3 Ways Your School Should Support Your Child With Epilepsy

Your Child With Epilepsy Is Entitled to Support and Accommodations at School

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According to the Epilepsy Foundation, about 300,000 American school children have epilepsy. That means that most school districts have at least a few students with epilepsy diagnoses. In theory, therefore, schools should have experience with supporting epileptic students—and should have a good idea about the legal, academic, and medical issues associated with the disorder.

But epilepsy is different for every child.

And that means that even if your school has had several students with epilepsy in the last few years, they may have no experience of or knowledge of your child's particular needs and concerns.

As a parent, your job is to advocate for your child's needs. To do that, you need to fully understand what your child's needs really are—and to understand the options available in the school setting. Luckily, in the United States, the Individuals with Disabilities Educational Act (IDEA) is written to support parents and to ensure that each child gets personalized support.

Resources That Children With Epilepsy Need in a School Setting

While each child with epilepsy will have slightly different challenges, all have at least some level of need. Epilepsy is often associated with other disorders such as autism, learning disabilities, or mood disorders, which means that some children may have significant challenges.

In school, these needs and challenges fall into the following categories.

Medical Needs. In many cases, children with epilepsy will need the involvement of the school nurse to manage medications, provide support in the event of a seizure, or to help teachers to respond appropriately to seizures in the classroom.

If your child is on a ketogenic diet, your school will need to know about and support your child's dietary requirements.

Academic Needs. While children with epilepsy may be academically capable (or even gifted), most will need some level of academic support. That's because seizures of any kind are likely to interfere with your child's ability to attend to the teacher, participate in class, take notes, or record assignments.

Social Needs. There is absolutely no reason why a child with epilepsy should not have friends. But epilepsy does set up some social barriers. Many peers (and parents) are confused by epilepsy; some are concerned about taking responsibility for a peer or guest in the event of a seizure, and some are even afraid of people with the disorder.

Managing Medical Needs

Some children with epilepsy need to take medications while in school. This shouldn't be an issue: school nurses are usually more than capable of dispensing medication with a note from a doctor and permission from parents. It's important, however, that your school nurse understands any issues related to the medication such as side-effects or interactions. It's also important to keep the lines of communication open.

Your school nurse needs to know:

  • If you are starting a new medication
  • If your child is having break-through seizures or other symptoms
  • If you have changed doctors
  • If there are life changes that could lead to increased stress at home
  • If your child is on a ketogenic diet
  • If your child needs emergency anti-seizure medication

Depending upon the nature of your child's seizures, you may also need to think about medical needs outside of the nurse's office. If your child has generalized seizures that are not fully managed through medication, his or her teacher should know how to handle them in the classroom setting.

The school nurse and administration should also be on board so that there are no questions or concerns about handling a seizure when it occurs.

It's a good idea to discuss the issue before your child starts the school year, and to form a clear, appropriate seizure response plan. Sometimes such plans can be "migrated" from teacher to teacher and from school to school within a district. Teachers should know how to keep your child safe during a seizure, how to help her recover, and whether or when to contact parents, nurse, or an emergency medical team.

Managing Academic Needs

According to the Epilepsy Society of the UK, about one in five children with epilepsy has a learning disability. In addition to this:

  • Children with generalized seizures may miss class time more often than typical peers as a result of their seizures, medical appointments, and other issues.
  • Children with partial seizures, though they may not miss class, are likely to miss at least some content presented in class as a result of their seizures.
  • Medications used to control epilepsy may cause children to be sleepy or foggy, at least until they become accustomed to the medication

As a child with special needs in the United States, your son or daughter can receive a wide range of academic support and services. You can learn all about those rights through an extremely thorough and complete online manual made available by the Wrightslaw.com organization. If you have specific questions or needs, or if you feel you need but can't afford a special needs lawyer, you can find help through the Epilepsy Foundation.

Your child with epilepsy will almost certainly qualify for either a 504 Plan or an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP). Both of these options provide children with special needs with supports or accommodations for success.

504 PlansIn essence, a 504 Plan is a tool for providing children with the accommodations they need to be successful in the general school program. Most of the children served under a 504 have relatively minor but significant needs.

For example, a child with epilepsy may be intellectually and socially capable, but because of their epilepsy may miss portions of classroom presentations or tests. A 504 might include accommodations such as the right to re-take any missed tests or receive any missed classroom content without penalty.

Most 504 plans for students with epilepsy also include teacher training on how to recognize and manage epileptic seizures and specific accommodations for field trips and other potentially difficult situations.

IEPsAn Individualized Educational Plan or IEP is intended for children with disabilities that make it difficult to access the general curriculum. A child with epilepsy and no other challenges will rarely need an IEP. But many children with epilepsy also have learning disabilities, mood disorders, autism, or intellectual disabilities that make typical educational settings challenging.

For these children, an IEP may be appropriate. IEP accommodations range from specialized classrooms to tutoring, speech or occupational therapy, or even special summer programs.

Managing Social Needs

Children with epilepsy may have significant social challenges. In some cases the challenges are a result of epilepsy itself; in other cases, the challenges are associated with related issues. For example:

  • Epilepsy can make it difficult or impossible to take part in typical childhood activities. It may be medically challenging to get involved with sports, go to a friend's for a sleepover, or join a school trip.
  • Epilepsy can limit interaction during the school day. A child with epilepsy is unsafe on a climbing structure at recess and may have limitations related to interacting with screens.
  • Anti-epileptic medication can leave children feeling too sleepy to participate in afterschool activities, or too foggy to complete their homework quickly.
  • Many children with epilepsy have associated issues such as autism or mood disorders which cause serious social challenges.
  • Special diets can make many social situations challenging.

In many cases, 504 plans or IEPs can specifically address social challenges. Depending upon the child's level of need, accommodations can be put in place to make it easier for the child to participate fully in afterschool activities, take part in field trips, or otherwise be part of the social community. For some children, social skills groups can also make a positive difference.

The Bottom Line

Epilepsy can make school difficult, but in the vast majority of cases, it is possible to set up accommodations and supports to overcome challenges. 504 Plans and IEP's are two important legal tools available to ensure that children with epilepsy get the support they need. Parents can also be important advocates for their children by:

  • Working with teachers and administrators to provide important information, take part in the development of school plans, and offer suggestions or help as needed.
  • Taking action to be sure their children are included as appropriate (and as desired!) in extra-curricular and social activities.
  • Taking legal action if necessary to be sure their children receive the "free and appropriate" education to which they are entitled.

Sources:

Cleveland Clinic Foundation. Epilepsy and social skills. Web. 2013.

Epilepsy Foundation. Your child at school or childcare. Web. 2014.

Margolis, Leslie. Legal Rights of Children with Epilepsy in School and Childcare. Epilepsy Foundation of America. Web. 2011.

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