Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Fetal Alcohol Effects
By Linda Dillon
Parenting and teaching a child with FAS or FAE is one of the biggest challenges you will ever face, yet your child will reward you with love. With consistency and patience your child will learn, and can become a helpful, delightful member of your family. The FAS/E child can be sweet, caring, affectionate, creative, love animals, have artistic and musical talent, and have a desire to please.
The challenge lies in the fact that these children may have cognitive and behavioral problems stemming from prenatal alcohol exposure. They may be impulsive, hyperactive, and distractible. They may have poor social skills, difficulty with memory, difficulty understanding cause and effect relationships, lack of conscience, poor judgment, sensory processing dysfunction, and learning disabilities. They are usually immature for their age, have difficulty waiting for their turn, and do not perceive social cues from others. When frustrated they may have angry outbursts or temper tantrums. They may lie and steal. They may have an IQ that is lower than normal. They may have health problems, and be small for their age.
According to the University of Washington Diagnostic Guide for Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, FAS is defined by four things: growth deficiency, a specific set of facial characteristics, brain dysfunction, and prenatal alcohol exposure. The FAS facial features include "short palpebral fissures, an elongated midface, a long and flattened philtrum, thin upper lip, and flattened maxilla." However, the most significant disability for children exposed to prenatal alcohol is brain dysfunction, and the resulting cognitive and behavioral challenges.
Not all children exposed to alcohol in the womb have FAS. If there is evidence of brain damage, but no growth deficiency or FAS facial features, the child may receive a diagnosis of Fetal Alcohol Effects (FAE), or Alcohol Related Neurobehavioral Disorder (ARND). It is estimated that this occurs three or four times as often as FAS.
We have eight children, five are biological and three are adopted. In 1997 we set out on our great adoption adventure and brought home two very cute little boys from an orphanage in Russia. Valeriy (Val), and Eugeniy (Gene), were six and four years old when they arrived in our home speaking not one word of English. (Our 5-year-old son, Paul, was thrilled to get two new brothers almost his own age.) We learned that their biological mother had died of liver problems related to alcoholism. However, we knew nothing about FAS/E at that time, and we honestly had no idea what we were getting into. Our younger Russian son, Gene, exhibits many more of the behavior problems associated with FAS/E, but both boys have the common FAS/E learning difficulties. We took our son, Gene, to the University of Washington FAS Clinic for testing. He was given a diagnosis of Alcohol Related Neurobehavioral Disorder. He had prenatal alcohol exposure and brain dysfunction, but no growth deficiency, and had only "mild" FAS facial features. His overall IQ test score was 87, which is the "low end of normal."
However, for homeschooling families a diagnosis is not really necessary if you have knowledge of fetal alcohol exposure and the childís behaviors are consistent with the ones I have described above. The main reason parents seek an official diagnosis is to obtain special education services from the public school system.
So by now you are wondering, why would anyone want to homeschool an FAS/E child? My mother always encourages me to put my son, Gene, in a public or private school "so I can have a break from him each day." However, the outcome of FAS/E children that are educated by the public school system is often an unhappy one. One article I read says, "The girls get knocked up, and the boys get locked up." Of FAE adults, 60% will have trouble with the law, between 50% and 70% will have alcohol and drug problems, and many will end up in mental institutions or become homeless. By homeschooling our boys, we are hoping for a better result.
The book Fantastic Antone Succeeds explains that public school was too over-stimulating for 8-year-old Antone, a boy with FAS. Each week of school was like a roller coaster ride. On Monday he came home from public school happy, willing, focused, affectionate, sympathetic, and was able to complete tasks independently. As the week wore on his behavior and ability to focus would go sharply downhill. By Friday he was "resistive, scattered, inattentive, unable to follow even simple, single command instructions independently." He would make sharp, repetitive sounds at inappropriate times, would repeat phrases and lose his train of thought "like a stuck record." However, during the weekend at home he "became himself again." Sunday was described as a honeymoon day for Antone, when he was back to normal and was delightful to be with. This weekly pattern grew worse as the school year went on. Unfortunately, the book never mentions homeschooling as a solution for little Antone.
Homeschooling gives your child more individual time and attention than a regular classroom setting would be able to give. Lessons can move along at your childís pace, and lessons can be taught throughout the day in real-life situations. For example, while riding in the car you can work on learning right and left as the car turns in different directions.
I have spoken to other mothers of FAE children, and they agree that their child is somehow drawn to the worst behaved child in any social situation, such as playing at the park. Because of immaturity, poor judgment, and a desire to please their new "friend," they may join in inappropriate behaviors. The book Fantastic Antone Succeeds tells about a boy who took a short cut through the school property on his way to a friendís house. He noticed some boys throwing rocks and breaking the school windows. So he joined in the fun and broke windows with them. He did not have a natural conscience to tell him that these boys were being bad and he should stay away from them.
