How to Help Your Child With Cerebral Palsy at School

Boy on crutches arrives in class
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Cerebral Palsy (CP) is a term that covers a range of physical disabilities that interfere with the ability to move. It is a neurological disorder caused by injury to the brain while a mother is pregnant or shortly after the child is born. Symptoms of CP are often noticed during infancy or the preschool years, before a child is school aged.

About 10,000 babies born in the United States each year are diagnosed with CP.

It is the most common motor disability among children. CP is a lifelong condition. There are a variety of symptoms that a person with CP may experience. Symptoms depend on which areas of the brain were damaged. Someone with CP may have a few of the following symptoms, or several. They can also range in severity, making each person's experience with CP to be different. Symptoms of CP include:

  • Stiff or floppy muscle tone
  • Greater control of one side of the body, leading to foot-dragging or a slow arm
  • Problems swallowing, sucking, or speaking
  • Drooling
  • Struggling with balance and coordination
  • Spasms, tremors, or involuntary movements

How Cerebral Palsy May Affect Learning and the Classroom

Many of the physical movement issues can lead to challenges for children with CP at school. Difficulty controlling muscles can make it difficult to move around a classroom. The tendency for spasms and other involuntary movements can be worsened by having to sit for prolonged periods of time.

Issues with speech and language can make it difficult to answer questions and read out loud. Speech and language issues may make it difficult to make friends and socialize with classmates, who may not understand the differences of the child experiencing CP.

First Steps If You Believe Your Child May Have Cerebral Palsy

Get a detailed diagnosis. Most children with CP are diagnosed as infants or preschool age.

If your child was diagnosed in early childhood, you will want to be knowledgeable about exactly which CP symptoms your child experiences.

If you are concerned that your school-age child has movement issues that could be CP, be sure to get an evaluation that thoroughly explains your child's experience. Because CP affects different people in so many different ways, you will need to know exactly what your child struggles with so you can advocate for your child's needs at school. Strategies and equipment that support one child with CP may not be helpful to another child with CP.

Team up with your child's school to get needed services and accomodations. Students with CP usually meet the qualifications for either a 504 plan or an IEP—specific plans that public schools must follow to meet the needs of special needs students. Which plan is right for your child will depend on your child's specific experience with CP, and how they interact in the school environment.

Brieflly, a 504 plan is created to help a student with an identified disability to be able to access and participate in school. An IEP is a specific education plan designed for a child with special needs. While 504 plans make school accessible to students with disabilities, IEPs often go further into changing the curriculum and learning expectations to match a child's abilities and needs.

The details and differences of these plans may be complicated, but starting the process for accessing services for your child is pretty simple. Simply go to the school and request that your child be evaluated for Special Ed Services or a 504 plan. Make the request in writing or via an email so that you will have a record of the request you are making.

Keep up communication between school, teachers, and your child or teens providers. Children with CP often see different therapists and providers both in and out of school. for example, your child may work with a speech therapist at school and also have additional private therapy outside of the school day.

Children with CP often have other unique differences that may require treatment or therapy, such as a hearing or vision specialist.

It can be helpful to view all of these people involved in your child's education and treatment support as a wide ranging team, with you as the manager. Keeping in communication with your child's teacher and letting different providers know about changes in progress or development can help everyone to coordinate together for the best support for your child.

You will know your child's abilities and needs better than anyone else. By developing good, open relationships with all of your child's educators and providers, you will be in the best position possible to advocate for their needs.

School Strategies and Accommodations For a Child With Cerebral Palsy

An accessible classroom floor plan: Mobility issues can make it difficult to walk between desks or move between work stations. Fortunately, teachers can take your child's movement needs into consideration when crafting their classroom layout. Teachers may need to make arrangements for getting different tables or seats for their classrooms, so try to let a teacher know early about your child's movement needs.

Accommodate daily movement and exercise needs. Today's teachers are trained in how to meet the needs of diverse students. A child's life during the school day includes more than classroom academic time. Some other areas to consider:

  • PE teachers can find ways to include students with CP into games and activities whenever possible.
  • Older students with CP may need extra time to get between classes, or more benefit from leaving early to avoid busy hallways with difficult to navigate around traffic.
  • New playground designs and equipment are often designed to allow children with various mobility issues greater access to move and play among their peers. This can include special ground coverings under swings and slides, or a variety of climbing equipment (climbing wall, ladders of different types, and stairs) rather than a single style on a large play structure.
  • Check with your child's occupational or physical therapist for personalized suggestions. These providers often stay current with the latest in adaptive equipment and room design concepts.

Keep socializing with school peers in mind. Learning how to make friends and get along with others is an important life skill your child will need in their future. Forming social connections is also important for your child's emotional health and well-being.

  • Talk with your child's school about how the school teaches all of their students to be kind to one another—even students who appear different or have different needs. Teachers can create a tolerant and supportive classroom environment so that each student can form friendships and learn to work with others.
  • Encourage your child to participate in extracurricular activities that interest them. Extracurricular activities, such as sports teams, scouting, and hobby clubs can help your child meet other children with similar interests, and provide time together to bond over those interests.

Encourage their personal interests. Like all children, children with CP will have their own unique interests and special talents. They also grow and develop over time, gaining new physical abilities and skills. While all children benefit from trying new sports, hobbies or pursuing other interests, children who experience unique challenges may not always get the opportunity to explore personal interests. 

Parents may be concerned about a group meeting their child's needs, However, many children's clubs and extracurricular activities strive to be accessible and inclusive to all children.

Parents may also be concerned about their child already having enough to do since managing school can be challenging. Still, outside activities that are based on your child's interests can give them a nice break from the demands of school. Your child may also gain confidence as they continue to grow their abilities.

Source​s:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "11 Things to Know about Cerebral Palsy." 13 Mar. 2017.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention"Cerebral Palsy (CP)." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 13 Mar. 2017.

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