What a sight we must have been, two middle-aged English ladies in their pyjamas hopping up and down in anger...

22nd April 2005 at 01:00
What a sight we must have been, two middle-aged English ladies in their pyjamas hopping up and down in anger. How else could we let our feelings be known?

I spent Easter in Italy, and though I'd tried to learn some of the language, I wasn't exactly fluent and had difficulty making myself understood. It helped me to imagine the frustration felt by the children with severe learning difficulties at my special school, and gave me an insight into the causes of their "challenging" behaviour, reinforcing my belief that most of it has its roots in communication problems.

First of all, the words I taught myself were just the basics: please, thank you, toilet and hello. Exactly the ones we teach our children, either by sign or speech. They helped me, but were limiting; I couldn't comment, explain or describe anything, but at least I was able to get what I needed.

Or so I thought.

Sleep, of course, is a basic human requirement, but after two nights at a hotel where dozens of 17-year-old Italians were on their holidays, I just wasn't getting any. They were up all night. They called to each other, phoned each other and chatted, laughed, smoked, drank and shouted. On the third night, I put up with it until midnight; then my companion and I decided we must do something. This was when I felt as helpless as the children at my school when they are trying to tell us they have a stone in their shoe or a headache and can't get through.

The night staff at the hotel spoke only Italian. We spoke English, but had a little French and Spanish between us, so what should we do? My first thought was to tackle the youngsters directly. We spoke to them, mostly in English, but using the little Italian we knew, asking them please to be quiet. No response. Except a few giggles. What a sight we must have been, two middle-aged English ladies in their pyjamas hopping up and down in anger. How else could we let our feelings be known? I went down to reception and tried to sign, gesture and use what language I could to let the staff know that we weren't able to sleep. No response.

I went back to the room and discussed further tactics with my companion. As happens with the children I teach, we considered more extreme behaviour in order to get attention and to get what we wanted. Should we scream and shout? Should we go down to the lobby in our pyjamas, dragging our blankets, and curl up on one of the nice settees? What about self injury? What if they saw us bleary-eyed next morning and we were run over by a Vespa because we were too tired to notice it?Surely then they would realise that we needed sleep. As the noise continued and the feeling of powerlessness grew, I felt more and more frustrated. If I'd had missiles I would have thrown them at the youngsters, and the hotel staff. As it was, I felt like wrecking the room, jumping out of the window or running around the hotel shrieking just to relieve the frustration and to get noticed.

Luckily, the youngsters moved on and we got some sleep. The following week I was home, talking English again to people who understood me - and signing up for Italian at night school. The children I teach are not so lucky. Many of them remain trapped, with that deep feeling of frustration and anger caused by their not getting attention when they want it, not always having their needs met and not being understood. So now whenever I have to take a deep breath and listen again to Sarah trying to tell me what happened on EastEnders last night, or deal with the aftermath of a child who has lost it and wrecked the classroom, I will try to remember my Roman holiday and be a little more patient. That's paziente.

Maria Corby is deputy head of a special school for pupils with severe and multiple learning difficulties. She writes under a pseudonym

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