They also learn the worst language that surrounds them. Our son, Gene, has the uncanny ability to learn the only objectionable phrase in a perfectly cute G-rated movie for children. This has happened several times. For example, we watched the movie "Babe," about the pig that learns to herd sheep and wins a sheep dog contest. At one point in the movie, the animals look in the window and see the farmer and his wife eating a goose for Christmas dinner. One of the animals says, "Christmas is carnage." My son, Gene, went around saying that phrase over and over for months, even after we explained that carnage means bloody death, slaughter, and massacre.
We believe that if our son Gene were to attend public school he would make friends with the worst behaved children there, and learn inappropriate language and behaviors. We hope to teach Christian values to all our children, raise them to love and obey the Lord, and have a saving faith in Him. Homeschooling parents can use day to day living to teach their children about right and wrong choices, good and bad attitudes, and Biblical truths. Homeschooling parents can protect their children from inappropriate friends, and set up social situations where their children will come in contact with children who are a good influence on them. Homeschooling parents can protect their children from objectionable movies, computer games, and other activities that might teach inappropriate beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors to their children. Children with FAS/E need this close parental supervision much more than other children because of their inability to make good choices for themselves.
Strangers easily approach these children, and they are sometimes victims of kidnappers, abusers and molesters. Homeschooling parents can keep a close eye on their children and whom they come in contact with.
Advice for Parents
My first and most important piece of advice for homeschooling parents of FAS/E children is to pray without ceasing. Pray that guardian angels will watch over your child night and day to keep him from harm, since he is often not able to judge what is safe and what is right. The behavior of an FAS/E child would test the patience of a saint. So also pray for yourself, for wisdom in parenting your special child, for unending patience, and for the Holy Spirit to keep you from anger and hardness of heart towards your child when he behaves very badly.
My next piece of advice is to have some scheduled breaks from your children. Iím so happy to see my children after Iíve had a few hours away from home conversing with adults. Have some activities you do outside the home with your husband or your friends.
You will need a good grandma, older child, or baby-sitter who understands something about FAS/E. Every mother of an FAS/E child has some baby-sitter horror stories to tell! I took my children to our pastorís house so the pastorís teenage daughters could baby-sit them during the womenís Bible study at church. When I got back, all the children were playing games in the living room, except Gene, who was nowhere in sight. I asked where he was, and the baby-sitter said, "I donít know. He was here a minute ago." Uh, oh! So we went looking for him. He had locked himself in the boyís bedroom, and was busy tearing all the toys and games out of the closet! He wanted to see what toys there were to play with, and he had gone into the bedroom secretly and alone, to get into things that did not belong to him, without the permission or knowledge of the girls who were baby-sitting him. The teenage girls didnít understand the level of supervision that is necessary for a FAE child.
One time we had a teenager baby-sit our children in our home. When we came back the other children were all coloring pictures nicely at the table, but Gene was cracking nuts open on the kitchen floor with a big 2 by 4 board! He had told the baby-sitter he wanted to show her how we crack nuts at our house, and she had believed him.
One day Daddy was fixing something in the garage, while he was watching the children. While Daddy was occupied, 9-year-old Gene got down three spray bottles containing bleach, slug-killer, and Windex from the top shelf in our bathroom. He dumped the contents in the toilet, filled the bottles up with water, and took them outside to play squirt guns! When questioned about it later he said that he had found the bottles outside and they were empty. His little sister, Sarah, who played squirt guns with him and had seen the whole thing, told us the truth. Although we were very disappointed about the stealing and the lying, we were glad he had dumped out the contents of the bottles instead of playing squirt guns with poison!
My friendís 9-year-old son with FAE convinced a teenage baby-sitter that "it was time for his medicine." The baby-sitter believed him and actually gave him a spoonful of allergy medicine that had a prescription label dated a year previously. He just liked the taste, and decided to try to con the baby-sitter into something he wouldn't get if his mother were home. My friend was upset when she found out about it, and that was the last time she called that particular baby-sitter.
These are some examples to show the importance of choosing your baby-sitter carefully and training them well. The baby-sitter needs to know that the FAS/E child must not be out of sight, and must be supervised as if he or she was a much younger child. Someone who knows the child well, and knows the rules of your house, would make the best baby-sitter.
Before I can talk about homeschooling, I must address the behavioral challenges and some possible solutions. These behaviors continue throughout the day, whether it is "school time" or not.
1. It is best to give only one instruction at a time. If we say, "Carry your dishes and then go to the bathroom," Gene will confuse the two things and carry his dishes into the bathroom! So break it down into two separate parts, and wait until the first one is completed before giving the second instruction.
He also has trouble doing two things at the same time. For example, Gene
cannot eat dinner and watch a movie at the same time. It is too distracting for
him. Sometimes on a special occasion we will eat dinner in front of a video
movie. When the movie is over and everyone else is carrying his or her empty
dishes away, Gene is still sitting there with a whole plate of food in front of
3. Use simple, brief language when telling the child something. Use concrete vocabulary and avoid metaphors or expressions like, "Take the fork in the road." He will imagine an eating utensil lying in the street.
