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What Is Hydrocephalus? Answering Teachers' Concerns

written by: Anne Vize • edited by: Elizabeth Wistrom • updated: 8/2/2012

What exactly is hydrocephalus, and what do you need to know about it in your work as a special education or mainstream classroom teacher? Are there any special considerations you need to make? This article will begin to answer some of your questions.

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    Hydrocephalus Basics

    Hydrocephalus is a condition where there is too much fluid (called cerebrospinal fluid) that builds up in the ventricles of the brain. Since the brain is a relatively soft organ, the increased pressure causes the ventricles to enlarge, and damage is caused to the brain itself. In small infants, hydrocephalus forces the plates in the skull to shift and move apart to allow for the fluid, which causes the head itself to become larger.

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    Causes of Hydrocephalus

    There are a number of conditions that can cause hydrocephalus. These include:

    • Spina bifida
    • Head injuries and head trauma
    • Tumors
    • Meningitis

    Depending on the underlying cause of the hydrocephalus, the problem may be associated with either an increase in the production of cerebrospinla fluid or an alteration to how the fluid is processed and moved away from the ventricles within the brain. Without treatment, hydrocephalus can cause damage to the brain. This will be reflected in:

    • Impaired cognitive functioning
    • Impaired vision
    • Changes in balance
    • Altered conscious state
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    Signs of Hydrocephalus

    Signs that relate to hydrocephalus vary according to the age of the person. They could include:

    • Problems with feeding (in infants)
    • Head growth rate that is not in line with normal growth charts and the rate of growth of the rest of the body
    • Drowsiness
    • A soft spot in the skull
    • Changes to vision
    • Headaches
    • Vomiting
    • Poor muscle coordination
    • Seizures or fits
    • Changes to eye alignment (such as eyes pointing downward or inward)
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    A Teacher's Perspective

    From a teaching point of view, your approach to teaching a child with hydrocephalus needs to be quite individual. You will need to consult with the family or caregivers and obtain good information from them or their doctor about appropriate and inappropriate activities. You should also find out about any signs of which you should be aware that could suggest there is a problem.

    Be aware that often hydrocephalus is treated using a system called a shunt, which drains fluid away from the brain. Sometimes there can be problems with the shunt, which could require urgent medical care. Find out what you should do if you observe a change in the functioning or presentation of a child that you know has a shunt, and ensure you always have up-to-date family contact details available.

    Sometimes you may work with children who have not received early treatment for hydrocephalus. These children may have larger heads than you would normally expect for a child of their age, and they may have reduced cognitive functioning or other physical issues related to the build up of cerebrospinal fluid. They may have a more severe level of disability than children who have been treated early for hydrocephalus. Use your care and skills as a special educator when working with these children, and ensure you provide them with the best outcomes possible given their particular needs.


  • Based on writer's experience.