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The recipe: Whatever it takes

David Livingstone is tops at teaching FASD kids

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Nestled in one of the toughest neighbourhoods in Winnipeg, David Livingstone School has become a North American role model for teaching children with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.

From the high-tech to low-tech to the bizarre -- whatever it takes to help kids learn and build their strengths, the Bridges program at David Livingstone will use it.

FASD stunts individual brain cells and major parts of the brain. The Bridges program is trying to help the children find their way around the damage.

Out in the hall, it appears a tiny contemporary dancer is trapped inside a big brown bean bag. In fact, it's an elementary school student doing his morning stretches inside a body suit.

"It wakes his body up," said Bridges' program educational assistant Mike Boomer. Stretching inside the bag helps improve his core strength and balance, he said.

"It makes him more aware of all of his body parts."

Across the hall, a girl with a skipping ropes stands next to an hourglass.

"She skips to get her day going," said Boomer. "She's a slow starter and that energizes her in the morning." Other students need to take their energy level down a notch.

A boy wearing eyeglasses sits at a table, painstakingly threading a needle and hand-stitching a tooth- fairy pillow. It's part of a literacy activity involving a book.

He's working on his fine motor skills, away from the rest of the class, to avoid an emotional outburst that educational assistant Sylvia Armenti saw coming. The teachers and assistants know their students, and Armenti could see trouble brewing earlier when he wouldn't make eye contact or turn the page of the book they were reading together.

Around the corner, his classmates are "building dendrites" with classroom teacher Sharen McDermit.

Each student has a black and white drawing of a brain posted on the wall. It shows all the inner connections called dendrites. When learning takes place, the brain develops more dendrites, and the student gets a dendrite highlighted in red.

"Alex, did you earn a dendrite this morning? Did your brain get nice and strong?" McDermit asks the boy who earlier was spelling words on the Smart Board -- a high-tech projector that lets him make words by touching the screen and moving letters around.

McDermit marks a red dendrite on Alex's brain. She asks the students to get ready for their next lesson. "Go get your listening helpers so you're ready." They have folding canvas chairs that keep them seated with boundaries on the floor. Some use squishy rubber balls so they can knead something while they're paying attention.

"It helps me focus," said a little girl who can't be identified because she's in foster care. They also gather their paper, a clipboard and something to write with -- it can be a pen, a pencil, a fat crayon -- whatever works best for the kids, who often have trouble with fine motor control.

McDermit is miked up to a loudspeaker, and one of the students wears headphones so he can focus on her voice. McDermit opens the book Rain Forest Babies, shows them a caterpillar and asks if anyone knows what it is.

"A snake?" a girl asks.

"He makes a little house for himself," said Alex, who knows about the cocoon to come.

He's one of just eight children in the elementary Bridges program with a teacher, two teaching assistants and a lot of environmental adaptation to help students focus. There's a "bunny hole" where a child feeling overwhelmed can be alone for a bit. Activities on the walls are covered when they're not in use and the students' art is not hung on the walls to distract them.

The agenda for the day, however, stays posted so everyone can see the plan. "There are no surprises," said McDermit.

The flooring is marked to help them line up and get organized.

"The tiles on the floor show them where to stand."

The tools acquired in elementary program get carried into the intermediate Bridges program for kids in Grades 4 to 6 upstairs.

"The self-regulation, they've internalized that," said teacher Deb Thordarson, who is now the FASD support worker for the entire school division.

David Livingstone has 27 kids in the K-8 Bridges program. Last fall, a Grade 9 class at R.B. Russell High School was set up for them.

In her classroom before Thordarson left, students worked on their poetry. The theme: bad days.

Two of the classroom's eight students are working behind carrels with teaching assistants. Another, who has sleep problems as many with FASD do, sits at a table with his head down.

A boy with a cast on his leg across from him is writing away like mad, inspired by the "bad day" theme. The previous Sunday, Storm Whiteway's bicycle chain flew off and hit his ankle, breaking it and requiring stitches.

"It was nasty," said the soft-spoken 10-year-old. "When I saw it, the meat was hanging out. I limped home." His parents took him to Children's Hospital.

"My baby brother and sister were crying, saying I was going to die. I told them I'm not, it's just a little blood."

The lacrosse player and all-around athlete is a role model for the younger students at the school. "I help out the little kids in room 3 and 4." Storm said he can't wait to get his cast removed.

"I'm going to start running and try to do yoga."

He's been told he should rest his foot, but he's never been told he can't reach his goals because he has FASD.

"We find their unique gifts and strengths and recognize their challenges," said Thordarson. We're 'kid watchers'," she said: "'What does this child need to manage that behaviour?'"

McDermit, who's been at David Livingstone School for 13 years, said she sees students move on and succeed.

They learn about FASD, how it affects the brain, and what they need to do to deal with it, she said.

"They have some understanding and know they can be very successful," said McDermit. "We talk a lot about their strengths and what they're good at."


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 19, 2011 J4

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