4. Choose your movies very carefully. A movie with even a slightly scary content will give Gene bad dreams or keep him awake all night. Some of the movies made for children these days are really bad for children. We recently rented the childrenís animated movie "Anastasia" because we thought our boys might enjoy seeing a movie about a Russian princess. It was really awful, with a wicked sorcerer, magic spells, green goblins, etc. Gene was so scared he was up almost all night and was afraid to have the light turned off in his bedroom.
5. Gene and Val both can get hyperactive when people are visiting, or anything outside of the normal routine is happening. Sometimes they act really silly, hiding behind the sofa or under the table, giggling or wrestling together.
Some parents have found success with creating a quiet corner or special chair where the child can go to be alone and unwind for a few minutes when he is overstimulated. This spot is comfortable and is not a punishment. We have found that Gene will often go out by himself and just sit quietly on our swing set after playing an exciting board game with his siblings. We see it as a sign of Geneís growing maturity that he, subconsciously or not, realizes that he needs that quiet spot, finds it himself and uses it appropriately.
6. These children have difficulty generalizing from one situation to another. For example, Gene knows that our woodstove is hot and he does not touch it. When Gene was 8-years-old we went to visit our friends the Bushnells in the winter time. We took all of our children right over to the woodstove and said, "This is the Bushnellís woodstove. It is very hot. Do not touch it." Later we saw Gene shaking his finger around in the air and blowing on it. We asked him why he was doing that. He said he had touched the Bushnellís woodstove to see if it was hot! He did not believe or understand that if our woodstove at home was hot, this meant that a woodstove in another house would also be hot. None of our other children, older or younger, touched the Bushnellís woodstove.
7. Some FAS/E children are orally fixated. Even now at age 9, Gene usually has his fingers in his mouth while he is doing things such as schoolwork, computer games, or watching a video. We make him aware of it by saying, "Fingers," and he puts his hands down. He also puts toys, pencils and other things into his mouth.
8. It is important to check the child's clothing every morning. At age 9 Gene still often puts on underwear, pants and shirts backward or inside out, or his shoes on the wrong feet. His zipper is usually down after a trip to the bathroom. He also will put on a coat to go outside when it is 90-degree weather, or forget to put on his coat when it is snowing outside. So FAS/E children need reminding.
9. These children may be overly affectionate with strangers. When Gene was younger he would try to hold hands with a neighbor we just met, hug the deliveryman, or jump into the lap of people at church we did not know well. We had to explain to him that we only sit in the laps of people who are relatives, like parents, grandparents, aunt and uncles, etc. We only hug relatives like our cousins.
10. The child may become distracted and forget what they are supposed to be doing. One day we told the children to get in the car for church. Gene got distracted on the way to the car and started playing in the sandbox. We realized he was missing and someone had to go look for him. These children need extra reminding to stay on their task.
Gene also used to get distracted in a store and just wander off to look at things, and we had to search through the whole store to find him again. Now our children have learned the 3 rules for going into a store: donít touch anything, donít ask for anything, and stay with Mom. We have found that the best way to keep track of Gene in the store is to have him keep one hand on the side of my shopping cart.
My friend now makes her 9-year-old son keep both hands on the shopping cart, because one day he used his free hand to impulsively pull open several of the "pop-top" catfood lids as he went down the isle. She had to pay for a whole bag of opened catfood cans, and she doesnít even own a cat. Her son had to pay her back for the catfood with his allowance for quite a while.
11. The child may be forgetful and lose things. Gene loses his toys around the house, and forgets to hang up his wet towel after a shower. He forgets his coat or Bible at church. He loses his coat or mittens outside. He leaves his bike or coat out all night in the rain. So before he comes inside we say, "Put your bike away." We remind him, "If you are finished with your mittens, bring them to me."
12. The child may have late potty training, and nighttime bedwetting. Gene wet the bed until age 7, and had many daytime accidents when he was too busy playing to listen to his body signals. We put a plastic cover on the mattress, and for a while we put big diapers on Gene at night.
He also had many accidents involving a bowel movement in his pants, especially in a new place or when he was really excited about something. One time when he was about 6-years-old we went to a wedding at our church. He was very excited while he was playing with the children outside before the wedding started. When we called the children inside, we smelled something, and we asked him if he had pooped in his pants. He said yes, so I took him to the bathroom. But there was not much in his underwear. He explained that the poop had rolled down his pants leg and onto the ground. I asked him where this had happened, and he said he didnít know. So Gene and I, in our best church clothes, took some paper towels and went outside looking for his lost poop. We finally found it on the playground and cleaned it up. Unfortunately, we had no change of underwear for him with us, so he had to sit through the wedding and the reception in dirty pants.
