When your child with cerebral palsy is ready for school, expect a whole new world of opportunities and challenges. The right education plan can help your child reach his or her full potential. But school is not just about academics and skill-building. Just like his or her peers, your child is navigating friendships and social situations.
Follow this 7-step checklist to help your child succeed during the elementary school years.
Step 1: Look Into an IEP
Children with cerebral palsy usually are diagnosed within the first few years of life and receive services before reaching kindergarten. Many of them are identified as children who need an individualized education program (IEP).
The IEP team might determine that your child needs the help of a classroom aide or would benefit from physical therapy, speech therapy, or occupational therapy. While you can't insist upon certain services, you can appeal the IEP if you feel that it is not meeting your child's needs.
Also, some children who do not qualify for an IEP can get educational assistance through a 504 plan, which provides for accommodations that improve a child's learning experience.
Step 2: Get Tech Savvy
Technology can help kids with cerebral palsy complete tasks and reach goals that would be too difficult to do on their own. For a child who has trouble walking independently, forearm crutches, braces, a walker, a gait trainer, or a wheelchair can help. For kids who find it difficult to speak, computer programs and electronic devices can vocalize their thoughts.
Your child's physical, occupational, and speech therapists can help identify which assistive devices will benefit your child the most. They also can help you learn how to get these devices.
Step 3: Plan Activities and Play Dates
Social activities are just as important for a child with cerebral palsy as they are for all kids. Many sports programs, such as Special Olympics, Little League Challenger Division, and TOPSoccer, can help your child to be physically active while also meeting new friends who have similar challenges. Therapeutic horseback riding programs and aquatic therapy are also great ways to keep kids active.
If your child has made a friend at school, invite the child over for a play date or meet at a park or for ice cream. Whether the friend has a disability or not, friendships help all kids develop important social skills and make them more sensitive to the needs of others.
Step 4: Secure Your Child's Future
If you have not written a will or set up a legal and financial framework for your child's future, it's not too late. Talk with an attorney who specializes in special needs law and a financial advisor to find the best way to manage your assets and prepare financially for your child's adulthood.
If you have already written a will, it's a good idea to review it from time to time to make sure that the custodial plan you made when your child was younger is still the best option.
Step 5: Find Support
Dealing with the day-to-day challenges of parenting a child with CP can be overwhelming. Having a strong support network can help you power through even the most challenging days. To connect with other parents who understand your situation, find a local support group or get involved with your area United Cerebral Palsy affiliate. If a local group isn't available, look for online support.
Respite care can be a saving grace for you and the rest of your family. Just a few hours a week can give you the time you need to recharge. ARCH National Respite Network maintains a database of respite services.
Step 6: Address Emotional Needs
At times your child may feel left out, left behind, or bullied. Kids with disabilities sometimes feel very different from other children, and this can make them feel angry or sad.
Be on the lookout for signs that your child is being bullied, including a reluctance to go to school, decreased appetite, trouble sleeping, or unexplained crying. If your child is being bullied, speak with school administrators as soon as possible. At home, talk with your child about the experience and use role play to teach him or her how to ignore bullies and report problems to trusted friends and teachers.
As puberty approaches, your child will be dealing with new emotions that are part of normal development.
Step 7: Prepare for Puberty
Talk with your doctor about what to expect as your child matures, and how to handle it. Reassure your child that the changes that come with puberty are normal. Girls who get their periods will need to learn new hygiene habits, while boys might need reassurance that wet dreams are normal.
Talk to your child about appropriate versus inappropriate touching, explaining that he or she should immediately tell you if someone crosses the line.
The move into the teen years brings the reality that your child will soon become an adult. Your child's IEP team and therapists will help you create a plan for your child's future — including where he or she will live and whether higher education or the workforce are options. Learn more about the transition IEP, which sometimes starts as early as age 14, in our Cerebral Palsy Checklist: Teens & Young Adults.