Stars and Rainbows

(From the archives of my own personal FB page, a story from when I was an early therapist. I would do some things differently now, but I still appreciated the story.)


I have a kid who I see every week at the same time. He’s usually working on the same in-class spelling worksheet, and with new spelling words each week. I don’t assign the worksheet, but I sit with him and help with handwriting learning.

In his class, if he finishes both assigned worksheets in the assigned amount of time, they get a star on their paper (from the teacher — not from me). This child is desperately motivated by this. He wants to get a star so badly (despite it not really inferring any benefits other than that).

But also…they’re supposed to write the spelling words with crayons or colored pencils. And the only thing he wants more than a star, is to write each letter in each word in a different color to make it a rainbow. This process involves choosing each subsequent color with extreme care and thoughtfulness, and takes one hundred gazillion years and all of the patience I possess.

Anyway, two weeks before the end of the school year, for the first time, he managed to finish the worksheets in time. AND write the words in rainbows. He’s very excited about his star. And I admire his commitment to the ✨aesthetic ✨ that’s even stronger than his desire for the externally-imposed motivator. 😉


When I originally posted this, some people asked me what I would do differently if I was treating the same child now. The main answer is that I have steered away from doing “push-in therapy” in classrooms where I feel that the classroom is not doing developmentally appropriate work, and is therefore ongoingly making the child feel worse about themself and I’m helping reinforce it.

I’m all for “push-in” therapy in theory — I understand wanting to keep the child in the least restrictive environment and not pull them out more than necessary. I also don’t have any kids on my caseload who it feels appropriate for. I pull kids to my therapy room, and we learn through play, not through me sitting there reinforcing age-inappropriate worksheets.

This story took place in May. It was a weekly activity for them. My buddy tried to write spelling words once a week through the entirety of September, October, November, December, January, February, March, and April and never succeeded in “earning” a star from his teacher despite how desperately he wanted to please her and how he was not being disobedient or unfocused or anything at all. He just literally couldn’t write fast enough for the amount of time they had available.

That’s 8 months, about 4 times a month, of feeling like he failed to do “good enough” to earn the external reward.

I am in awe of his ability to keep his passion in his heart to earn the INTERNAL reward (i.e. — to write the letters in rainbow colors and to do a good job!)

I also couldn’t, in good conscience, reinforce this as a therapist today. I wouldn’t push in to his classroom and do this worksheet with him. I would take him out to work with me and we would do something different.


At the end of the year, I made him a paper star that I colored rainbow. I gave it to him and told him I was proud of him for how hard he worked every week, whether he finished the paper or not.