Challenged Hope

Grandmother raising Grandchildren with FASD in Hamilton Ontario Canada

Tim Groenewegen, Special Needs Educator

Tim GroenewegenSpecial Needs Educator

Tim Groenewegen
Special Needs Educator

As a special needs educator within the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB), I have been privileged to work with many students diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder (FASD). In this article I hope to inform parents and guardians of children with FASD of the education systems support for students with such needs, the educational choices that will have to be made, and how to unite parents/guardians and educators in supporting children. I will include in the term FASD: Fetal Alcohol Effects (FAE), Partial FAS (PFAS), Alcohol-Related Neuro-developmental Disorder (ARND), and Alcohol-Related Birth Defects (ARBD).

Background

I have been working with students with special needs for the past 4 years with the previous two years having been in a special class setting. I made the switch into the special education classroom after working as a respite care worker for students with mental and physical disabilities. I had several realizations while working as a respite care giver: I have a skill set useful for special needs education, I enjoy teaching the life skills component of a special needs education classroom, I am able to perform the administrative duties associated with high needs and I very much enjoy seeing students reach their social, emotional, educational and physical goals. After this realization, I pursued my Special Needs Education specialist certificate through on-line course work.

Teaching students with FASD has been both challenging and rewarding. Understanding the needs of a child with FASD is a complex matter as their needs are different to the other children in my class. In addition, the needs can vary greatly between students with FASD. It is a learning process to understand how to better structure their day, lesson or social expectations and the HWDSB has provided me with training from a FASD specialist. By communicating with parents, caregivers, social workers and the academia, I have been better able help my 4 students with FASD perform better in the special education classroom.

Through experience I have found the following premises essential to apply to the education of students with FASD.

  • Foundational to the success of students with FASD is the premise that they are trained for a successfully dependent future not a successful future of independence. In doing so, we teach students how to access the resources available to them. 
  • Repetition can replace thinking so we repeat important actions until they become automatic. 
  • Constant supervision and structured choices will help students to choose the right actions. Extra supervision is given to children with FASD during unstructured times such as recess time, before and after school. 
  • Setting educational goals just below the child’s potential, which seems contrary to success, but will enable students to approach material feeling confident in themselves and their surroundings. 
  • Offering what may appear to be rewards before more difficult academic content helps students feel successful before venturing into something new. These nuanced approaches have lead to much success in the classroom.

Placement

The twelve students I educate were placed in my classroom through a formal process following the decision of the Identification, Placement and Review Committee (IPRC). This committee determines if a student should be identified as an exceptional student (according to ministry and board criteria) what exceptionality/exceptionalities they have and what classroom placement would best suit their needs. This committee may consist of a principal, vice principal, special education consultant, learning resource teacher and a classroom teacher. Parent/guardian input into this committee is important in order to benefit the student.

Deciding on which classroom setting is best suited for a child with FASD is an important decision. The following options are most often presented:

1. Regular classroom: In this case, a student identified as exceptional will stay in a regular classroom with additional support. These supports will include an Individual Education Plan (IEP), and may include assistance from an Educational Assistant (EA) or from a Learning Resource Teacher (LRT), extra supervision, and a safety intervention plan (SIP). In some cases, a student will spend most of their time in the regular classroom and integrate into another classroom for a particular subject (e.g. attend a grade 3 math class).

2. Special Class: In a special class, a student will be one of a maximum of 12 students. Their teacher will have special training in Special Needs Education and there will be at least one EA in the class. Each student will be on an IEP, more closely supervised during transitions (between classes, before and after school), and have a greater focus on daily living skills during the course of a school week. The academic level of a special class is a large factor to consider as students in a special class are typically placed there due to high educational needs.

3. Special Day School: This placement best suits students with severe behaviour needs, mental health needs and academic concerns. All students are on IEPs, are placed in small class sizes and have access to special education teachers and EAs.

Communication between school and home

Open communication between home and school is vital for the success of students. Teachers may send home a questionnaire at the beginning of the school year or partway through the year if new student arrives. The questionnaire seeks to gain understanding of key topics such as: how a student communicates, what their strengths and needs are, what interests they have and what goals they are trying to achieve. Accessing this information will minimize the “settling in period” into a new school or new class setting. Teachers will use the student agenda, phone or possibly email to communicate success, concerns or incidents. The student agenda is the most used medium of communication between home and school. Many parents and guardians find it helpful when the teacher notes down the nature of a conflict or incident at school so they can discuss it with the child at home. For many students with FASD, the connection between how they feel and what happened can be too great of an intellectual step to make on their own; the agenda can help make that step. Teachers appreciate being kept up to date on issues pertaining to the wellbeing of their students such as:

  • changes in medications
  • change in living arrangements
  • upcoming events that may be causing excitement or anxiety
  • new reward systems or behaviour tracking systems
  • key terms or language used at home targeting behaviour e.g. “keep it small”, “ fishing” (when someone is    looking or “fishing” for negative attention), “because that is the rule…”
  • meetings with other people in the students care team e.g. doctor, psychologist, therapist…
  • information regarding school the parent/guardian may not be aware of e.g. student broke up with her boyfriend or hurtful words were exchanged between students in the change room

Plan for the future

Goals for students with FASD should be goals of successful dependence on others rather than goals of successful independence. Focusing on functional math skills e.g. paying for groceries, budgeting; and functional literacy skills e.g. using a bus map, reading a recipe are crucial for future success. Goals for the future can and should be chosen with the student/parent/guardian and teaching team. Many generic goals will be set for students such as the ones listed above. Additional goals or refining goals can be done with increased input from guardians and parents. For example, a parent or guardian could provide a more individualized perspective by indicating a child’s phobia of being in crowded places (i.e. bus), anxiety around talking to strangers, personal hygiene skills, toileting, fine motor skills, or pronunciation. Together, goals can be chosen and monitored to help meet these needs on a case by case basis.

Choosing a high school setting that will equip students with dependent living skills, teaching functional math and language, and training in employable skills will help students achieve a successful future. This can be discussed at an IPRC meeting and be written into the “transition” section of the student I.E.P. Working as a team of parents/guardians, educators and medical staff can support students with FASD from kindergarten through to adulthood in achieving a successful future.

I wish you all the best in planning for success. I hope my perspective has helped you in making the right educational choices for the children you care for.

Tim Groenewegen

Helpful HWDSB document:
Working Together pdf.
IPRC pdf.
IEP pdf

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