Kerri Morgan, our Highly Specialist Speech and Language Therapist, offers some tips to help teachers support children with cerebral palsy flourish in the classroom and beyond.
This article first appeared in The Link magazine, issue 11 June 2018, published by Speech Link Multimedia Ltd
Whenever I talk to professional colleagues about my work I start with the following quote from the late American psychologist Carl Rogers, “If I accept the other person as something fixed, already diagnosed and classified, already shaped by his past, then I am doing my part to confirm this limited hypothesis. If I accept him as a process of becoming, then I am doing what I can to confirm or make real his potentialities”.
Cerebral palsy is a diagnosis but a broad one with each child presenting in a unique way. If there’s one tip I can give you about helping a child with cerebral palsy in your classroom, it’s to believe in their potential.
But how can you help them achieve it?
Firstly, it’s important to note that children with cerebral palsy rarely have just a movement disorder. They may have a multitude of things impacting on their day: sensory impairments or processing difficulties, pain, insomnia, epilepsy, learning difficulties, speech, language and communication needs and, above all, their own personality and past experiences.
So it’s vitally important that we as school staff take the time not only to find out what these factors are in detail but also to really learn to appreciate what they mean for the child. To ask ourselves how do they see the world?
Imagine: if you have difficulty with balance and coordination and you’re surrounded by 29 other children running around, then a PE lesson can be daunting. Couple that with difficulty understanding instructions and the lesson starts to feel like quite a frightening place.
That’s not to say that a child with cerebral palsy shouldn’t be in a PE lesson, they absolutely should; it is we who need to adapt, to take their needs into consideration and, at the very least, acknowledge how the world feels for that child.
The same rule applies when it comes to social skills. The majority of children with cerebral palsy will have spent much of their early life in in hospital, attending appointments, interacting with lots of adults but very rarely experiencing friendships with children their own age. Quite literally, if they use a wheelchair or walker they may not be able to get physically close to other children.
Breaking down isolation
Part of the reason children with cerebral palsy feel isolated is that for the other children, there’s an air of mystery that surrounds disability. This may well be the first time many children in your class have encountered someone with a disability and it’s important that you address that in the following ways:
Demystify and debunk
Let your class know what cerebral palsy is. There are lots of helpful books out there such as Ceana Has CP by C. Fran Card or Taking Cerebral Palsy to School by Mary Elizabeth Anderson but, more than this, let your class know specifically what their classmate finds difficult and most importantly what they don’t. If their speech is affected but they are able to understand, make sure your class know the difference.
There are 7 billion types of normal in this world. Make sure your class know that they are all different – they all have strengths and weaknesses. Provide a diverse set of role models when teaching and remember: not all people with cerebral palsy dream of being a Paralympian. There are so many successful people with cerebral palsy in all arenas. Books such as Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls books 1 and 2 by Elena Favilli showcase this beautifully. Comedians Rosie Jones and the Britain’s Got Talent winner Lee Ridley AKA ‘Lost Voice Guy’ are also excellent examples of fantastic, articulate and successful people with cerebral palsy whom all the children can enjoy watching.
In the same vein, ensure you educate yourself and take a proactive approach to inclusion. When planning make sure your disabled pupil’s needs are forefront rather than an add on. If, for example, they can’t get out of their chair on the floor, consider: does the rest of the class need to sit on the floor that day? If you need to differentiate the worksheet, hand it out at the same time as the others, put the adapted scissors in the same draw and expect them to get them just as you would the rest of your class.
Ask the experts
Know where to go for further information and advice. Talk to your local Occupational Therapy and Speech and Language Therapy services about access, software and equipment that may help your pupil get the most out of their learning. They may even be able to bring in examples or put you in touch with companies that can loan you equipment.
Remember a child with cerebral palsy doesn’t necessarily have a cognitive difficulty but they are likely to have a learning difficulty in that they are going to find it harder to take part physically which can impact their pace of learning.
Five top tips for lesson preparation
Here are 5 simple ways you can make things easier in the classroom:
- provide larger print worksheets or, if you are expecting the class to copy text from the board, this text may need to be closer to them, i.e. a copy on their desk
- provide a computer with predictive text to help record their work if writing is difficult – an occupational therapist can help adapt this if necessary
- break instructions down into smaller steps if you are expecting multiple things in a session. It may take your pupil longer to complete a task and so they may need something to help remind them of the next step like a visual cue card or recording they can play back. In this way they can still be as independent as possible
- give your pupil time. If you are asking the class questions and you know it the child a while to create an answer on their communication aid or plan what they want to say, don’t leave them out. Let them know you will be coming to them in a minute so they can get ready. And just be aware that a child with cerebral palsy may not always be able to put their hand up the quickest and make themselves known, don’t always choose the child with the fastest draw!
- Talk to us at CPotential. We can provide training packages tailored to your school’s needs that include areas such as differentiation, social skills, communication strategies and behaviour management.
Finally, research shows that children with cerebral palsy usually take part in fewer activities, find friendships harder to maintain and have reduced play skills. We owe it to them to facilitate these friendships. If we do, we’ll see them take more of an active role in the school day.
A great way to do this is by providing semi-structured opportunities such as clubs or groups. Perhaps with all the children, mixing and mingling on mats on the floor to increase a sense of togetherness. Make sure that you gradually strip back adult intervention so this becomes an empowering experience – no child wants a teacher hanging out with them in the playground or monitoring their conversations. Give the children the tools, then step back and watch them create something amazing.
Above all, I’d urge you to remember: every interaction with a child with cerebral palsy is an opportunity to help them reach their potential.