We all hope our children will do well in school and in life; that they will pass the necessary milestones on time, master the required skills for their age groups, and form strong and supportive social connections. We hope they will be attentive and obedient in class, and energetic and well-loved in the playground. This is our general image of a healthy, well-adjusted child who will grow up to become a successful adult.
But what happens when our children don’t exactly fit this image?
We first encounter this anxiety as soon as we receive positive results on a pregnancy test, and we experience it over and over, with increasing intensity, at every doctor’s visit and ultrasound scan; when waiting for the pediatrician to pronounce our newborn’s Apgar score; at every Tipat Chalav visit, and at every parent-teacher meeting. Is our child gaining enough weight? Is he meeting his developmental milestones? Is she performing the tasks expected of a child her age? Does he have enough friends? When we see a wrinkled brow or a slight frown on the faces of one of these professionals, our stomachs might clench in fear. What now?
Doctors, nurses and educators may suggest methods and solutions for dealing with any delays or problems that arise. The kupot cholim offer various subsidized therapies, depending on the nature of the issue. However, there are some problems that seem so vague and non-specific that these professionals might shrug their shoulders and chalk it up to a child’s individual temperament, claiming that that’s not something anyone can change.
Nurit Zucker and Tirza Ben Yaacov of the Givolim Institute would beg to differ.
Givolim is a therapeutic and educational center based around a method called NDFA (Neuro-Developmental & Functional Approach). Developed by psychologist Rami Katz, NDFA is a groundbreaking approach to addressing a wide variety of difficulties, from motor issues to speech development to ADD to social adaptation. Many of their clients have been able to cut back or eliminate the use of medication such as Ritalin or sleeping pills as a result of their work. The method centers around two principles: infant development, and balance and regulation of the 15 sensory systems in the body. Through very precise physical exercises, NDFA therapists are able to counter and correct any irregularities that took place during a child’s early development, and retrain the brain and the nervous system to balance and regulate the senses.
“Where is one’s temperament born?” asks Nurit. “We might easily label a child as naturally jittery, attention-seeking, forgetful or a daydreamer. But our temperament doesn’t come out of nowhere. It develops in response to the stimuli in our environment—starting in the womb, with our sensory experiences as a fetus, and moving forward with the connection to our parents and our experiences of the world. Our senses have a central part in our perception of the world and in shaping our temperament.”
Nurit first encountered NDFA through her work at a preschool. She asked her mother, Tirza, to help her find out where to learn NDFA therapy as a profession, and they discovered Rami Katz, who invited Nurit to participate in a training course. Undaunted by the fact that her oldest son had his brit milah the day the course began, Nurit simply brought her newborn along with her to begin her studies. Her mother Tirza tagged along as caretaker for the baby, but Rami invited Tirza to participate while the baby slept, and so mother and daughter trained together.
Up until that point, Tirza had been working as a music and rhythmic teacher for preschools: “I worked with a bunch of different preschools, especially on Chanukah and end-of-year parties with my accordion, and the kids who had trouble functioning during the parties were always my favorites,” says Tirza. “I was always most drawn to them.” Born in Kibbutz Yavne, Tirza and her husband became religious when their eldest sons—twin boys—were two and a half. They went on to have four more children; Nurit is their fourth child. They lived in Mesuot Yitzchak for many years, and then, 25 years ago, moved to Efrat.
When Nurit and Tirza graduated Rami Katz’s program, they began seeing clients in their home in Efrat, with Tirza gradually transitioning from her work with the preschools to full time at their home clinic. That clinic developed into the Givolim Institute, which currently includes a therapy room, an office, and three classrooms for Gan Givolim, a private preschool run according to the principles of NDFA.
According to the Neuro-Developmental & Functional Approach, the milestones that may seem rather arbitrary to us reflect a neurological process of proper development that can affect all areas of functioning. Nurit explains, for example, that a baby’s process of learning to roll front to back and back to front in both directions is critical for building and maintaining symmetry in the neurological networks within the brain. A baby who rolls in both directions is more likely to crawl well, with synchronized movements on either side, further contributing to neurological symmetry. This symmetry and synchronicity, Nurit explains, makes our brains into a sort of tight sieve that doesn’t lose information. Holes in the sieve resulting from asymmetry or irregularity can cause the child to experience difficulty with recall.
One example of a sensory system that affects a child’s development is the vestibular system. This is the system that helps us detect where we are in space—our orientation relative to the ground, general motion, and sense of balance. Many of us have experienced the effects of a disruption in our senses related to the vestibular system when we get motion sickness; motion sickness results from the conflict between the signals from the vestibular system, which is telling our bodies that we are in motion, and our visual system, which perceives that we are sitting still in a car or boat.
“The vestibular system is a huge center of information located behind the brain stem on both sides, and its central location controls five main areas of human functioning,” explains Nurit. “Sleep and wakefulness, for example, and our sense of hunger. We check the functioning of the vestibular apparatus by having the patient roll forward and side to side and spin in place, since when we move, the vestibular system moves. We might be able to treat a baby who has trouble sleeping or who eats but doesn’t seem satisfied by assigning exercises that help create balance in this system. Another example would be a child who always speaks too loudly—that’s hyper-arousal, also connected to the vestibular system. Activities connected to eye movement, like reading and writing, are also connected to this system. Reading requires a very precise and synchronized linear movement of the eyes, and when this is out of balance, children struggle to read.”
Another sensory system with a lot of influence is the tactile system, which involves the perception of light touch and personal space. Nurit explains that this system is connected to fetal development, since our first experiences with gentle touch take place in the womb, and our ability to connect intimately with others evolves from this primal relationship. Nurit says that many of her clients’ parents mention that they have been in couple’s therapy for a long time; a lack of balance in this system is often passed from parent to child, since it revolves around a child’s sense of connection to its mother. In this way, by working with the body, Nurit and Tirza are able to address emotional and psychological issues as well as physical ones.
“Our bodies are like trees, where the roots are our senses, and the fruit are our symptoms,” Nurit explains. “Very often, if we address the problem at the root, the fruit resolve themselves."
In general, parents who bring their children sometimes discover that they, themselves, have imbalances, and Nurit and Tirza are happy to assign them exercises and assist them.
While all this may sound like magic, it’s important to Nurit and Tirza to emphasize that the method involves work and requires commitment.
The Institute provides evaluations and packages of 16 50-minute treatments. Though NFDA therapists have been working within the education system for a while now, the method is relatively new and has not yet been recognized as effective by kupot cholim or insurance companies, so treatments must be privately funded. Givolim offers special discounts for families who struggle to pay the full price.
“We strive to provide parents with the skills and knowledge to work with the child themselves,” Nurit says. “Parents who come with one child may discover that their other children struggle with similar issues, and we hope that the tools we provide for the one child will be helpful with the others as well.”
“Our ultimate goal is to channel light into homes that struggle with various challenges,” says Nurit. “For every mother to know how to be a ‘lighthouse’ for her home.”
Tirza adds, “We want every family to have access to this light, and for it to penetrate into all educational institutions, so every teacher will know how to assess and respond to challenges with her students so they can approach their studies and their lives with joy.”
For more information contact Machon Givolim at 054-671-3010 or through their website givolim.com