So we learned to always carry a change of clothes because of possible mishaps, such as a mud puddle, car sickness, spilled juice, or a bowel accident.
13. The child may not have accurate perception of hunger or satiation. If Gene really likes what we are having for dinner, he will ask for more and more until he has eaten more than the adults have, and we must tell him he is finished.
My friendís 9-year-old will steal food, hide somewhere and eat it until he throws up.
14. Our son Gene is very moody. In one mood he is happy, silly, helpful, and loves everybody and everything. He will say, "I love you, Mom. Iím glad you adopted me." In his other mood he is very angry, he will yell, stomp his feet, slam doors, hit his siblings, etc. These different moods can happen several times in the same day. He has a "short fuse." A little frustration about something sets him off into the yelling, angry, door-slamming mood. We make him stand in the corner while he calms down. If he yells at us, or hits, kicks or throws anything when we tell him to stand in the corner, he gets a spanking. We realize that this kind of behavior in a teenager will be completely unacceptable and we want to nip it in the bud. If he breaks things on purpose when he is angry we make him pay to replace them out of his allowance.
15. The child may have poor impulse control. I used to call Gene "Curious George." In the book it says, "George knew he shouldn't (whatever) but he was curious, so he did."
Because of poor impulse control, there is often a problem with stealing. Our son Gene has never stolen from anyone outside of our family. However, my friendís 9-year-old son with FAE has stolen money from her purse, food from the neighborís freezer, mail from a neighborís mailbox, and items from stores. When we have an incident of stealing at our house we first talk about the Ten Commandments, Godís most important rules. Then we talk about how adults who steal things go to jail, and it is not a nice place.
16. The child may lie about things even when caught red-handed. If we see Gene playing in Daddy's toolbox, and we say, "Were you playing in Daddy's toolbox?" he will say no, even though we just saw him doing it. He says what he thinks we want to hear, not what really happened. We try to give him a second chance to consider his answer by saying something like, "We are going to ask you again. Think about what is true before you answer." Usually that will do the trick, but sometimes he will repeat his lie.
Often when Gene is caught doing something he is not supposed to be doing he says, "Val told me to do it," or "Sarah was doing it first." So we say, "If Val told you to jump off a cliff, would you do it?" Or, "If Sarah told you to drink poison would you do it?" He can see that the answer to these questions is no. We are trying to teach him to do what is right no matter what others around him are doing.
17. The child may be unaware of danger, and have bad judgment about dangerous situations. When Gene was 5-years-old he rode a big wheel tricycle out into the street in front of a truck. He definitely saw the truck coming, and he was smiling and waving at the truck driver. The truck screeched on its brakes and stopped. We thought maybe it was because he had just come out of the orphanage, so we spent a lot of time talking about the danger of cars in the street, and the need to stay at the side of the road. But then at age 8 he purposely rode his bike out in front of our 17-year-old daughterís car as she came down our street. My daughter slammed on her brakes and stopped to avoid hitting him. Then when she got out of the car to scold him, he laughed and said, "That was fun! But you were supposed to honk!" He thought it was a big game.
Gene is unaware of other kinds of danger also. At age 6 he walked right up and put his hand in front of Daddy's welding torch to see if it was hot, even though Daddy told the children they must stay out of the garage while he was welding. He was badly burned. However, now he does understand and believe that the welder is hot, and he wonít repeat the same mistake.
FAS/E children must be taught explicitly about the dangers of their home and environment. They may not learn on their own that the stove is hot, electric sockets may give a shock, dogs may bite, etc. They also must be supervised as if they were younger children. I start the shower water for Gene so he wonít get it too hot.
18. Sometimes running away is a problem. When I was a child and my parents punished me for something bad that I had done, I fantasized about running away. The difference is that the FAS/E child really might run away when he is angry or upset. Gene has run away down our street a couple of times and then come back. When we asked him where he was planning to go, he told us he was going to sleep in a tree. One night after a "running away" incident, Gene was happily eating his dinner and he told me how good the food was. My husband just looked over at him and casually said, "If you had run away today you wouldnít be eating this good dinner." My husband is a man of few words, but he makes them count.
My friendís 9-year-old son has run away six times and has traveled up to two miles from home. One morning he ran away while it was still dark and his parents were sleeping. He usually steals food from the pantry first, so he will have something to eat on the way. One time a Coca-Cola deliveryman brought him home and one time the police brought him home. This habit is a real concern for their family. The little boy has no idea of the danger of running around on the streets by himself. Door and window locks, and alerting the neighbors about the problem might be a good idea for their family.
19. Change is very difficult for these children. Moving to a new house can be a nightmare for a few months. The children feel insecure and they have to learn the rules all over again. My friendís son ran away after moving. Our son just got into a lot of trouble doing things that he wasn't allowed to do at the old house. He thought since the sofa was in a new house, it must be O.K. to jump on it now. Although he wasnít allowed to play with the water and the outdoor hose at the old house, he thought it must be O.K. now that the hose was in a new backyard, etc.
