Newsletter 172 - Learners with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS)

 “Intervention and the Child with FAS” by Lyn Weiner, Barbara A. Morse

Although the research is sparse, it appears that specific interventions may help children with FAS better overcome their cognitive and behavioral problems. Special strategies such as consistency, a structured environment, and attention to learning skills can help these children develop to their highest potential.

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) affects children in several ways, with a considerable amount of

variability in the levels of behavioral, psychological, and cognitive deficits (Rosett and Weiner

1984; Weiner and Morse 1991). Some children have only subtle problems, whereas others are

so severely affected that, as they age, they cannot function in the community. People working

with these children have tried to develop caretaking and teaching techniques that circumvent

the disabilities. The goal of such intervention strategies is to afford all people affected by FAS

every opportunity to thrive in society and to reach their maximum potential. In the field of child

development, there is a general view that early intervention and a facilitating environment can

help to maximize every child’s potential, no matter what the problem. However, children without

learning disabilities or behavioral problems can thrive without such interventions, whereas

children such as those with FAS need interventions to approach normalcy.

Learning Strategies

Environment. Restructuring the child’s environment is the primary intervention technique consistently described by parents, teachers, and others who have observed children with FAS. The goal of this strategy is to remove barriers to the child’s progress. If, for example, a child’s fine motor skills make writing laborious, this principle suggests providing the child with a typewriter or computer to remove the hurdle of writing by hand, allowing the child to move ahead.

Children with FAS do best in context specific learning environments in which the teacher uses visual and activity based methods and creative, flexible strategies.

Teachers should keep work spaces clear and free of distraction and put materials not currently used out of sight. Murphy (1993) emphasizes the need to regulate sensory stimulation in the classroom, including touch, sound, and light. Because children with FAS are prone to sensory hypersensitivity, they may be easily overwhelmed in situations where they must process multiple stimuli at one time. Such hypersensitivity can severely and negatively impact their learning, attention, and behavior. Murphy recommends planning teaching activities that prevent mental or physical overstimulation, such as ensuring that reading occurs in a quiet room.  

Learning Skills. A second intervention strategy is teaching FAS children how to learn. Children with FAS appear to learn and use information differently than does the average child. They must be carefully taught even the most basic skills, such as distinguishing friends from strangers.Winick (1993) has demonstrated that role playing can be effective in teaching children with FAS how to understand consequences and appropriate behavior. Phillpot and Harrison (1993) suggest that the emphasis should be on helping children find strategies of their own to improve memory and learning.

Consistency. A third intervention strategy is consistency in the environment, including the behavior and responses of people in the child’s world. Caldwell (1993) followed the experiences of her son, who has FAS, through four educational programs and found that he thrived and behaved appropriately in the classrooms that were most consistent. Although this is only the experience of one child, the programs that were successful for Caldwell’s son included:

  • Teachers who were explicit, consistent, and used preventive discipline.
  • Visual aids and class arrangement that reinforced class rules and activities.
  • Program routines that varied little from day to day.

Techniques that were designed to empower, not intimidate, children.

Educational System

The children with FAS may be inappropriately placed within the school system if their condition has not been accurately diagnosed or if there is a misunderstanding of FAS by the school system. The learning and behavior problems of children with FAS are often inconsistent, thereby masking their educational needs and making it difficult to assess whether they require special classes. Some of these children are incorrectly considered to be emotionally disturbed, and children who could potentially function in regular classrooms with support may instead be placed in special education classes.

Neurobehavioral issues, such as aggression or temper tantrums, can cause some children with FAS to be labeled as bad or malicious, compromising appropriate intervention. In addition, teachers lack guidelines and protocols to address the unique problems of children with FAS.