Challenged Hope

Grandmother raising Grandchildren with FASD in Hamilton Ontario Canada

Leave a comment

Special Needs Educator

… My school years are long in the past, but I do remember how mentally disabled students were treated back then. I’m thinking of two students in particular who were my peers in the elementary school in England where I grew up. There was Jennifer who suffered with the worst stutter I have ever heard plus severe learning disabilities, and Robert who was obviously challenged by an acute case of ADHD. Strangely enough, in those days, bullying of the more vulnerable by fellow students was seldom practiced, sad to say the teachers more than made up for it.

Not a day passed without my seeing a teacher lob a blackboard eraser at Jennifer or whack the back of her hand with a wooden ruler as she painfully stuttered her way through a story she couldn’t read, her face turning red with embarrassment and tears streaming down her cheeks as she was heckled and humiliated by the very person who should have been helping her. And I remember the time the Principal called the whole school staff and students out into the grounds, then dragged Robert outside and publicly shamed him by pulling down his pants and repeatedly swiping him on the rear end with a sneaker, for insolence over not listening to authority. Robert’s protesting howls are with me to this day.

For me, trying to justify this sordid behaviour against the mentally disabled with the excuse that teachers just didn’t know enough about mental disorders in those days is unacceptable. When did ignorance replace compassion?

Thank goodness things have changed! That’s one reason why I contacted my two eldest mentally disabled grandchildren’s teacher and asked him to help parents realize just how much help there is for mentally disabled children in the classrooms today.

His name is Tim Groenewegen and he is a special needs educator in the city of Hamilton, Ontario and kindly agreed to share his experience with, and knowledge of, special needs education….

photo (2)


             Teaching Students with FASD: Tim Groenewegen

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).


I have been working with students with special needs for the past four 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.


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 well being 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 documents:

  • Working Together pdf.
  • IPRC pdf.
  • IEP pdf

Leave a comment

Appropriate Stages Of Child Development

When my grandchildren were young, I realized they were not developing mentally as most children do, and looked on-line for a list of age appropriate development stages but, for some reason, was hard pressed to find one. But just the other day, I came across this one at and thought it might be helpful to other caregivers:

 Parents are often the first to notice that “something doesn’t seem right.” If you are aware of the common signs of learning disabilities, you will be able to recognize potential problems early. The following is a checklist of characteristics that may point to a learning disability. Most people will, from time to time, see one or more of these warning signs in their children. This is normal. If, however, you see several of these characteristics over a long period of time, consider the possibility of a learning disability.


  • Speaks later than most children
  • Pronunciation problems
  • Slow vocabulary growth, often unable to find the right word
  • Difficulty rhyming words
  • Trouble learning numbers, alphabet, days of the week, colors, shapes
  • Extremely restless and easily distracted
  • Trouble interacting with peers
  • Difficulty following directions or routines
  • Fine motor skills slow to develop

Grades K-4

  • Slow to learn the connection between letters and sounds
  • Confuses basic words (run, eat, want)
  • Makes consistent reading and spelling errors including letter reversals (b/d), inversions (m/w), transpositions (felt/left), and substitutions (house/home)
  • Transposes number sequences and confuses arithmetic signs (+, -, x, /, =)
  • Slow to remember facts
  • Slow to learn new skills, relies heavily on memorization
  • Impulsive, difficulty planning
  • Unstable pencil grip
  • Trouble learning about time
  • Poor coordination, unaware of physical surroundings, prone to accidents

Grades 5-8

  • Reverses letter sequences (soiled/solid, left/felt)
  • Slow to learn prefixes, suffixes, root words, and other spelling strategies
  • Avoids reading aloud
  • Trouble with word problems
  • Difficulty with handwriting
  • Awkward, fist-like, or tight pencil grip
  • Avoids writing assignments
  • Slow or poor recall of facts
  • Difficulty making friends
  • Trouble understanding body language and facial expressions

High School Students and Adults

  • Continues to spell incorrectly, frequently spells the same word differently in a single piece of writing
  • Avoids reading and writing tasks
  • Trouble summarizing
  • Trouble with open-ended questions on tests
  • Weak memory skills
  • Difficulty adjusting to new settings
  • Works slowly
  • Poor grasp of abstract concepts
  • Either pays too little attention to details or focuses on them too much
  • Misreads information

Have your child evaluated

Ask school authorities to provide a comprehensive educational evaluation including assessment tests. Tests for learning disabilities are referred to as assessment tests because they evaluate and measure areas of strengths and weaknesses. A comprehensive evaluation, however, includes a variety of procedures in addition to the assessment tests, such as interviews, direct observation, reviews of your child’s educational and medical history, and conferences with professionals who work with your child. Either you or the school can request this evaluation, but it is given only with your written permission. Since you are one of the best observers of your child’s development, it is important that you be an active participant in the evaluation process. If you don’t understand the test results, ask questions!

Leave a comment

I.E.P. & I.P.R.C.

When my mentally disabled grandchildren were young, I enrolled them in a private Christian school. By doing so I believed they would benefit from the one-to-one monitoring the learning centre provided, and the help and instruction they received was impeccable, especially from the kindergarten teacher who, despite their disabilities, taught all four the basics of reading and writing related to their specific age group.

