An accessible environment

7th April 2000 at 01:00
Lindsay Brewis outlines ways that schools can reduce obstacles for pupils with cerebral palsy

A range of techniques are available to primary and secondary teachers to help them meet the needs of children with cerebral palsy. Take for example this situation: you are a primary school teacher and you have heard that a child with cerebral palsy is joining your class. You may never have worked with a child with cerebral palsy but there is help available and, as a first step, the educational psychologist, the speech and language therapist and the occupational therapist will be able to provide you with specialist advice and support. Many of the child's apparent difficulties can be addressed easily within the classroom.

Cerebral palsy is a condition, not a disease, caused by abnormalities in the brain. The condition is as individual as children; it may be barely noticeable or it may involve severe movement, communication or perceptual difficulties. If the child has problems sitting still, check seating provision. Side supports may help - this may seem a simple solution but its has drastically changed things for many children. On the mat, mark out the child's space with a carpet square and if they tip sideways or backwards, a wedge made from a rolled up towel and placed under the hips will give a more stable sitting position.

You may find a child with cerbral palsy has difficulty with handwriting. It is worth remembering that joined script is easier for many children who find starting and stopping movement difficult. A classroom assistant could ghost write the sentence in pencil, which can be rubbed out leaving the child's good copy. This will help to build confidence, as will setting achievable timed targets for success.

To prevent fatigue, try a writing slope and ensure the arm is well supported. A pencil grip will help, as could teaching an alternative grip using the first three fingers of the hand - fingers one and three underneath with finger two hooked over the pen. You may have to expect less writing from a child with cerebral palsy and look for an alternative method of record such as typing, or securing a classroom assistant as a scribe.

A child with cerebral palsy may have recall problems, understanding the content of the lesson but unable to remember it later. When finishing a lesson try recapping the three main points. Associations also help, such as a place, song or person familiar to the child, as can picture cues. For children with visual perception difficulties, remember to use clear print and try different pastel coloured paper as background. Most of the techniques needed to address the above problems at secondary level are the same as at primary. However, when the child enters secondary school there are new hurdles to overcome, including the size of the building, the number of staff involved, the mix of pupils and the range of subjects. Start by studying the child's timetable and look at physical access issues to ensure it is possible for them to get to your classroom in time for the lesson. By moving around the classroom and school in the manner of the child, you will quickly see the problem areas.

All the teachers involved in the child's education at secondary level need to agree joint strategies, such as a common format for lesson revision notes for the child, as well as an individual homework strategy.

Ifinclusion is to work, the focus of responsibility must not be on you as an individual teacher but on the whole education support structure. This is the case at both primary and secondary so make sure you look to other teachers as well as the special needs co-ordinator, your headteacher, governors, local education authorities and outside agencies for the support and advice you need.

Inclusion points

* Check with parents how the child does such things as eating, positioning and so on at home;

* Ask the child how they want to be helped;

* Be sensitive to emotional needs;

* Develop positive images of disability both within the classroom and the school;

* Ensure anti-bullying policies are enforced; l Keep a list of professionals who know the child, and update changes;

* Ask for advice from therapists and outside organisations, such as disability charities;

* Identify appropriate technology to support the pupil and to assist you in providing appropriate materials;

* Plan ahead for growth and weight gain;

* Prepare for the child's transition to future classes, sharing your knowledge and experience with new teachers.

Coteford in Hillingdon is a mainstream infant school with additional resources to support children with physical disabilities. The physical environment is completely accessible and furniture is carefully positioned in the classroom, so all children can move freely. The playground equipment is designed so that it is accessible to every child - even children using wheelchairs can play on the climbing frame.

Headteacher Julia Thomas says: "We work very hard to ensure all children are fully included in all activities, both in the classroom and the playground. A lot of thought is given to aiding concentration and building the confidence of children with special needs. A support assistant may sit with a child during Big Book lessons, with an individual copy of the book, repeating the teacher's questions and when the child has the correct answer the assistant will subtly let the teacher know so the child's contribution is not missed. This is just one of many techniques we use - adaptations are made every day to ensure all children are able to work to their potential."

St Cenydd comprehensive in Caerphilly is a mainstream school, where 50 of the 1,100 pupils are disabled. The school's exam successes show that inclusion can work and GCSE results have consistently improved in the past five years.

Mildred Hughes, SENCO at St Cenydd, says: "Teachers use many methods to ensure all children are included in the classroom, providing specialist equipment at the right height, scribers for those who have difficulties recording their thoughts, and communicators for the hearing-impaired. There are many small adaptations that can support children with special needs, such as giving visually impaired children yellow paper, which is easier for them to work on. There's no reason why disabled pupils can't achieve appropriate qualifications but you've got to have an ethos of everyone supporting inclusion. Once they know and understand the pupil's individual needs, teachers can deliver the curriculum to a range of students."

Lindsay Brewis is education adviser with Scope, 6 Market Road, London N7 9PW, tel: 020 7619 7100. Website: Cerebral palsy helpline, tel: 0808 800 3333

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