A series of opinion pieces from NZ-based FASD-informed education experts.
To get a handle on how FASD is currently handled within the education system in Aotearoa, we asked some local experts in FASD education one question each to establish the basics.
Claire heads our FASD-CAN education sub-committee. She has been teaching in Deaf Ed/Special Ed for the past 20 years, and has just moved on to a new role as Adviser On Deaf Children (AODC). Claire live in Auckland with her three children, 'one hairy dog and three and a half cats'!
Question: what are the most common problems for students with FASD at school, and how are these needs not met?
The most common problem facing our tamariki/rangatahi within the education system reflects a much wider problem facing NZ: the lack of recognition of FASD as a disability and a general lack of awareness that FASD is a permanent, lifelong brain injury. This means that our tamariki often struggle to access support and funding as often they do not fit criteria and are not considered ‘bad enough’. Lack of funding results in a lack of support within the classroom (for both student and teacher), a place where our tamariki often struggle to cope with the demands and expectations placed upon them. Often funding comes as the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff when behaviours have escalated and come to a critical point.
There appears to be a distinct lack of training within teacher training institutes around FASD, so teachers are often unaware and not equipped with the skills to deal with the complexities our tamariki present. There is also little support for teachers who are often already dealing with large class numbers and other children with complex needs and neurodiversities.
This and a focus within the classroom on behaviourist techniques such as rewards and consequences (which do not suit children with FASD), often end in behaviours escalating and tamariki/rangatahi being labelled as ‘naughty’ and having behavioural problems.
Within early years and at primary school, our tamariki with FASD often seem to do quite well, possibly due to the more holistic emphasis on learning, but as they hit intermediate/high school there is a huge mismatch in terms of environment and expectations. The fact that they are expected to move from one class to another, one teacher to another and independently follow a timetable does not work well for our learners! If you add sensory processing and memory issues into the mix, it's easy to see how overwhelming this environment would be. Inabilities to regulate emotions without support could end in rangatahi being unable to cope and ending up in trouble.
Then there is the complexity of FASD itself and the fact that it is often ‘invisible’. There’s a saying: ‘if you’ve met one person with FASD, you’ve met one person with FASD!” Levels of skills within FASD can be so different and students can often present as coping on a surface level, but from one day to another they appear to be unable to complete tasks they had previously done.
Without educator training and understanding, it tends to paint a picture of a wilful, manipulative child, rather than a misunderstood one with a brain injury. Often in schools there is a disconnect between the school and the real experts on the child/tamaiti – the whānau! Instead of utilising the knowledge and skills that the whānau have, they can be blamed for behaviours and viewed as interfering parents.
Final thought: we must shift the goals for our learners with FASD from independence to interdependence!
Tracey is a founding member of FASD-CAN Inc. She has spent her life working in the education sector, including primary teaching, teacher training, working as a Resource Teacher of Learning and Behaviour (RTLB), and is currently Head of Department, supporting students with learning needs and leading the development of a programme to support students with ORS at Te Aratai College in Christchurch. Tracey has spent the last 10 years raising awareness around FASD within the education sector throughout NZ and Australia.
Question: What needs to happen ideally in schools for students with FASD and are there any signs of hope and change?
Whānaungatanga / relationship is the key to understanding young people with FASD. FASD is an individualised diagnosis. This means that each young person with FASD will have their own areas of strength, their own interests and their own challenges, and no two people with FASD are the same.
It is imperative that each young person is understood as the person they are, that their strengths are recognised and developed and that their challenges are supported. Whānau are the experts on their young people and it is vital that whānau, the young person and schools work together. Whānaungatanga is increasingly being recognised and embodied in practice by schools throughout Aotearoa / NZ.
A young person with FASD must experience success. This success may be possible with support or with scaffolds being provided. Regardless, success is still success. When a young person experiences success it is important that schools and teachers recognise that the success is possible due to the level of support given. It's vital that the support remains in place over time and is developed and built on.
When a teacher takes the time to connect with whānau, to get to know the young person in their care, to find the strengths in that young person, to reflect as the professional when things become challenging and to try a different way, then the young person will experience success.
Schools are providing more flexibility for their learners, recognising the need for inclusive practices such as Universal Design for Learning (UDL), and providing a range of learning and assessment opportunities for tamariki and rangatahi. The development of individualised learning pathways is providing opportunities for learners to learn in the ways that they can enjoy and have success in.
Alongside this is the need to recognise that young people with FASD need ‘time out’ or opportunities to calm. Classrooms can be over-stimulating. Young people with FASD need to focus so much more to self-regulate. It is vital that quiet spaces, ‘brain breaks’, physical activities and sensory supports are available and easily accessed.
As the saying goes ‘Rome wasn't built in a day’ – however, there's a lot to be thankful for in the development of education at this time. Schools and teachers are increasingly aware of the importance of wellbeing. Teachers are encouraged to be reflective practitioners. Whānaungatanga is developing in importance.
Policy from the Ministry of Education now includes FASD as part of the strategies and practice around supporting neurodiversity in schools. The Inclusive TKI website, an online education tool, has a well-researched guide on FASD with excellent strategies provided for teachers.