Being included—in the classroom, in the family, in recreation, in social events—is important for anyone, but for children, it plays a big role in healthy emotional, physical, and social development. For children living with a disability, like cerebral palsy, being included is more difficult than it is for other children. Adults and other children both too often leave them out, sometimes intentionally but more often based on incorrect assumptions about abilities and level of interest.
A child with cerebral palsy not only has every right to inclusion in school as other children, he or she actively needs and craves that inclusion. While it is great for other children to actively include those who seem different, the responsibility really comes down to the adults, particularly the teachers. Teachers need to make sure all children get a full educational experience and have every opportunity to participate, learn, and grow. Although teachers understand this responsibility, they don’t always have the knowledge or experience, especially working with particular disabilities like cerebral palsy. Every teacher can use advice and tips to help them build and create more inclusive learning experiences:
- Get to know the needs of every student. Every student is a unique individual with different abilities, and teachers know this but it is still easy to make assumptions and generalizations about students with disabilities. Cerebral palsy causes wide and varied range of issues, and each child truly has his or her own limitations and abilities. When teachers are better aware of the needs of each student, inclusion is easier and more natural.
- Assign seating. When children are allowed to choose their own seating positions, the classroom can become segregated. A child with a disability and low self-esteem may choose a seat in the back corner every time, next to a similarly quiet student. Pair up disabled students with more outgoing children and encourage more engagement.
- Instead of asking for volunteers, call on students randomly. It seems like a good way to make students more comfortable, to ask for volunteers to participate in solving problems or discussions, but it can also lead to exclusion with only the most vocal and assertive students stepping up. Make sure all children are called upon, and push each student to participate in everything.
- Provide group discussion time. Teachers may find that calling on students randomly is difficult at first, that those who don’t like to speak up lack confidence. By giving students time to discuss a problem or question quietly with their desk mates, they get a chance to gather their thoughts and prepare to be called upon. Alternatively, a quiet reflective minute for all students before answering questions can also be helpful.
- Use personal response devices. Another way to get all students involved in answering questions and participating is to use response devices. These are handheld systems, or apps on tablets, which students can use to input an answer that will then appear on a projection screen. The teacher can then see that everyone has inputted an answer.
- Expose students to diversity. Many classroom lessons showcase professionals in subject areas, like scientists, athletes, or musicians. Choose a variety of people in professional fields of all races, genders, and even abilities. Representation is very powerful. When a disabled child sees an independent, successful disabled adult, it sends an encouraging message.
- Vary teaching strategies. This is important for all students, not just those with disabilities who tend to be excluded more. All children learn in different ways, so a variety of instructional strategies, like lecturing, reading, videos, interactive apps, small group work, projects, and discussions, help include everyone.
- Make classrooms physically accessible. For some students with cerebral palsy, the only disability may be lack of mobility. Simply having enough space to get around easily can increase inclusion. Make sure there is plenty of space between desks and other obstacles so that a child with a wheelchair, walker, or other device can move as freely as any other student.
- Provide inclusive playgrounds. The most inclusive playgrounds were designed that way, and often teachers can only work with what they have. They can make existing playgrounds more inclusive, though, by providing guided activities that involve all students and in which all can participate, regardless of ability level.
- Be proactive—and active—about bullying. Bullying is a greater risk for disabled children than others, and it can lead to long-term harm. In the short-term it can cause a student to become even more excluded and withdrawn. Teachers must address bullying, through education, awareness, and by acting when there are any signs that it is happening.
- Combat discriminatory language immediately. Do not tolerate any language that is discriminatory against anyone, by gender, by sexual orientation, by race or religion, or by disability. Sending a clear message that this kind of negative language is not tolerated in a classroom makes it safer for all students. It also educates students who may not realize how damaging their language can be.
- Provide choice in sports and recreation. Students with physical disabilities, like cerebral palsy, are routinely left out of physical activities. Even those with limitations can participate, although they may need modifications or assistive devices. Choice is important in sport. If the only offerings are baseball or football, it may be impossible for everyone to participate. Provide more options for recreation and more students can be included.
- Communicate with parents. Sometimes parents can provide insights that teachers can’t get from observing students in the classroom or that students are too shy to share. Parents can tell teachers, for instance, if a child has been struggling to read the board from her seat in the room, or if she feels intimidated by a particular student.
- Practice collaborative teaching. Collaboration between teachers is so important in providing the best opportunities for all students, but it is not always encouraged. Whenever possible, general and special education teachers should collaborate on creating ways to make every classroom more inclusive for every student.
Inclusion in the classroom—and in school in general—is important for every student at every age. Not being included can lead to low self-esteem, lack of confidence, lack of social engagement, and deficits in academic, emotional, and physical development. Exclusion is most often not intentional, but to be sure that students who are too often left out get all the opportunities of other students, teachers have to be active participators in inclusion.