Cerebral palsy is a common type of disability, but one that causes a unique and diverse variety of abilities and limitations. Each child with this neurological condition is truly unique, with his or her own set of physical, cognitive, and behavioral needs based on the symptoms, complications, and severity of the disability. For teachers this presents a special challenge: how to teach children with a disability that is so varied.
What is Cerebral Palsy?
Cerebral palsy is the most common childhood disability, and it is caused by brain malformation or damage. This most often occurs in the womb or during labor and delivery and results in disabilities most often related to muscles. Cerebral palsy may cause symptoms such as tight joints, limited movement, inability to control muscles, muscle spasms, overly toned muscles, under-toned muscles, and difficulty walking or an inability to walk.
Other possible symptoms or complications of cerebral palsy include vision and hearing loss, poor posture or balance, difficulty speaking or swallowing, difficulty with gross or fine motor skills, and cognitive, learning, or behavioral challenge. There are also many possible associated disorders: anxiety, gastrointestinal reflux disease, incontinence, epilepsy, and others.
How Cerebral Palsy Impacts Education
For many children with cerebral palsy, the limitations imposed by the condition are minor and do not greatly impact academics. On the other hand, there are also those individuals with CP who need specific accommodations. For instance, a child with cerebral palsy may need devices for mobility, like a walker or a wheelchair, which can make getting around a school more challenging. Others may have trouble hearing while still others are cognitively impaired or struggle with learning disabilities or behavioral conditions that make learning in a traditional setting more challenging.
Teaching Strategies for Working with Students with Cerebral Palsy
Of course, all teachers know that every student is unique and the best teachers take into account each child’s abilities and limitations when instructing. However, with children with cerebral palsy, there are some greater challenges that need to be faced in order to give them the best possible opportunities to learn, grow, and develop.
One of the first and most important steps in ensuring a child with CP gets the best education possible is to work with the special education department, parents, and teachers to develop an individualized education plan. This IEP considers a child’s unique needs and outlines any accommodations that all teachers need to provide. It should be updated regularly as a child grows and should be followed by all teachers. In addition to the IEP, there are many unique ways that teachers can work successfully with their cerebral palsy students:
- Get to know a child with CP. This may go without saying for most teachers, but never assume that a child with cerebral palsy fits a certain mold. These children are individuals, like all others, and to provide them with the best education, teachers need to get to know their abilities and their limitations. This comes from talking to the child directly, but also from talking to the parents and any professionals working with the child, such as a speech and language therapist or a physical therapist.
- Be patient and provide more time. For many children with cerebral palsy, there are no intellectual limitations. They are just as academically capable as any other student. The main difficulty that most of these children face is mobility. Getting around is not as easy for them as for other students. Teachers need to be patient with these students and to allow them more time to get to different rooms, to move around in the classroom, and to perform any activities that require mobility.
- Look out for obstacles. With mobility being a major challenge for students with CP, a simple way teachers can help is to remove obstacles. While another student can quickly jog around that extra desk, it may provide a big roadblock for a student with cerebral palsy. Teachers need to be aware of these obstacles they may not have considered before and make their classrooms more mobility-friendly.
- Be aware of how other students react. A child with a disability like cerebral palsy is at a greater risk for bullying. It is essential that teachers watch out for how other students treat them and stop any signs of bullying in their tracks. Awareness and education about cerebral palsy and inclusion for all students are strategies that go a long way to creating sensitivity and empathy among students and to preventing bullying.
- Make inclusion a priority. Students with any type of disability are more likely to be excluded, from participation in academics, from extracurricular activities, from making friends, and from recess activities. Teachers must make inclusion a priority and show students that everyone deserves to be active and to participate. Some days this may be as simple as calling on a child with cerebral palsy to participate in a class discussion or to answer a question.
Education needs to be accessible for all students, including those with limitations and disabilities. While there are laws in place to ensure these students get the accommodations they need, the actions or inactions of a teacher can make all the difference for a child with cerebral palsy. Teachers must be aware of each student’s needs and limitations and be prepared to provide the right learning environment for every student.
Alex Diaz-Granados is an editor at Cerebral Palsy Guidance. His life with cerebral palsy began when he was born premature in early March of 1963, eight weeks before his due date. He has overcome many physical and emotional obstacles and is now a freelance writer. He’s also the author of Save Me the Aisle Seat:The Good, the Bad and the Really Bad Movies: Selected Reviews by an Online Film Reviewer, as well as the co-writer of an unproduced screenplay with actor- director Juan Carlos Hernandez.