Aaron is new on my caseload this year.
He’s a bright-eyed second grader who is in almost constant motion, bouncing and wiggling and re-tying his shoes. Frustration tolerance has always been a challenge for Aaron, but last year, his issues exacerbated to multiple instances of property damage a week. His teacher would ask him to do something he didn’t want to do, or he’d make a mistake on something he was doing, and he’d begin systematically pushing the desks around him against each other, and then begin knocking things from the desks to the ground. He’d neatly upend the chairs, or turn a table over so that the legs pointed skyward like a splayed-out butchered animal. At home, these tantrums often resulted in changes and bribes, because his family would do anything to get them to stop. At school, it was often desperately difficult to keep these instances from leading to positive consequences–the reality was that, well, when you knocked over all the desks with the worksheet you didn’t like on top of them, it did become less likely that you’d have to do the worksheet.
Back before he was on my caseload officially, I got involved anyway because it was simply not possible for his teacher to address his needs while also protecting the kids in her class. I carried my phone with me everywhere, and when she noticed an issue developing, she’d simply text me one letter from the alphabet to alert me to the need to hurry by when I could. If need be, she’d then take the class out of the room while I stayed behind with Aaron.
It was always a little chilling, to watch these explosions. Whenever things went a different way than what he’d been expectingAaron worked silently, brow furrowed, to play out in the world around him the amount of chaos and threat that registered within him, unattached to words that would help him express things verbally. It took us three months to get beyond “I don’t know” and “nothing”, towards “mad” “confused” and “frustrated” as feelings that might be beneath the behavior. It took several instances of utterly wrecking the environment around him while adults looked on, impassively, for him to realize that this behavior was no longer effective in getting him what he wanted.
Over the summer, Aaron’s family secured effective individual play therapy for Aaron, and therapy and guidance for the family unit. He also began taking medication to help him with impulse control and anxiety. Aaron also grew and matured over the time that it took to complete the process leading to his placement on my caseload. Ironically, now that he gets my services, he seems much less likely than he used to, to need them.
And yet, our time together is far from wasted. Aaron continues to have difficulty paying sustained attention to things that do not interest him; his conceptual understanding of math is impressive but his careless mistakes and impulsive responses make his computational accuracy low. He is now less likely to throw tables, but the things that used to upset him continue to upset him, and his efforts to control and organize his world are not always sufficient to keep his anxiety at bay. My sessions with him are typically divided between quick academic remediation, social skills building, and if-then contingencies (first work, then play), to increase his general compliance with adult-delivered demands. Lately, I’ve been purposefully sneaking small frustrations into his time with me–activity he enjoys that challenge his fine motor skills, strategy games that I play at my actual capacity instead of letting him win, a timer that goes off before he’s done with his drawing, deliberate small imperfections in the things he gets from me.
Last week, as he worked on a detailed drawing with markers that were just a little bit dried-out, he asked me a question that made me set the timer for two extra break minutes to buy myself some time. “My friend asked me, ‘Why do you work with Teacher Beth?’, and I want to know what I should tell him.”
My first impulse was to put the question back on him, to hear his own thoughts about the question. “Well, I have a few ideas for an answer, but I think the most important thing is, ‘what would you like to tell him?'” Aaron answered quickly. “Well, I already did tell him. I told him I used to get really really angry, and that’s why.”
I nodded, and responded, “well, I think that is part of it. I want to think a little more about other things you can say. Because there are so many different reasons kids work with me, and kids don’t have to say anything they don’t want to say about that.” While Aaron enjoyed his additional two minutes, I started drafting a list of “26 reasons”, explaining, “Not all of these reasons are true for every kid. Some of them might be true for you, or you might think of other reasons that make more sense. Either way, it’s good for you to know that I work with lots of kids, I am glad we work together, and we can do some really good, important stuff together.”
I ran out of ideas at 16. But I hope I created enough of a menu to give Aaron the message of, ‘there are lots of things I could tell my friend, and I don’t have to tell him anything, if I don’t want to’.
It also seemed important to highlight reasons that students would associate with being ‘more than’, rather than ‘less than’, the expectations around them. While I often joke with grown-ups about the sad reality that nobody transfers into my program because they are simply too sweet, adorable, intelligent, and compliant, I want my students to recognize that they have gifts that need nurturing as well as ‘deficits’ to address. The reason for ‘need challenge math’ may very well be ‘because child is unwilling to behave appropriately while the rest of the class does the regular math that is perceived as utterly too boring to sit down and let happen’, but I wanted to put the best spin on it, here.
I was uncertain, at first, about surfacing all of this. Over the years, I’ve grappled heavily with the question of, ‘how much should we tell young kids about the services they need?’ What helped me make the list in that moment was Aaron’s own suggested contributions to it. One initial idea he put forth was, ‘because they’re addicted to being with their friends.’ This was his interpretation of a struggle I had helped him with the previous day; in the absence of a clear targeted lesson objective in class, he had repeatedly chosen to sit at his friend’s desk and draw rude cartoons, and he had not picked up on the cues that his friend actually did feel a little bit of guilt about Not Following Directions. We turned that into Reason #8- Might need help with good choices. Each time, Aaron’s idea for why a child might work with me was framed much more negatively than I would choose to frame it, so it felt essential for him to hear me say that yes, there are reasons, but no, they aren’t quite the reasons you think they might be.
After we drafted our list together, I took Aaron to visit another member of my cadre–Peter, now a third grader whose athleticism and natural leadership ability instill great admiration in younger peers. He and Aaron know each other from other school activities and have hung out before, without me facilitating; with both boys’ permission, I had them take a look at the list together. Last year Peter dealt with students asking him questions about why he went to the office after lunch every day–the honest answer was that he took medication to control his ADHD, but we were clear with Peter that he was under no obligation to say that. I invited Aaron to ask Peter the question, “what do you say to other kids about working with Teacher Beth?”, and Peter heartily endorsed the ‘not your business’ option. As we made a copy of the list for both boys, Peter admired Aaron’s drawing, so of course, we copied that too.
Often, I wish that my students didn’t need me. At other times, though, I’m grateful that I can be there, and I am glad when there are opportunities to connect my students with one another for mutual support. Peter and Aaron will, I believe, need to incorporate within their own strong identities the ongoing reality that they benefit from adult assistance to make progress on things that come more easily to others, even as they are both academically gifted kids. It’s not the narrative that school kids are used to, but over time, I hope, we are changing the narrative.