Raising a Child With CP – The Basics

Karen at a young age. A happy little girl.
Raising children with cerebral palsy and learning disabilities is like raising children without them, but more so. Most of what you do is the same, but it takes an extra effort. The advice below is good advice for all parents, but for parents of kids with CP and learning disabilities, it is vital. I know because of how my mother raised me.

My mother, Mrs. Katie Hershkowitz, was an excellent mother to my non-disabled sister, as well as to me. She always pushed me to become independent, and she never coddled me. She helped me develop my I can do it attitude, which I eventually translated into my If Karen can do it, then you can do it, too mantra that has helped so many. So, even though the experts thought I would never walk or have a career beyond manual labor, I learned to dance, became a dance and fitness instructor, and married the most wonderful man in the world. Need I add that he and I lived happily ever after? We did and we are! You can read a fictionalized version of my childhood and youth in my forthcoming book, The Healing Horse. I will add a link to it and tell my blog subscribers about it in advance of publication.

First Things First

  • When dealing with cerebral palsy and learning disabilities, it’s important to establish good working relationships with the people in your circle and in your child’s life. These are your family, your friends and your peers among parents. These are the people who will stand by you when you need them.
  • You will have to make a lot of decisions for yourself, and for your child. Trust your instincts and follow your judgment. If in doubt, rely on your circle for advice.

Building on Our Children’s Strengths

How can we, as parents, build on our children’s strengths when dealing with cerebral palsy and learning disabilities?

  • By engaging our children with the arts, in forms that interest them, such as music and dance, and the visual arts, such as drawing.
  • By engaging them with adaptive versions of performing arts and sports, such as adaptive dance, chair aerobics, wheelchair basketball, track and field, bowling, and fishing. Special Olympics is a great way to combine sports with socialization.
  • By taking them on trips. With very little effort, we can turn any trip into an educational experience.
  • By developing their natural interests, we can help them find motivation to learn.
  • By listening to them, as they develop their interests and learn to speak in their own authentic voices.

How can we support our children as they develop their unique abilities?

  • Through communication and asking them questions, we can learn exactly what our childrens’ interests and abilities are.
  • Through giving them our undivided attention we can give our children an awareness of who they really are and of how important they are to us.

Self Determination
How can we help children with cerebral palsy and learning disabilities become more self-reliant and self-confident?

  • By letting them learn from their own experiences, good or bad.
  • By not coddling them—by letting them try new things and experience these new things fully and fearlessly (within reason, of course).

Self Esteem
How can we teach our children with cerebral palsy and learning disabilities to feel good about themselves and their own abilities?

  • By praising them when they do something right.
  • By forgiving them when they make mistakes.
  • By being flexible and listening to their opinions and desires when making decisions.
  • By being solution-oriented, and looking for answers rather than succumbing to the delusion of dead ends in this world of possibilities.
  • By allowing our children their right to make their own decisions, so that they develop sound judgment.
  • By creating and offering win-win ways of handling difficult situations, so that they learn to see life from multiple perspectives and in a positive way.
  • By teaching our children the proper terms to describe their feelings, so they can articulate them.
  • By allowing our children the opportunity to repeat successful experiences, so that they become accustomed to success.
  • By creating avenues of disagreement that lead to agreement, rather than to stalemates or bad feelings, so that they learn how to negotiate and to compromise in a positive way.
  • By helping our children set realistic goals for themselves, so they can succeed in life.
  • By using rewards to shape positive behaviors, rather than relying on punishment or disapproval, so that they learn to pursue success rather than flee failure.
  • By letting our children learn to deal with the realities of the unpaved roads of life, so that they learn to cope with difficulties. We cannot pave every road for our children.
  • By getting help when we need it, so that our children learn that even we parents sometimes need help and are not afraid to ask for it. None of this is easy. We all need help from time to time.

Our children with cerebral palsy and learning disabilities struggle with communication, even more than most children. How can we help them learn to communicate?

  • By listening to them—communication is a two-way street. It’s not just us telling them. It’s mostly about us listening to them.
  • By using the highest level of tact, and not attacking our children when we communicate our negative feelings to them.
  • By teaching our children to identify their feelings with a wide vocabulary of terms–happy, sad, depressed, fearful. We need to teach them the words they need to articulate their feelings.
  • By remembering that all misbehaviors have triggers, and that we may unwittingly pull them. Misbehavior does not appear from nowhere.
  • By watching for misinterpretations of nonverbal communication, both from us adults and from your children—a frown may mean that someone is concentrating. It doesn’t always mean anger or disapproval.
  • By using written communication when appropriate, such as when writing a schedule of tasks or responsibilities.
  • By loving our children and letting them know how much we love them, at every opportunity. They need to know that we love them before they can thrive on our love.
  • By making ourselves approachable—our children will never tire of hearing us tell them that we are there for them, that we love them. They need to know that no matter what happens, they can tell us about it, and we will listen to them with an open heart and a calm, wise, compassionate mind.

Our children with cerebral palsy and learning disabilities may struggle with academics. How can we help them deal with homework?

  • Set up a homework schedule, so your child has some structured time that helps them succeed with homework.
  • Rank assignments in order of importance and priority, and have them do the highest priority and most important, first.
  • Do not sit next to your child while doing homework unless they request it. Give them space and an opportunity to do it on their own.
  • Check correct problems first so that you start each session on a positive note.
  • Never let homework drag all night. If your child looks tired, confirm that they have done enough. There’s no reason to exhaust a child who is already stressed by homework. If you can, reschedule homework time to start earlier, while your child has more energy, if you can get home from work in time for that.
  • Discuss homework questions before your child reads each chapter, so your child knows what the important points are and is primed to look for them.
  • Organize math problems into manageable groups around themes that your child can comprehend. If you have trouble with this, seek help from your child’s teacher. Math is hard for most people. Get the help you need.
  • Make audio recordings of textbook chapters, so your child can repeatedly listen to your voice reading the chapter, while reading the printed text. Hearing your voice can make the text comprehensible. This can take a lot of time, but it can be worth the effort.
  • Don’t give negative nonverbal messages during homework sessions, and if you sense your child giving you a negative nonverbal message, catch it and respond immediately with positive encouragement.
  • Avoid finishing assignments for your child. Children need to learn that they can finish their own assignments, even if they cannot answer every question correctly.
  • Be aware of the signs of serious learning disabilities. If you know what the signs are, then you can deal with the disabilities as they occur, and you can move ahead if they do not.
  • Check your child’s homework every evening so they do not turn in incorrect answers the next day.
  • Make sure your child feels good at the end of each learning experience.