School of Hope
Teaching kids with fetal alcohol syndrome
Reporter: Jennifer Rattray
Airdate: June 13, 2002
In Canada, about 65,000 children have fetal alcohol syndrome, a condition triggered when their mothers drink alcohol during pregnancy. It affects a child's mind and body. It makes learning incredibly difficult. Children who have it often struggle through the school system and fall through the cracks. But not at one school in Winnipeg. For these children it's a school of hope.
Eleven-year-old Jesse Laporte has fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), but Jesse is thriving at school because he goes to Winnipeg's David Livingstone School. The public elementary school has two special classrooms for 16 children with fetal alcohol syndrome.
Eight years ago, the stereotype about kids and FAS was challenged by four women there. Leading the way was Angeline Ramkissoon, the school's principal.
"We had a group of kids coming into our school system who are fetal alcohol syndrome and we knew absolutely nothing about fetal alcohol," she says. "We were overwhelmed because, like everything else, you're afraid of the unknown. And when you don't know much about it, well the best thing to do is to find out about it."
Even one drink on a day of critical fetal development can be enough to do damage.
"When your mom drinks when they have you, it makes your mind different than other people's minds," explains Jesse Laporte.
Dorothy Schwab, the occupational therapist on the FAS team at David Livingstone, first met Jesse when he was in kindergarten.
"He was just a little peanut," she says. "He was so tiny; a charming little boy, full of energy and a smile that would just melt your heart."
But Jesse can't remember kindergarten. It's just one of the ways FAS affects him. Jesse also has trouble concentrating. When Schwab realized that his constant wiggling actually helped him focus, she built a hammock so Jesse could keep moving and keep learning. Despite all these obstacles, Jesse has regular kid dreams of growing up, getting a job.
"I want to work in a restaurant," he says. "I do chores at home and I dry dishes and I throw out the garbage. And when I'm working I'll do the dishes in the back."
So what is it like to try to learn with fetal alcohol syndrome? Put on some flickering lights, turn on some loud distracting music and then put on the itchiest sweater you can find. When all of your senses are completely overwhelmed, sit down and take a spelling test. Chances are you won't do very well. You can't concentrate. Well, neither can kids with FAS.
"These kids are so sensitive to sight and sounds that they would be able to hear the flickering from the bulbs," says Ramkissoon. "We realized that because we found out that later on the kids would just look up at the lights and they would blink in tune with the flickers that they were hearing."
Before they could teach FAS kids, the team needed to forget a lot of what they'd been taught. The first thing to go was the over-stimulating classroom environment. They covered up distracting walls and brought in soothing music. After changing the environment, they changed their teaching methods.
In a science class a lesson on smoking is taught visually with the aid of a dissected pig. It's one way to get through to FAS kids.
Another way to get through is repetition and plenty of it.
"Repeat, reteach, repeat, reteach... I think that became our mantra as it were," says Ramkissoon.
"We keep things simple," says resource teacher Linda Pisa. "Directions are simple. Teaching is brief, clear, repetitive."
And patience isn't a luxury. It's a necessity.
But there's more.
Computers instead of pens are used for children with damaged motor skills, as are toys that calm and soothe.
And when the classroom gets to be too overwhelming, there's a place to go – a bunny hole for the younger ones and a quiet corner with a special weighted blanket for the older students.
"The weights calm you down because the weight is hard and it's heavy and you can't move much and it calms you down and it makes you relax," says Jesse.
Weighted blankets help. So do weighted vests.
"Our kids have a lot of difficulty with body awareness and where their body is in space," explains Schwab. "They're often bulldozing along around the classroom, bumping into peers, bumping into furniture, tripping over their own feet and these are the kids that never get invited to birthday parties because people feel they're just too aggressive and will tear the house apart. They're often left out of the social circle, which doesn't do much for their self-esteem. We do put the weighted vests on them to give them a better sense of where their body is in space and they can move around in a more coordinated and a calmer manner."
Weighted vests, stripped down classrooms, hands on learning – these teaching techniques and coping tools are being recognized across Canada and around the world.
"It was a bit surprising at the beginning because I simply thought we were doing what we were expected to do," says Ramkissoon. "We had a cluster of kids who learned differently and we were trying to find ways to teach them differently, so for me it was not such a big deal. We were just doing our jobs. But later on when we started getting calls from places like the States and we had visitors coming in from the Ukraine and then I thought, 'Okay, well, we're probably on to something here.'"
To cut down on the number of visitors, they made a video, but hundreds of educators still come anyway to pick up techniques and take home some hope.
"A lot of the kids are just ripe for gang activity in the inner city because they are the ones that go along and they do what they're told and they want to be part of the group and they don't necessarily know this is wrong," says Schwab.
In a brain that doesn't remember or understand consequences, deterrence doesn't work. That has some educators asking why government won't spend money on prevention when they're willing to spend money on incarcerations.
"If some of those dollars were to be put up front in some pro-active strategies, probably the quality of life for these kids would be a lot better than if we waited until the crisis occur and then respond to the crisis instead," says Ramkissoon.
For every child in the FAS program at David Livingstone School, there are ten more waiting and two levels of government have turned down requests to expand the program beyond the elementary school level. The province of Manitoba says it's not convinced that what works in this school will work in high school.
Right now Jesse is in Grade 5, but one year from now, when he's finishing Grade 6, Jesse will be on his own in a regular high school. No special programs. No special classrooms. No support. All the more frustrating because teachers say this program is working.
"They're either at grade level in reading or very close to grade level whereas eight years ago we had children in Grade 6 still reading at a Grade 1 or 2 level, or not reading very well at all," says Pisa. "That's a big indicator. The hard data is there."
Josephine Smith, a teaching assistant at the school, has fostered five FAS children. She says she hear the effects at home.
"'Mommy, I'm not different anymore' or 'They're the same as I am' or 'People aren't making fun of me now' or 'This, I can understand now, Mom,'" she says. "It's made a world of difference."
Six years after Jesse and Dorothy Schwab first met, Jesse is reading at grade level. He likes math and loves school. But Jesse is not the only one who's changed.
"I see the children here as being my teachers and they have taught me everything I know about fetal alcohol syndrome," says Schwab. "They have taught me a lot about myself. They are constantly teaching me and they have been just a gift in my life."
"They've taught us to be flexible. They taught us to be creative," says Ramkissoon. "They taught us that if they cannot learn in this way then it's our responsibility to find the ways to teach them."