Today, Jamal earned his ninth star.  He’s a troubled third-grader in the general education system, who I’ve been working with under the table, as it were, for two years.  Initially, I did behavior consult with his second grade teacher, then worked with Jamal directly to help him identify behaviors which weren’t helping him and his classmates learn, and to develop positive, appropriate replacements for those challenging behaviors. I put him on an incentive system which allowed him to earn a trip to my prize box whenever he filled his star chart, and I and his teacher gave him stars when we saw him engaging in replacement behaviors.

Over time, Jamal and I changed his system.  25 stars, he decided, was too many.  And slowly, we both realized that he didn’t really care about prizes: like so many of our most difficult kids, what Jamal really wanted was to spend time with an adult who wasn’t yelling at him or making him do things he wasn’t sure he could do.  The system right now: 9 stars, exactly nine stars, and he gets me for 20 minutes, to play games and hang out.

I think of it as my semi-weekly therapy session, for which I am more or less game but woefully underprepared.  I follow his lead in conversation, not pushing or scolding, but trying, gently, when I can, to offer other perspectives.  He tells me about violent video games and staying up too late: he tells me his brother says there’s a crazy man with a knife who lives at the park.  He tells me he’s stupid.  He says he has no friends.  He is genuinely concerned that the school will blow up.

I listen.  I help him examine his thoughts.  Gently remind him of the kid who waved at him as he walked with me down the hallway, question whether or not his brother always tells the absolute truth.  Assure him, when he says he’s afraid that someone will throw a rock through the glass window of my office, that that doesn’t seem likely.  Give him more popcorn.  Politely refuse when he asks for candy also.

Today, the first day after break, I ask him how his week was.  He doesn’t want to talk about it: I have to let that slide.  I deliberately lose at Kerplunk because I want him to feel successful.  He wants to use the computer: it’s his time, so I let him.  He decides to check his email.

And I swear to you, that although I think I have always been on some level aware of the enormity of his needs and the impossibility of meeting them, it doesn’t really hit home until he tries to log on.  Until the moment, 16 minutes into a 20 minute session that I’m not even supposed to do with this troubled, troubling general ed child, 10-year-old Jamal asks me to help him spell his own middle name.

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