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Education Techniques to Help Children with Cerebral Palsy in the Classroom

written by: Dr. Anne Zachry • edited by: Elizabeth Wistrom • updated: 1/5/2012

Cerebral palsy is a condition that can result in various physical challenges. Teachers who have students in their classrooms with CP should read information on this disorder when considering educational accommodations. Read on for information on teaching strategies for students with cerebral palsy.

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    Cerebral Palsy and Physical Challenges

    Cerebral palsy is a non-progressive neurological disorder that begins in utero, in infancy, or during the child’s formative developmental period, which is within the first three years of life. Cerebral Palsy (CP) permanently impacts body movement and muscle coordination. This disorder is caused by damage to areas of the brain that control movement.

    A common type of CP is ataxia, which is a lack of muscle coordination that occurs when an individual attempts to perform voluntary movements. Spasticity is caused by stiff or tight musculature and exaggerated reflexes. Individuals with this type of CP often walk with one foot or leg dragging the ground, walk on both toes, or walk with a cross-legged gait, while some are non-ambulatory. Another type of CP is caused by low muscle tone. Some common causes of cerebral palsy are limited oxygen to the brain during the birthing process, brain infections that occur early in life, head injuries such as falls, or shaken baby syndrome.

    Cerebral palsy is associated with symptoms that include speech difficulties, inability to dress or eat independently, and difficulties with walking and bodily movement. A number of children who have CP do not experience mental challenges, and some of these children are highly intelligent. In many cases, placement in the general classroom during the school years is appropriate. When this occurs, it is important to be aware of effective teaching strategies for students with cerebral palsy.

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    Recommended Teaching Methods for Students With CP

    When deciding that a student with CP would have their interests best served in a mainstream classroom environment, teachers, parents, and therapists should develop an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP). The IEP should detail information on the child's diagnosis and the degree to which the child is affected by the condition. This includes listing the child's present level of performance in the various subject areas. These performance levels should describe in detail what the child is able to accomplish and what their current skill levels are. In any of the areas in which the child is functioning below age level, goals and objectives should be written to address the areas of weakness.

    The IEP should also include a list of services and accommodations that the school district will provide. Teaching children with cerebral palsy is often an unfamiliar circumstance for a regular education instructor, but with assistance from therapeutic programs and access to modifications in the classroom, students with CP can thrive in a general setting alongside their non-disabled peers.

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    It is important for children with CP to have an educational program that is conducive for learning. When setting up a learning program, teachers should consider the child’s capabilities as well as limitations, and keep in mind that unrealistic expectations can be frustrating for the child as well as the parents. Patience is a key factor when working with children with CP, as studies have shown that these students take longer to respond than their neurotypical peers.

    It is important for students with CP to assume a variety of positions throughout the school day in order to prevent tightening of muscles. Equipment needs are extremely important, as proper positioning can facilitate eye-hand coordination and improved motor control. Most importantly, teachers should maintain open communication with the child’s family in order to encourage carry-over regarding home programs and recommendations.

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    Therapy Services for Students With CP

    A large number of students with CP receive services through the school system such as physical, occupational, and speech therapy. These professionals can be valuable resources to teachers when it comes to learning strategies for working with students diagnosed with CP. The physical therapist is knowledgable about gross motor skills as well as endurance and mobility, while the occupational therapist can provide information about fine motor, organizational, perceptual, and self-help skills. The speech language therapist can assist with the student's ability to communicate functionally in the school setting.

    With support and suggestions from the related service providers, regular education teachers can ensure that the classroom is organized in a manner that does not create any significant physical obstacles for the child. Because some children with CP either use a wheelchair or require walking devices, teachers should set up the classroom so that plenty of space is available for the student to move around the room and to sit comfortably at a desk. Items that may interfere with the safety of a CP child should be placed out of reach.

    Students who struggle with communication should have the option of using assistive technological equipment in the classroom. Teachers can also modify assignments that require a good deal of writing or request the assistance of an aide or student mentor. The school therapists can be valuable resources for information related to assistive technology as well as accommodations.

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    Inspire Your CP Students

    Perhaps most importantly, educators should demonstrate a great deal of emotional support and patience and utilize effective teaching strategies for students with cerebral palsy. Providing positive academic feedback, assisting students in developing friendships with general education peers, and communicating frequently with parents and therapists are all ways that teachers can inspire confidence and success in students with cerebral palsy.