Epilepsy in Children - What Special Education Teachers Need to Know

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The Prevalance of Epilepsy

Epilepsy affects approximately one in 200 children (around 0.5%). In a special education context, there are often students who have epilepsy as a dual disability alongside another disability. For example, some students may have cerebral palsy as well as epilepsy. Teachers need to be aware of the combined effects on learning of both conditions, and the long-term implications that both can have on student well-being and daily functioning. Despite the prevalence of epilepsy, there are lots of myths and misunderstandings. This article should help get special education teachers on track with learning about this disability.

Basic Facts and Myths


  1. Epilepsy is diagnosed when seizures occur repeatedly without there being another trigger evident (some people can have ‘one off’ instances of seizures for other reasons not related to being epileptic).
  2. Many people with appropriate treatment and medication can become seizure free.
  3. There are about 40 different types of epileptic seizures which present in many different ways.
  4. A grand mal or tonic clonic seizure is only one kind of seizure - not everyone who has epilepsy has a tonic clonic seizure.


  1. A person can swallow their tongue during a seizure
  2. Epilepsy is contagious
  3. Epilepsy is a sign of an intellectual disability.

None of these myths about epilepsy are true.

What Causes Epilepsy?

The cause of epilepsy is an interruption in the transmission of electrical activity through the brain. This interruption can start and finish in different places and causes alterations to consciousness level, behavior, movement and sensation ability. In someone with epilepsy, the waves of activity within the brain sometimes occur at a faster rate, and it is this alteration to electrical activity which causes the epileptic seizure to occur. Sometimes this is obvious to others (such as during a tonic clonic seizure) while at other times it may be less obvious (such as with an absence seizure).

Epilepsy Types and Seizures

Seizures can be generalized (beginning within the brain as a whole) or partial (beginning in one part of the brain).

A partial seizure may be:

  • simple partial (where there is no change to consciousness level)
  • complex partial (where level of consciousness is affected)

A generalised seizure can be:

  • an absence seizure, where a child may appear to daydream for a few moments, and may not be aware they are doing so.

  • a tonic clonic seizure, where the child will cry out and drop to the ground, with their muscles convulsing and body rigid for a few seconds up to a few minutes - also known as a grand mal seizure.

  • a myoclonic seizure, where muscle movements occur but without a loss of consciousness, The person may fall or drop objects they are holding.

  • tonic or atonic seizures — the person drops suddenly to the ground but the seizure is generally short-lived and the person does not lose consciousness.

  • Tonic seizures also occur during sleep.

  • Atonic seizures can result in facial and head injuries as the person often falls head first, so safety for these students is paramount and should be discussed with parents and health professionals as required.

Epilepsy Treatments

Some students with epilepsy in a special education setting may have medication that they need to take at home or at school. As a teacher, you need to be aware of this, and ensure everyone involved with the student knows what medication is needed during school times.

Some students with severe, repeated seizures who may be at risk of a head injury may choose to wear a soft, padded helmet during the day time. This protects their head in the event that they have a seizure and hit their head on a solid object or on the ground.

In some cases, people may elect to have surgery to help gain better control of their epilepsy.

Some people may need to trial different types and combinations of medication to gain good control of their epilepsy. Epilepsy treatment through medication is usually most effective when the medication is taken regularly and according to a carefully planned schedule and with good medical support, education and back up.

Stay Informed!

One of the most effective things you can do as a teacher of a child with epilepsy is to be informed.

  • Find out the facts about epilepsy and how this condition affects your student.
  • Challenge stigmas such as people who believe epilepsy is linked with mental illness.
  • Learn about the epilepsy types and seizure types that exist, and watch for them when you teach.
  • Be alert to changes in your students who have epilepsy, and be ready to inform others, such as parents and health professionals, about your observations.

It is important that everyone involved in caring for a child who has epilepsy has information specific to that child, and that they are aware of how to manage a seizure. They should have a plan in place to monitor, support and manage seizures.


  • Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne Children’s Epilepsy Program website, accessed Feb 25, 2011