Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
It's luck of the draw
Only some schools give specialized help
Christina Dyck's daughter is slowly falling behind in school.
The 7-year-old isn't misbehaving or causing a ruckus. But she needs constant repetition to learn and a quiet environment free from distractions. She's struggling to keep up with grade school reading and math, and it takes her longer to grasp lessons than most kids her age.
Manitoba Education allotted $5.5 million this school year to help individual students with FASD.
409 students with moderate to severe FASD got Level II funding, which means they have access to a part-time teaching assistant and other help.
96 students with severe or profound FASD got Level III funding, which includes a full-time teaching aid.
"There's that saying -- we have a 10-second child in a five-second world," said Dyck.
In British Columbia, where Dyck and her daughter lived until recently and where the child first got an official FASD diagnosis, they had access to a specialized learning plan and a teacher's aide, guaranteed to Grade 12.
In Winnipeg, they've had a lot of frustration with teachers and daycare staff who get impatient, don't take the child's diagnosis seriously and have failed to wrangle the kind of support the girl had in British Columbia. Dyck's daughter has also been vulnerable to bullying.
"They say there's help, but we haven't had any help," said Dyck. Kids with autism get automatic access to provincial special-needs funding -- either a half-time or full-time education assistant as well as a specially tailored lesson plan and access to school-based experts such as psychologists. The same is automatically offered to kids who are deaf or blind.
But kids with FASD have no such guaranteed funding. Their needs are lumped in with a long list of learning disabilities such as ADHD.
As many as one in 100 children has FASD. That's about 2,000 kids in the province's schools, but most school divisions don't keep track of the precise number of kids with FASD in their classrooms.
The province's education department provided about $5.5 million this school year in special help for the 505 students with an FASD diagnosis. That doesn't include kids without formal FASD diagnoses but who have some of the hallmark behaviour and learning difficulties that make them eligible for special services anyway, through what's called a functional assessment.
A regular classroom, with a dozen colourful posters on the wall, bright light and lots of stimulation, is overwhelming and almost perfectly set up for a kid with FASD to fail. They thrive in mellow environments, with as few distractions but as much structure as possible.
And normal instruction styles, where a teacher stands at the front of the classroom and explains a lesson, often simply won't seep into an FASD brain. Kids with FASD often learn and remember much better using visual aids such as pictures and hands-on demonstrations.
The Winnipeg Free Press has spoken to dozens of parents and students who say the school system is a patchwork of services for kids with FASD. It's the luck of the draw if a child manages to find a school and a teacher who take the disability seriously, know how to make adaptations and can finagle some extra dollars for time with a teaching assistant.
Kids with behaviour problems get picked out for help quickly, but there are many kids who are quiet and sweet -- like Christina Dyck's daughter -- and simply slide under the radar even though their math and spelling skills might be well below normal.
One Winnipeg 11-year-old who received an FASD diagnosis last week at the clinic run out of the Rehabilitation Centre for Children, is four or five years behind in reading and math and only had a few hours of help from a resource teacher a week.
When the team of experts at the diagnostic clinic were flipping through his charts to start creating a diagnosis and a plan to help him, they noticed he used to live in the Winnipeg School division but recently moved out of the city's core.
"Ah, too bad, eh?" mused Dorothy Schwab, the clinic's outreach, education and follow-up co-ordinator who works with each child after diagnosis.
The Winnipeg School Division, by virtue of a healthier budget and higher-risk kids, leads the pack when it comes to FASD services.
If you live in Winnipeg One, your child has much better access to special services and could even enroll in two innovative classrooms created specially for kids with FASD -- one at David Livingstone School in the William Whyte neighbourhood and one at Shaughnessy Park School in Lord Selkirk.
In the special FASD classroom at Shaughnessy Park, the children ran the gamut. Some were just a little slower and less confident than a typical Grade 4 or 5 student while others were clearly intellectually disabled, prone to constant rocking or fidgeting. In addition to the teacher, there were two aides who sat beside two of the most disabled students, giving them gentle nudges when it was their turn to answer a question, keeping their bums in their chairs and even giving them gentle back rubs to help them stay focused.
Not every kid with FASD needs that much specialized support, but many do. There appears to be no move to create similar specialized classrooms in any of Winnipeg's other five school divisions. And there would likely never be the critical mass of kids in sprawling rural school divisions to merit such a class, even though rates of maternal drinking are higher in rural areas than in Winnipeg.
The Seven Oaks School Division might have the second-best approach to kids with FASD. Seven Oaks has a follow-up protocol, where a kid with a new FASD diagnosis immediately gets on a track with the special education co-ordinator and a plan specially tailored to the child's skills is put in place.
A similar protocol is about to be launched in River East.
But FASD-only classrooms are at odds with the modern educational philosophy of integration, that with the right help every child can thrive in a "normal" classroom.
That works great in many cases, but it relies on a teacher who "gets it" and is willing to adapt the curriculum and teaching style to accommodate a kid who simple can't learn things verbally or process information quickly or can't sit still for long stretches, or all of the above and more. That's the case with Christina Dyck's daughter and with the 11-year-old boy who was diagnosed last week at the FASD clinic.
"I have a hard time picturing him in a classroom," said Shelley Proven, the speech and language expert at the clinic as the team hashed out a plan for the boy.
"He's got so many issues, and he just doesn't seem to be on the radar."
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 19, 2011 J1