Watercolor cactus pattern

Sitting on a cactus

Author: A M Scott

Raising a child can be rosy but raising a child with learning difficulties can be like handling a cactus at times.

A bouquet of roses offers a soft scent and bursts of colour. The blooms gently unfold as the flowers are watered, fed and sheltered. People spot the roses and comment on their magnificent unfurling. Some long stemmed varieties have thorns, but these are obvious to all, and the handler accommodates them with deliberate tactics. Some people even name roses after themselves. Cacti and succulents are not quite the same deal. These plants start off looking nebulous and relatively unattractive. They are hardy and they are long suffering. Some varieties bloom with violently colourful flowers in time. Others have arrays of leaves that swirl and draw the eye in. Many have thorns. Some have many needles and spikes, making them impossible to handle, and certainly placing ‘he who dares’ at risk for a bleed. Unlike roses, the cacti are life long and the reward they offer is rich. In their leaves and sap there is often healing power and sustenance for others.

Perhaps you have been given a cactus to raise. The thing with a cactus is that you don’t have to sit on it! You don’t need to add more challenges to your journey like anger, blame shifting, squabbling and disgruntlement. When parents bring their anger, their wounds, their disappointment and their pain to bear on the people who are choosing to support them, they are sitting on a cactus. Their pain and troubles will persist because they don’t allow anyone close enough to nurture this cactus with them. They land up alone on this journey.

Given the high prevalence of ‘parent burnout’ when a child with learning difficulties is involved, parents need reliable partners to raise their child. They need special needs teachers to deliver the best practice available. They need human beings who care and genuinely commit to the well being of their child. These professionals are positioned and ready – they are the people at our school.

Teachers and therapists who dedicate their lives to supporting children with learning difficulties seem to bear much of the brunt from parents who are troubled and worried about their child. At times, this ‘bash about’ is well understood and the teacher can carry the emotion with the parents for a while. However, ongoing misplaced wrath hurled their way is enough to chase them away from the remedial school classroom, to withdraw their offer and carry out their profession differently, working from home or in a mainstream school. They can’t be blamed for retreating; the abuse can be that severe. The irony is that these professionals chose the harder education route and put themselves up for the challenge. They studied further. They sought work in a narrow job field. They take on more load and responsibility than their mainstream colleagues. Their work is weighty with accountability but they know what they are doing – they see the team’s goals and they are determined to do their best to enhance these. Such teachers are hard for parents to find actually; they are rare.

Parents need to nurture their relationship with the professionals who choose to do this work by deliberately and actively building trust and opening up transparent, honest and direct relationships with their child’s team members. The teachers and therapists have committed to this relationship by electing to teach at this school in the first place. It is for parents to grab the opportunity and take the unique flavour offered – the discipline, the patience, the care, the correction, the kindness, the praise, the guidance, the skill, the humour, the hope, the belief and the curriculum or therapy delivery.

On retiring as Headmaster of Eton College, UK, Tony Little (2015) wrote a book in which he poses questions that he wishes parents would ask themselves before considering his school.

  • Do I believe my child is almost perfect?
  • Do I like rules and regulations until my child breaks them?
  • Am I happy gossiping about the school to anyone who will listen, but reluctant to talk to the head?
  • Do I go in at the deep end when someone criticises my child?

As Little explains, if the answer to any of the above is ‘yes’, he would rather you sought another school for your child. His questions continue:

  • Am I prepared to work with the school and pull my weight?
  • Can I strike a balance between being a velcro parent and a ghost?
  • Can I support my child and support the school through difficult times?
  • Can I suppress my frustrated ambitions and let my child be herself?
  • Will I deflect rumour and find out the facts from the school?

By contrast if the answer to any of these is ‘yes’, Little would welcome you with open arms.

I add a couple more questions for parents at Bellavista School:

  • Will I share all that I know about my child and allow the school to do the same?
  • Can I accept that the person working with my child is a human being, and just like myself, has difficult days managing my child?
  • Can I commit myself to believing in the full potential of my child, to finding my child and to celebrating the child I find?

Ask yourself if you are sitting on a cactus or if you could join Little’s school. If it’s the latter, you have access to a wealth of heart and experience at this one, and it’s there for you to take, you don’t need Eton!

Scroll to Top