But as time progressed, it became obvious that their mental challenges were impeding their learning and so, as the Christian school had no alternative programming for disabled students, it was necessary for me to make the decision to take them out of the Christian school and place them in the public school system. Since then they have received a lot of help regarding their disabilities including an education assistant and an IEP (individual education plan: See – What is an IEP?) and, in September 2012, the two older children were registered in a specialized program which focuses more on learning independence for daily living, rather than on the ABC’s.

However, experience has taught me the importance of communicating with the school staff in order for the children to receive the help they need. Before the two older grandchildren qualified for the specialized program, a psycho-educational assessment had to be completed for each  of them and IPRC meetings (See – What is an IPRC?) had to be attended, but above all, the children’s resource teacher is to be commended for her advocacy of them being placed in a specialized environment. For this, I thank her profusely, and pray all other parents of disabled children are as fortunate as I in receiving help such as hers.

Another resource  is after-school programming. This can provide respite for the caregiver, and also remove the disabled child from the after-school neighbourhood play which invariable leads to bullying of the child by neighbourhood kids. In the after-school programme they can play safely and under supervision and benefit greatly from the structured routine.

What is an IEP?

I initially registered my grandchildren in a private Christian school where an alternative program for disabled children was not available. But as time progressed it became obvious that they needed specialized programming so I placed them in a public school. It was then I heard the initials I.E.P. and had no idea what it stood for or how it was to be utilized in my grandchildren’s education. Now I understand that IEP stands for Individualized Education Program: a legally binding document that explains exactly what special education services your child requires.

When I attended my first IEP meeting at my grandchildren’s new school, I learned that the IEP was developed by each child’s teacher and learning resource teacher who, together, had taken into consideration their recent provincial report cards, my assessment of their needs, earlier psychometric assessments, verbal reports from their previous school, and reading, math and language assessments. The IEP also recorded areas of strengths and needs, and noted the reason for the development of each IEP.

Also a list of accommodations to each child’s learning needs were recorded, i.e. Instructional Accommodations, Environmental Accommodations, and Assessment Accommodations. These provide suggestions on how the child can be best helped in the classroom, such as, buddy/peer tutoring; extra time for processing; strategic seating, and use of technology/calculators, etc.

This was followed by a list of Learning Expectations, Teaching Strategies, and Assessment Methods for each of the child’s learning problem areas, such as: Math, Language, and English, etc. This IEP was used throughout the school year to help each child’s level of achievement improve, with a new IEP established annually if necessary.

The IEP meeting was attended by myself, the learning resource teacher, the teacher, and a caseworker overseeing my grandchildren’s development. But the meeting does not have to be limited to mostly school staff. If a parent or guardian would like other members of the community who he/she feels could add extra insight into the child’s needs, for example: a psychologist, a therapist or social worker, it can be requested.

It’s important not to feel intimidated during these meetings. At the first IEP meeting for my grandson, I remember having the IEP placed before me and being led through it one item at a time, but due to my nervousness at being surrounded by staff who appeared to know a lot more about my grandson’s needs and IEP’s than I did, I had difficulty following along, but when asked to sign the IEP, I did so without hesitation when in fact I should have taken it home first to study it and return it signed when satisfied. It would also have been a good idea to go prepared with appropriate questions and comments instead of sitting with my head hung down in embarrassment because of my uncertainty of what an IEP actually was.

What is an IPRC meeting?

By the time I attended an I.P.R.C. (Identification, Placement & Review Committee) meeting I understood more about the specialized programming for children with special needs. The IPRC meeting was scheduled for two of my grandchildren when it became obvious their disabilities could not be served by an IEP alone. A committee decides whether or not a child should be identified as having special needs that fall under one of Ontario’s Ministry of Education categories. The IPRC’s objective is to ensure safeguards surround the student to ensure his/her full learning potential is reached.

Either the parents, guardian or school staff can request an IPRC, with the parent being notified at least ten days before the meeting takes place. The time and date can be changed by the parent if inappropriate to their schedule. Remember, you have the right to be present and participate in all IPRC dialogue about your child, and it’s in your, and the child’s, best interest for you to attend every IPRC meeting.

Those usually attending the IPRC meeting are the student’s teacher, resource teacher, guidance counsellor, principal, psychologist, a school board representative and the parents. Using information from the staff and parents, the committee will form a recommendation for placement of the student, and the parents will be asked to sign a document agreeing to the committee’s recommendations.

All other information submitted by the child’s doctor’s or other professionals involved in his/her diagnosis must be taking into consideration by the committee, and is usually done so before the meeting takes place.

According to the Ministry: If everyone is in agreement, the statement of decision may be signed at the IPRC meeting and a copy given to the parent — but parents may also take the document home to review it before signing.

The statement of decision must include:

  • whether the Committee has identified the pupil as exceptional
  • where the Committee has identified the pupil as exceptional, the decision must include:
  1. the Committee’s description of the pupil’s strengths and needs
  2. the categories and definitions of exceptionalities identified
  3. the Committee’s placement decision
  4. the Committee’s recommendations, if any, regarding special education programs and services.

A key element of the IPRC decision is the proper identification of the child’s learning needs. The Statement of Needs on the IPRC document should include all the areas for which special education support is required. There is no limit on the number of needs that may be included on the IPRC document.

For information regarding Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board programming contact 905.527.5092 or visit their website at