20. In closing this section I want to say that using natural consequences does work. Although in general FAS/E children have a poor understanding of cause and effect, they can learn from their mistakes when it is very personal and memorable for them. For example, when my oldest daughter, Christy, was 16-years-old she had a lovely garden with several big, very prolific raspberry bushes. One day Christy told all the children, "The raspberries are ripe, but do not go into my garden. Do not touch them. When I get home today I will make you some raspberry pie." Gene was about 7-years-old, and he couldnít resist. While the other children were playing nicely on the swing set, he snuck away and got into Christyís garden. I was watching the children out the window, but I did not notice that Gene was missing. He ate raspberries frantically, as fast as he could stuff them into his mouth, knowing that he was doing something wrong and that he might get caught at any moment. He reappeared in the backyard with red stains on his face, shirt and hands, just as Christy arrived home. She asked him, "Gene, were you eating raspberries from my garden?" He said no, even though the evidence was all over his face. Then he immediately began to throw up on the ground. He threw up piles of raspberries, many of them whole and unchewed. Christy looked at him and said, "Gene, you have already eaten your share of raspberries for the whole summer, and you are not eating one more!" So for a few weeks Gene sat there and watched the other children enjoying raspberry pie, raspberry cobbler, raspberries on ice cream, etc. It was a torture for him, but he did learn his lesson. He has never touched the ripe raspberries again without permission, and now he is able to enjoy raspberry desserts with his siblings. This "no raspberry dessert" consequence for stealing raspberries was much more effective than a spanking. We have found that FAS/E children easily forget spankings.
I will include one more example of the successful use of natural consequences. One day the children were playing with Lego building blocks at our big dining room table. Each child had his or her own bucket of Lego pieces. All of the sudden Gene decided he was finished and he wanted to go play outside. We told him that was fine but he needed to pick up his Legos first. He said he did not want to. We said, "They are your Legos so you pick them up." He suddenly saw a way out and said, "Sarah can have my Legos. I donít want to pick them up." We said, "What!?!" He told us he wanted to give all his Legos away to his little sister Sarah. We realized at that moment that we could spank him and make him pick up his Legos, or we could let him learn from the consequences of his impulsive behavior. We asked him one more time if he understood what he was doing Ė he was giving away all his Legos to Sarah forever. He said yes, that was what he wanted, and he happily ran outside to play. So we relabeled his Lego bucket with Sarahís name, and she picked up the Legos and happily carried the bucket off to her room. The impact of this decision didnít sink in until the next time all the children got out their Legos to play with them. Gene was sad that he didnít have any Legos. It was hard but we let this situation continue for a few months before we bought Gene a small box of Legos to get a new collection started again. Now Gene does pick up his Legos after he plays with them, and he does not give them away impulsively.
We have seen a tremendous improvement in behavior in the five years that our Russian sons have been with us. These years have been difficult, especially at first, but love and prayer have seen us through. We try to encourage their successes with hearty praise. We can see that they are learning to be kind to others, and to have a good attitude. They are able to learn from their mistakes, and they do have a desire to please us. Our Russian sons are very sweet, and they are happy most of the time. Our boys say "Please" and "Thank-you," they ask nicely for more food, and they ask to be excused before leaving the table. Gene is always the first child to say, "The dinner is really good, Mom." They do their chores cheerfully, such as unloading the dishwasher, vacuuming, emptying the wastebaskets, and carrying in firewood. But their favorite thing to do is helping Dad work outside. Dad cuts up the firewood and the boys stack it up. They like to help Dad work on the van, work in the yard, and fix things around the house. Val has started learning to drive the big riding lawn mower. He is so proud of himself after he mows an area of the yard with it.
Homeschooling Ė What has Worked for Us
The IQ of students with FAS and FAE can vary greatly, from 29 to 120 for FAS, and from 42 to 142 for FAE. However, math and science beyond the 6th grade level is often too difficult for these children., If this is true for your child, during the high school years it is best to focus on practical applied science, and practical math skills necessary for everyday living. Your FAS/E child may not be college bound. When I first heard this at a FAS workshop, I was shocked. But if you are going to homeschool your child, you need a big dose of reality.
FAS/E students do best with a consistent, predictable school routine. It works best if you have the child sit in the same seat and do things in the same order each day. If there is a change in the daily routine planned, such as a field trip, let the child know the day before so they can think about it overnight.
Try to eliminate background noise and distractions. Get rid of hanging mobiles and other flashy distracting items in your school area. Close the drapes if the child is spending a lot of time looking at things going on outside.
We have a few simple school rules, such as, "Stay in your seat unless you have permission to get up." "Do not talk, sing, hum, or make other noises during school." "Do not poke, hit, or kick anyone."
If one of my children needs help he or she needs to ask Mom politely, "Please will you help me with this?" Sometimes Gene slams his hand down on the table and says, "I donít understand this!" Then I say, "I am waiting to hear something that starts with Ďplease.í " Then he remembers to ask for help nicely.
