One of the most gob-smacking things a child ever said to me was, ‘I can’t do that, Miss. I’ve got ADHD.’ After I’d picked my jaw up from the floor and recomposed my features from inappropriate-laugh-in-your-face-ness to serious school-marm, I tutted, told him I’d never heard anything more ridiculous in my life, and sent him on his way, the proverbial flea well and truly in his ear. As he bounced back to his seat (via the long-way-round rather than the one-way-system) I wondered quite how many times he had been allowed, in his nine or ten years of life, to get away with the same protestation, because that sort of thing just doesn’t wash with me.
You see, I am used to expecting the super-human from super-human small people. I have never been satisfied with ‘I can’t do that’. I have long been of the view that, even though children carry labels that speak of limitations, even though my child bears one of these labels, the world, as my dad was fond of intoning to my disappearing teenaged back, does not owe him a living. I cannot do the learning for him. In the end, he will have to do it for himself, or forever flounder in an artificial infancy.
This is not to say that I haven’t made adjustments for the children with special needs in my classrooms over the years. Time, angled writing boards, footplates, attention, sticker charts and books, differentiated activities; all these things have been, and are, part of my armoury. I understand. I understand that the journey into learning is harder for some than for others. I sympathise. I wish it wasn’t so. If I could wish away the difficulty, if I could wave my magic wand over it and wash it away I would, in a heartbeat.
But underneath the sympathy is a steely determination. A determination to see these kids, and my own, succeed, whatever the label. Whatever the obstacle. I remember one young boy, years ago. He had problems with short term memory and dyslexia. He and I had a chat one day about it. He never asked for special treatment. I never gave him any. I just said to him that he needed to find his own way to remember things and he was just going to have to work harder at that. We shrugged our shoulders in acceptance and got on with the job. Later in the year I gave him the starring role in our class assembly (one of those teacher written plays, the sort with parts for everyone). He volunteered. I thought he would do a good job. When he left that school I was touched that he mentioned that role, that assembly, as his best moment in primary school.
We knew it was hard. But we also knew that I was cheering him on all the way.
And I took the lessons that little boy taught me with me when my own little boy was born. Breastfeed? Get on it. Sleep through the night? You betcha. Potty training? Why the heck not? And what about all the other things – communication, tantrums, getting dressed, getting undressed, riding bikes, reading, writing, figuring out those bleddy coins and how much they’re worth? What about them? They need to be learned, to be conquered too. Just because a child has Down Syndrome, or Autism, or dyslexia or dyspraxia or ADHD or any of those other things, it doesn’t give him a Get Out Of Jail Free Card. Eventually, on with Life he will have to get.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t find it hard, that he doesn’t find it hard. This doesn’t mean that we haven’t had our days of throwing ourselves to the floor and shrieking at the unfairness of it all. It is hard. It is bloody hard. But, after I have had my moments of not-quite-despair, I pick myself up, pick him up, take hold of his metaphorical hand, and on we go. For I am driven by a moral imperative. Just because something is hard does not mean that it isn’t the right thing to do.
So if you find yourself working with me, either child or adult, don’t come to me saying, ‘I can’t do that, it doesn’t work,’ or, ‘ It’s too hard’. Together we can find a way. We can take that label, ADHD, Down Syndrome, Challenging Child, Challenging School, Pushy Parent, whatever it is, and we can give it our best shot. We might not do it the conventional way. It might take a while before the results of our labours start to show, and be warned, it will require extra effort on all our parts.
For me, anything else is writing people off. Anything else is just excuses.