What is epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a neurological condition caused by sudden brief changes in the brain’s electrical balance. When there are excess electrical discharges in the brain, seizures occur. Seizures can alter awareness, physical movements, consciousness or actions. Seizures generally last from a few seconds to a few minutes.

Epilepsy is often called a “seizure disorder.” Both terms are used to describe recurring seizures.Epilepsy is not a disease, mental illness or a sign of low intelligence. It is not contagious. Epilepsy is generally a chronic and/or lifelong condition.

Children with epilepsy usually are of normal intelligence, but some do not do well academically. When this happens, it is important to find out why. Neurological impairment, frequent seizures, or adverse effects of seizure medicines can affect school performance. If a child is doing well in school, there is no reason to worry about the effects of epilepsy on learning. If the teacher reports problems or if parents become aware that their child’s performance is slipping, it may be worthwhile to consider interventions.

First, the problem must be identified. The child may have an attention deficit with frequent distractibility, may be excessively tired from medications or poor sleep, or may have a specific learning disability, which may or may not be related to epilepsy. Obtaining an educational assessment is the first step after talking with the child’s teachers. Parents have the right to request an assessment of their child’s problems and needs.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), discussed later, provides legal guarantees for educating children with handicaps. The child has the right to be taught in a regular classroom environment as much as possible. The child has the right to be included in social activities and other activities provided by the school. Parents have the right to be directly involved in the process of planning the child’s education.

Epilepsy can cause problems with memory, communication, learning and behavior. The anti-epileptic drugs taken to help control seizures can also affect behavior and may have side effects such as dizziness or drowsiness.

Because of these factors, children and young people with epilepsy are more likely to have some special educational needs (SEN). The majority of children and young people with epilepsy do not have SEN, and a child with epilepsy does not automatically qualify for any provision. The SEN framework sets out how extra help is given to children with SEN.

Extra help can take many different forms, and help children and young people with many different types of educational needs.

Special education

Special education programs are designed to meet the special needs of children with disabilities by supplementing or adapting the regular curriculum. Instruction may take place in regular classrooms or in separate facilities for all or part of the day. Students may also be assigned to special programs in physical education, occupational and physical rehabilitation, music education programs, home instruction, or instruction in hospitals and other institutions.

These classes and programs recognize that some students can be educated but have mental or physical impairments that make it essential to tailor their education to their special needs. The variety of special education programs offered by each school system reflects the types and severity of the children’s disabilities, the educational emphasis, the student-to-teacher ratio, the funding for quality teachers and equipment, and other factors.

A large majority of children with epilepsy are best served by mainstream classes. Many receive special education services partly or entirely in the regular classroom. Children with frequent and severe seizures who also have orthopedic and emotional problems, on the other hand, obviously need a specialized program, but many children fall between these two extremes. If a child is not doing well in mainstream classes, it is often helpful for parents to meet with the teachers to learn if the cause of the problems can be identified, through special testing if necessary. In addition, consultation with the child’s doctor may provide insights. For example, attention deficit disorder may be causing the school problems.

Just because special education is recommended does not mean that it is necessary. In most cases, the recommendation is valid and should be followed, but if parents disagree with the school’s placement, they can appeal or seek an outside assessment by a psychologist or neuropsychologist. It may also be helpful for parents to observe the child in mainstream or special education classes to better judge the proper balance.