My advice is not to take the summers off from homeschooling! If we take just three weeks off, Val and Gene forget many things they have already learned, and we have to repeat months of schoolwork. We homeschool all year round, and take week long vacations for camping trips, grandparents visiting, Christmas, etc. But we only homeschool in the mornings, to avoid burnout. The children play outside in the afternoons.
Many teachers report success with FAS/E children when they involve all of the childís senses in the learning process. The children learn and remember better when teachers use picture cards, songs, computers, tape recorders, role-playing, hands-on activities and demonstrations.
When we first brought home our Russian sons, we spent a few months just getting acquainted and helping them learn English. Then it took three years of hard work and repetition for the boys to master first grade phonics and math. This may have been partly due to learning English as a second language, and partly from fetal alcohol related learning disabilities. Things are going a bit faster now, and both boys are reading simple books. Val, age 11, is in the third grade in most subjects, and Gene, age 9, is in the second grade. I think Val is a bit embarrassed that our biological son, Paul, age 10, is in the fourth grade. Paul is doing harder math, spelling, reading, etc. I expect that this grade level gap may continue to widen over the years.
Often our boys need to do a certain workbook page more than once to really understand it, spending a few days on the same concept. We bought a copier so we can make as many copies of the same page as we need to. We donít move on to the next thing until one thing is learned.
Sometimes our son Gene will play and fool around and make his schoolwork take all day. He can find all kinds of things to do while he is wasting time, like chewing the eraser off his pencil. Now we offer a reward, such as a special snack, for children who get their schoolwork finished in a timely manner. This will usually do the trick and motivate Gene, but not always. Other days Gene will rush through his schoolwork much too fast without reading the directions or asking for help, or he will just make up answers. One day he had a page of addition problems to do for his math. I corrected it and every single answer was wrong. I asked him how they could all be wrong. If he had been really trying I would expect more than half of the answers to be correct. Then he admitted he had made up all the answers on that page because he "just didnít feel like doing that kind of math today." So I made another copy of the same worksheet and told him to start it over again. I am trying to teach him that this rushing behavior doesnít pay off in the end.
Sometimes Gene gets stuck in a "learning loop." One day when he was about 6-years-old we were working on phonics. He was convinced that the "w" words started with "r." We went over and over and over it, but he still told me that "watch" and "watermelon" started with "r." His mind was stuck in a loop and kept coming back to "r." So we gave up on it and started again the next day. The next morning he had no trouble at all with "w" words. So if the child is having a really hard time with something, just put it aside and come back to it the next day.
Often students with FAS/E have memory difficulties. They learn a concept one day, then the next day they canít remember it, but the next week it suddenly comes back to them. Their memory can fail because the information is not perceived accurately in the first place, or it is not stored properly, or it cannot be retrieved from memory. Often visual information can be remembered more easily than information that is presented orally.
It took years for Gene to learn his colors. We played the M & M game many times, where we put an M & M on the table, and if he could name the color he could eat it. We tried teaching colors by association such as "green like the grass," "blue like our van," and "yellow like the sun," etc. He finally learned his colors at about age 8.
Val and Gene still have trouble remembering which way is left and which is right. They are both right-handed so I say, "Which hand do you use to hold a pencil? You write with your right. The other hand is your left." After this reminder, they can figure it out.
Many children with FAS/E have trouble with math. Both of my Russian sons have difficulty with math, particularly telling time and counting money. A hands-on approach with money has worked the best, such as counting real dollars and coins. The Monopoly board game is also great for practicing counting money and making change, and learning about property ownership and paying rent.
During the day we randomly ask our boys, "What time is it?" At 11 and 9-years-old they still forget which hand is the hour hand, and which one is the minute hand. Sometimes they canít figure out what hour it is because they forget which way the hands travel around the clock. Sometimes they forget that each number on the clock stands for 5 minutes. They think if the minute hand is on the four, then it is four minutes after the hour. If we remind them to start at the top and count by 5ís, they can figure it out.
Visual cues help a lot in math. For addition and subtraction Gene needs to count the numbers out with his fingers, or use pennies or buttons. Val, who has started multiplication, uses a sheet with numbers from 1 to 100 on it, to help him see the distances between the numbers visually. Val understands the concept of multiplication, but so far he has not been able to memorize the multiplication tables. Some educators recommend letting FAS/E children use a calculator for math, since memorizing the multiplication tables is very difficult for them.
Gene sometimes has directional confusion in math. He has trouble with reversing numbers such as writing 21 for 12, etc. Also when he is adding up numbers with hundreds, tens and ones, he will start at the hundreds side instead of starting with the ones.
Sometimes FAS/E children have difficulty understanding the passage of time, such as yesterday or tomorrow, and how long it is until a birthday or Christmas. We have a large calendar on the wall. Every day I mark a big X on the date for that day. Our children have learned to look for themselves to see what day of the week it is, and to see what birthdays, holidays and other events are coming up.
