Dear Dr. Shore,
I am a fourth-grade regular education teacher and recently a student was placed in my class who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. She has an aide with her, but I have never had a student with cerebral palsy before and the only thing I know about her is what I learned during a twenty-minute meeting with her parents and the school psychologist. What can I do to help her?
This is not an uncommon situation in today's schools. With the current trend of inclusion, namely placing special education students in regular classes, teachers often find they are instructing students with problems for which they have little training or preparation.
First, some basic information about cerebral palsy. Cerebral palsy is a condition caused by damage to the brain which affects muscle control and coordination. Cerebral palsy, often referred to simply as CP, can range from mild to severe and often affects a child's intellect, learning, speech, and vision. It is not a disease and it cannot be passed on to other students. It is also not progressive; it doesnt get worse.
Here are some ideas to keep in mind as you work with this student:
Make use of the aide. The aide likely has a good understanding of the student's strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, as well as effective and ineffective ways of working with her.
Work closely with specialists. If the student is receiving physical or occupational therapy or speech-language therapy, those specialists can give you ideas about how to reinforce motor and speech development within the classroom. In addition, the specialists can advise you on how to work the various aids and equipment that the child might use.
Promote peer involvement. Find activities in which the student can interact with her classmates successfully. Place her in activities with peers who are likely to be accepting. As a way of promoting acceptance, suggest to the child that she demonstrate to the class some of the aids that she uses.
Be patient in waiting for a response. Students with cerebral palsy who have speech, motor, or cognitive deficiencies can be very slow in responding to a question or completing a task. In addition to displaying patience yourself, encourage your students to show similar patience when interacting with the student.
Allow the student to participate in decisions. The student might feel a lack of personal control due to her speech and motor impairments, so try to find opportunities to give her a sense of control in other ways. When making decisions that involve her, solicit her opinion and allow her to participate in the decision-making. Of course, you have to use some discretion here in deciding on the extent of the child's involvement.
Prepare a fire drill plan for the student. This is especially important if the student is in a wheelchair and spends time on an upper floor.
Give the student a second set of texts. It might be difficult for a student with a physical disability to bring books home. Make it easy on her by giving her a set of books that she can keep at home.