School Starters Out into the World : Starting School The next big step (part 2) - Physical challenges Coping with disability

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Physical challenges Coping with disability

If your child has a physical disability such as cerebral palsy (a condition that affects movement, posture, and coordination), or a hearing or visual impairment, starting school will bring additional challenges. Many more children now attend mainstream as opposed to special schools, which is a positive step forward in many ways. However, this means that some schools may lack experience of supporting children with additional physical needs. Open, honest, and regular communication with the school will help them make the adjustments necessary to ensure that your child is fully integrated into school life, and not just included on the attendance roll.

Team approach

The key to a smooth, successful transition to school is to have all the involved professionals—health, education, and social care—working together with you on a coordinated plan to support your child’s needs. Ideally this team of people should begin meeting with you some time in advance of your child’s move so that the appropriate support will be in place when he starts, before specific needs arise. If your child has experienced a successful day-care or other preschool placement, talk to the staff from that setting as they may have valuable information to share. Make sure that they are invited to attend these meetings.

Raising awareness

Staff and students will have different experiences of children with special needs. This will affect their expectations of your child and how they behave toward him initially. Your child’s classmates will probably be curious and ask questions about your child’s difficulties, while some teachers may be anxious about how best to interact. It will take time for everyone to get to know each other, and this could be a steep learning curve. People will want to do their best to support and include your child. However, a simple lack of understanding may result in well-intentioned but unnecessary or inappropriate attempts to help. At other times, your child may struggle because not enough help is provided. Be clear in communicating your child’s needs, and encourage him to speak up when he needs additional help. Write down a list of your child’s strengths and weaknesses to share with the school. To be more comprehensive, you may also wish to provide the faculty with a fuller description of your child and his story so far.

School environment

Consideration may need to be given to the content and layout of your child’s classroom, as well as other parts of the school he will need to access, such as the playground and science labs. Bear in mind the following questions when you are meeting with faculty:

  • Can my child get into school safely and easily, or will adaptations such as ramps and lifts be necessary?

  • Is the classroom easy to access and move around in? Where will my child sit to ensure he can take part in all activities?

  • How will my child be assisted in moving around school for recess, assemblies, and lunchtime?

  • Are the signs around school clear, visible, and easy for my child to understand?

  • Can my child access the play area independently?

  • In the unlikely event of a fire, how will my child be supported to exit the building quickly and safely? Fire doors fitted with magnetic safety catches (so they close only in the event of a fire) can make life much easier for children with mobility problems.


Discuss with school faculty what support your child needs in the classroom to enable him to join in with his classmates and follow the curriculum. Remember that this is likely to change as the demands of the curriculum change, so make time to schedule regular meetings with his teachers to stay up to date. If your child finds the coursework too difficult, a more individualized education plan may be suggested.

The following issues will need to be explored
  • Will a special teacher or counselor be available to provide additional support to my child and his teachers?

  • Can my child access all the materials he needs to use in the classroom?

  • What additional teaching resources can be used to help my child?

  • Will staff be given special training or any specialist equipment my child may need to use?

  • Will my child need any one-on-one support? If so, will this be rotated to avoid his becoming too dependent on one particular person?

Social life

The quality of your child’s social life at school will have a significant impact on his confidence, self-esteem, and happiness. Careful consideration needs to be given to the opportunities he will have for social interaction with his classmates. Morning arrival, recess, and lunchtime are all social hotspots, and your child should be as fully included in these activities as possible. Some schools employ a buddy system, where one of a number of pupils will take a turn spending time with and helping your child. School trips and after-school activities are also important for building bonds. Find out what trips and activities are planned for the term, and speak to your child’s teacher about ways in which he can be included.

Children with obvious physical needs can often be overprotected by others, which may limit their opportunities to spend time with their peers. Getting the balance right between safety and independence can be tricky at times. You know your child better than anyone else, so talk to him about what he would like to be involved in and try to make it happen.

Special helper

Some schools provide a dedicated member of staff to look after your child, helping him adjust to his new environment.

Being prepared

Discuss with the school any piece of special equipment your child needs, and make sure they know how it works.

Playing around

Whether your child enjoys school or not will to a great extent depend on her interaction with other children.

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