Today we’re taking a look at FASD and our education system through the lens of three different people: the student, the teacher, and the caregiver.
Individuals with FASD have many strengths, however, these strengths are not often captured in academic research. Anecdotal evidence suggests that individuals with FASD are very friendly, generous, helpful, outgoing, hard-working, determined, non-judgemental, and forgiving. They are often good storytellers, and can be artistic, musical, and athletic. Individuals with FASD may be strong hands-on learners and can excel in non-traditional learning environments.
Prenatal alcohol exposure can affect brain development. As a result, individuals with FASD are often challenged with executive functioning, abstract thinking, emotional regulation, attention, learning and memory, and sensory processing. Academic subjects such as math and languages can be difficult. Individuals with FASD often also experience adverse secondary outcomes as a result of their disability, including suspension, expulsion, or dropping out of school. However, targeted intervention strategies and educational supports are effective at improving outcomes for students with FASD.
Having access to adequate supports and resources in an education system can help individuals with FASD identify their strengths and areas of interest, and work towards achieving success in those areas. Stories of success can be found in blog posts, news articles, and research papers.
These stories are peppered with repeating themes. In order to achieve success, individuals with FASD need parental and educational support, access to effective resources, programs, and services, and FASD-informed school staff.
The experiences of students with FASD can significantly improve with the implementation of an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). This document is a plan specific to each student outlining how educational supports can be used to accommodate the needs of a particular student.
Educators are expected to develop and implement IEPs based on recommendations they are given from psychologists who assess the students. However, teachers have reported frustration with this process. The reports teachers receive from psychologists are difficult to understand because they are filled with technical jargon. The reports are also not an effective resource in helping to develop an education plan because they often highlight the weaknesses of the student and overlook their strengths; they do not take into consideration the educational setting; they do not provide specific recommendations on how to address challenges; and they are far too generalized.
Teachers will often modify the IEPs based on their own experience. However, teachers have not always had experience working with students with FASD, and those that have are not necessarily well educated on FASD and the supportive resources available. While more experienced teachers have been successful at developing their own accommodations for students, it entirely depends on their professional experience.
Another challenge that teachers face is the lack of training for educators surrounding FASD. Those that received in-class FASD training report that the programs were not all that effective because they place far too strong a focus on diagnosis rather than on evidenced-based strategies and resources to support students with FASD.
In order to best support individuals with FASD to succeed in schools, each student needs an individualized education plan that considers the voices of all stakeholders. The development of this plan should be a multidisciplinary effort that considers the perspectives and expertise of the teachers, psychologists, students with FASD, and caregivers from the start of the process (i.e., identification of challenges) to the finish (i.e., the student successfully completing their educational journey). Success requires adequate educational supports and services, effective communication between all parties, and comprehensive training for professionals working with students with FASD.
Stigma is a barrier impacting caregivers’ experiences with the education system. Mothers will often feel guilt or blame themselves when their children with FASD exhibit negative behaviours at school. They often feel isolated, shunned, and judged by school staff who do not have a strong understanding of FASD and its impact on learning and behaviour. This stigma may even prevent them from choosing to disclose their child’s diagnosis with school staff, further limiting their ability to get the educational resources and supports needed.
Caregivers are also consistently frustrated by educators’ lack of awareness and understanding of FASD, and the lack of resources and services available for students with FASD. The caregivers are faced with additional responsibilities, as they have to remain in constant communication with their child’s teachers, they have to educate and re-educate the school staff about FASD as their child moves through the school system, and they have to do additional research to find effective supports and resources available to advocate for their child’s needs in the school system.
Their experience can be remarkably different depending on the attitudes of the school staff. In this blog post, a CanFASD Family Advisory Committee Member shares her experience in raising two sons with FASD. The eldest did not have the supports that he needed to successfully complete high school and dropped out after ninth grade. Her younger son had a completely different experience. His elementary teachers and school staff worked to find the resources and programs to support him throughout his elementary education and into secondary school. They worked with his parents to develop an education plan moving forward, which helped him to succeed in finishing high school.
To improve the experiences of caregivers navigating the education system our society needs to ensure caregivers have access to caregiver-specific supports and resources; our educators and school staff need to be FASD-informed and knowledgeable about appropriate supports and resources; and we need to continue to work to eliminate the stigma surrounding FASD and alcohol consumption during pregnancy.