Spelling is very difficult for our boys. Both boys are slowly working their way through a second grade spelling book. Often they need to study their words and take their spelling test over again several days in a row to get them all right. They put a sticker on their perfect spelling tests, and we keep them in a special binder that is fun to show to visiting grandparents.
Each day I have the boys read a Bible story from their Bible storybook, and write one sentence that summarizes what happened in the story. They sometimes have trouble figuring out what the main point of the story is, but it helps if I ask them to "narrate" the story back to me verbally. For example, in the story where baby Moses was put into a basket in the river and was found by Pharaohís daughter, Gene wrote, "The evol keing wonted to cill avre bady thar wus." (The evil king wanted to kill every baby there was.) I asked him, "And then what happened?" After talking it over, he was able to change his sentence to tell the most important thing that happened in the story.
Gene, especially, is musically inclined, and he can learn things if they are in a song. Learning the ABC song and pointing to the letters helped my children learn the alphabet. Most of my children were able to learn the names of the planets in our solar system from a song on "Blues Clues," a childrenís television show we have on videotape. (However, Val, who is not very musically inclined, was unable to learn the song.)
Bible verses set to music work well too. We all enjoy singing along with videos such as the two, "Hide 'em in Your Heart" videos by Steve Green. My children know all the Bible verses on the videotapes. One song that is particularly useful as a reminder around our house is, "Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of GodÖ" (Philippians 2:14-15 NIV).
The children began to take piano lessons, but by the time they got to eighth notes, counting out the rhythm became very difficult for Val and Gene. I concluded that the tears were not worth it and we stopped. The boys like to listen to music, especially Gene who loves to sing. He can make up his own songs, and he likes to just play the piano for fun, composing the music as he goes along. Perhaps someday he could use one of those computer programs that records music that is played and writes it on staff paper.
Hands-on science is the most effective. We have been looking through a telescope at the moon and the planets as an exciting activity to go along with our study of The Astronomy Book. We have also ordered The Weather Book and The Geology Book from the same publisher. We are looking forward to observing the clouds, checking the temperature and weather reports, and measuring rainfall and snowfall in a can. My children already love collecting rocks and looking at them with a magnifying glass. My husband bought a second hand rock tumbler, and a rock hammer, and that is fun too.
Science videos from the library also work well. After watching a video about mammals, reptiles, birds, insects, or whatever, I have them write one sentence about something they learned from the movie. They also enjoy coloring animal pictures, and reading a nature encyclopedia. We supplement our science books as much as possible with hands-on activities, and visual demonstrations. Each child keeps all their science papers in a special binder that they are proud to show to visiting grandparents.
Science field trips are also a big hit. One year we bought a year-long family pass to the Seattle Zoo, and another year we bought a year-long family pass to the Boeing Museum of Flight. We spent a terrific day at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, which has many hands-on exhibits. We drove up to see Mount Baker, our closest real volcano. We also had a very memorable day at the Leonardo Da Vinci exhibit at a museum in Bristish Columbia. They had built many of Da Vinciís inventions from his famous notebook drawings, and the children could see them and try them out. For example, they were able to stand up on a platform and drop a little model of Leonardo Da Vinciís parachute, and then drop a model of a modern parachute, to compare their effectiveness.
For history I am a great fan of the Charlotte Mason method of reading "Living Books." My children love to hear adventurous stories about people that lived in different periods of history. History comes alive when you read about the daily hardships of life in a wagon train, life in a log cabin, or the first battle of the American Revolution. But I find if I read a book with vocabulary that is too difficult, they do get wiggly in their seats and lose interest.
For literature, I read books out loud that are too difficult for the children to read for themselves yet. (Our all time family favorite book is Heidi, by Johanna Spyri.) Also, each day the children read a chapter of a book to me out loud that is at their reading level. Each child has a reading list, and they check off each book after they finish it. Val and Gene have a lot of trouble noticing the punctuation when they are reading out loud. They donít pause at the end of sentences, or when a new person has begun to speak in the story. I remind them to take a breath when they see a period, so that gives the pause that the listener needs to understand the story.
Caring for animals can teach children responsibility and respect for living things, but parents must evaluate whether it will work for a particular child. Val really loves animals and he has been helping care for our puppy we got last summer. Val feeds, walks, and plays fetch with the dog, and takes her outside to go potty. He is doing really well with this responsibility. Gene, on the other hand, is not very good with animals. Yesterday I caught him waving a big 2 x 4 piece of wood over the dogís head. He said he was just "pretending" to hit the dog. (It was time to play the "What ifÖ" game. I asked him, "What if the board had slipped out of your hand and really hit the dog?")
