My husband is way more active than me. Without him I would have thought the idea of packing a hiking tent, sundry other camping items and enough clothes for a couple of weeks on the back of a bike, getting on a train to Inverness and cycling from one side of Scotland to the other and back again was bonkers. Without him I would never have set foot in a sailing dinghy and neither would I have thought that walking to the top of Mount Snowdon when there is a perfectly good railway was even remotely a good idea. I lay the blame entirely at the foot of the Duke of Edinburgh. Without the Duke, I may well have continued to believe that I wasn’t capable of such physical feats. He hasn’t allowed my physical limitations to set the limit.
This attitude has rather permeated our approach to our children too. We, I fully admit, are infected with Big Dreams. One of them is walking up mountains. Our first attempt was actually my attempt; I took them for a walk, from the bottom car park, no less, to the top of Haytor. Now, you wouldn’t think that this was a particularly big challenge, it being only a very, very small mountain, but it was an eye opener. It was the first time that Sam declared, loud and clear, with great vigour and passion, that he couldn’t do it. The other two ran up like a couple of gazelles, but Sam took one look at the hill in front of him, decided it was too steep and prepared for rebellion. He, like many children with SEN, decided that the challenge set before him was too big. It was too exhausting, too unknown; the rewards too uncertain for him to set his mind, and his body, to the task.
We made it to the top, but not without a large amount of cajoling, encouraging and bribing on my part. Whereas previously I would have responded by tucking him under my arm and simply depositing him where I wanted him to be, our mini-mountain top excursion made it impossible for me to resort to this tried and tested method. Thanks to my own health issues, carrying a large-ish child up a steep hill just ain’t going to happen. It’s a bit like the attitude he developed towards reading. Sadly, it is not possible for me to open up his head and spoon in the relevant information. The task required sneakiness of the highest order.
It took me a little while to persuade his reception teacher to get him started with a reading book. Like all teacher-parents, I bounced up to the reading journey with great enthusiasm, keen to transmit one of my greatest pleasures to my progeny. When he was a baby I bought a plethora of board books, fabric books (good for waving about), books that went in the bath, you know the sort of thing. I enrolled him in the library when he was still in the sling. As he grew older we went on weekly trips to a speech therapy group in Bristol, where we learned the actions and sounds that went along with Jolly Phonics. The symbols, allied with an action and a picture helped him to control the sounds that came out of his mouth. I was excited to see how learning to read first words, and then sentences would support his speech. By the time he went to school he was, I innocently thought, pretty much reading ready. Well, he knew how a book worked, anyway.
Only, it seems, we weren’t. Sam’s brain just didn’t process information fast enough to decipher the letters and then put them together to make words, let alone turn them into something that contained meaning. Whole words, yes. Phonics, not yet. It still breaks my heart that Sam and I fell into that awful trap of conflict over reading. There was a point, probably when he was asked to differentiate between fox and box that he decided that reading wasn’t worth the effort.
Now I like the big picture. I have been known to throw a strop myself when cycling up a mountainside, declaring, despite lack of phone signal, ‘Right! That’s it! I’m calling a taxi!’ because I had no idea how long the road was going to continue to go up and up and up and up and up with no sight of the summit. Sam reminds me, though, that for some children, the big picture is too big. When everything you’ve ever done required monumental effort, being at the foot of a mountain feels like, well, being at the foot of a mountain. If I want to get Sam to the summit I need to use my imagination to make the stages a bit smaller. That big rock over there looks a good place to stand on; that may as well be base camp. And before you know it, you are at the top, enjoying the view.
As an adult, I generally respond well to challenge. I have succeeded enough to know what it feels like. I know that if I persist, and practice then rewards do indeed come my way. I have experienced the satisfaction of a driving licence, a distinction at a piano exam, the grades I needed at A Level to get into a great university. But my boy hasn’t. His life is dominated by limited success. Everything he has achieved has come at the end of a long, slow process, and with considerable support. If he is to develop the resilience that we all need in order to not only become successful ‘learners’ (oh, how I hate that term) but also adults who can weather the storms of life, then we need to be able to draw on the knowledge of past successes.
I think for Sam, and for children like him, you know, the ones who have learning difficulties, or who have special needs that means that trying new things feels like one challenge too far, if we want them to be resilient, to have that ‘can do’ attitude, then they need to experience that success. Failure is a good thing – but for some children, when you are faced with constant failure, when you are always getting it not quite right and you know it, it needs to be minimised. More than that, he needs those successes to be genuine ones. He is perfectly capable of knowing that he couldn’t write without someone sitting next to him and holding his hand, or read without someone prompting every word. For him, he needs to experience success in a way that we, those of us without learning difficulties, would see as effortless.