trying to make him get dressed.  As we went upstairs and were about to ring our neighbor’s bell, he said, “Wait, should I change?”  I nodded, “Yeah, I think so.”  We calmly went downstairs and waited by the door while he put on some real pants.  A small victory – both in that I didn’t get upset over his wearing pjs to a neighbor’s party, and in that he realized for himself what was socially appropriate and acted on it.  

​Every day I am grateful that we found Dr. Doft and had the opportunity to work with her.  The impact on my relationship with my son and our family overall is tremendous.  We are vastly calmer and happier.  I’ve referred three other families to her and they also are benefiting.  My relationship with E. is extremely loving and our trust in each other has blossomed. Last summer, he helped choose his day camp activities and participated in them fully.  He went to the dentist, something he previously refused to do and he got a full cleaning.  He even came to the pool without a fuss.   

— Mother of E

The Stories of Two Children