FASD at school: the problems

This is part of an 'Education month' examination of FASD within the New Zealand school system. We asked some local experts in FASD education a question each...

Clair Edwards

Clair heads the 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). She live in Auckland with her three children, one hairy dog and three and a half cats!

 

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 better, 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 is 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. 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.

We really need to shift the goals for our learners with FASD from independence to interdependence!