Giving each child a small garden space was very successful. First Daddy operated the rototiller, and then each child used the hoe to make nice rows in the soil. I helped with the planting, but after that they were on their own for weeding and watering. The children were very proud when the food they grew was on the dinner table. Gene likes corn on the cob so he grew a few rows of corn, and Val likes pumpkin bread and pumpkin pie so he and his brother Paul grew a large number of pumpkins. I still have several plastic baggies full of cooked pumpkin in my freezer.
We believe that Lego building blocks are great educational toys that stimulate creativity and imagination. All of our children love to build things with Legos, and they spend their birthday money and allowance buying more sets. Val and Gene, and our other children, are very creative at building castles, pyramids, space ships, satellites, moon rover cars, etc. Legos can be used as a "delight directed study" of science and history.
For physical education, FAS/E children often do better with individual sports such as riding a bike, swimming, gymnastics, dance and track, rather than team sports like soccer. During a soccer or baseball game they tend to start daydreaming, or looking at birds in the sky, so that when the ball comes their way, they arenít ready. Val and Gene enjoy riding bikes and they love swimming. When we go to the beach or a lake, they swim and play in the water all afternoon, and we can hardly get them out when itís time to leave. All our younger children swim with life jackets on.
We have several educational computer games such as Jump Start Reading and Math for different age levels, and Reader Rabbit programs. The children love to play them, and they are learning about the subject matter, and also about how to operate a computer. Educational computer programs are great for FAS/E children because they will patiently wait for the childís answer, gently correct a wrong answer, and reward the right answer with immediate positive feedback. If the child wants to play the same game over and over again, the repetition reinforces what they have learned.
When the children have a page of schoolwork with no errors, or very few errors, we save the page for Dad to admire when he gets home. This praise and admiration from Dad means a great deal to them. Their eyes light up and they are really pleased.
Now that Iíve told you how much trouble Val and Gene have with their schoolwork, I want to say that academics are not the most important thing in life. The Lord has blessed us by bringing us all together as a family. The boys are learning to love others and to love God. Our prayer is that they grow up to be good citizens, and fulfill their God given future.
A Look At The Future
Many FAS/E adults cannot live alone or manage money without help. They need to live with their parents, a sibling, a trusted friend, or spouse, who helps them manage their affairs and pay their bills on time, etc. Many parents have reported disastrous results when their FAS/E young adults have their first bank ATM or credit card. During the high school years an emphasis on independent living skills is appropriate and important, such as banking and budgeting money, reading a bus schedule, and calling to make a doctor or dentist appointment.
Role-playing works well with FAS/E children. At our house we do role-playing to practice things like how to call 911 in an emergency. First we talk about what kind of emergency is serious enough to call 911, like if the house is on fire, or someone is very badly hurt. Then I pretend to be the operator and the children practice giving their name, address, phone number, and stating the nature of the emergency. Our address and phone number is posted on a piece of paper next to the phone for children who canít remember them.
Role-playing is also a powerful tool for learning to make good choices, resolve conflicts, and take responsibility for oneís actions. Young people can practice appropriate social interaction, communication skills, and work behaviors while still in the safety of their own home. Impulsive behavior can be improved by rehearsing things like how to act in a restaurant, on a bus, at a movie theater, how to greet someone, and how to thank someone.
We have already started talking to our boys about the dangers of alcohol and how it killed their Russian mother. Children whose parents were alcoholics have a much higher chance of becoming alcoholics themselves if they ever start to experiment with alcohol. When our boys get a little older we plan to do role-playing about how to turn down an offer of an alcoholic beverage, and ask for juice or a soda pop instead.
Sometimes children with FAS/E have conversations that are fluent, but empty of any real content. They often have difficulty starting a conversation and may not respond properly in a conversational situation. They may be off in their own world, daydreaming, and the comments they make donít fit in with what is going on around them. This makes it difficult for them to make friends and have meaningful relationships. During the dinner table conversation at our house our son Gene will blurt out things that either donít make any sense, or donít relate in any way to the topic of discussion. While eating birthday cake one time he said, "A piece of cake, a piece of house." When he does this we give him feedback and practice things he could say to join in the conversation in a meaningful way. This will be an important social skill later in his life.
There is hope that FAS/E children will grow into responsible, happy adults. Look for their strengths and build on them, helping them to find hobbies, and possibly employment, that utilize their talents. These children are often artistically talented in drawing and pottery, or musically talented with singing or playing instruments. Their creativity may be in the areas of inventing things, building things, gardening, storytelling, or even cooking.
Homeschooling a child with FAS/E is challenging, but not impossible. Iím hoping that after reading our story, other parents will have the courage to homeschool their child. Your child is Godís beloved creation, cherished by Him. Pray that you will be able to see past the problems, to see the child that God sees. When you lose your temper, get down on your knees and ask Godís forgiveness, then get up and keep on going. Keep trying, even through the hard times, with love, compassion, prayer, consistency, and patience.
I can do all things through Christ who strengtheneth me.
Philippians 4:13 21st Century KJV