Part 4: How to educate kids with FASDby Cara Hetland, Minnesota Public Radio,
Tom Robertson, Minnesota Public Radio
Plymouth, Minn. — Like many kids with FASD, Hunter Sargent says the schools he attended never knew what to do with him.
Advocates say most public schools in the U.S. don't know how to deal with FASD students. Until recently, colleges and universities that train teachers didn't pay much attention to FASD. There's no national model out there.
But one Minnesota school district has a unique approach. District 287 in Plymouth serves hundreds of special needs kids from 13 school districts in the Twin Cities' western suburbs.
Three years ago, District 287 developed a program specifically for FAS kids. It serves only about a dozen students with severe behavioral problems. These kids ended up here because they couldn't make it in other schools.
There are usually only about four students in each classroom and the goals focus more on behavior than learning. Students get assignments in reading, math and social studies, but most days, not much academic work gets done.
These kids swear a lot. They get violent. It's not unusual for stuff to get broken in the classrooms. Teachers sometimes use video or board games in the classrooms, not as rewards, but as tools to keep kids calm.
On a good day, 15-year-old Robert is able to keep his cool. On this day, he's playing cribbage with his teacher. So what's it like for Robert on a bad day?
"Mmmm, you don't want to know," Robert says. "Those types of days are crazy days. I get mad and start throwing things, and I have to get sent out of the classroom. And then I get even madder and I just start messing up stuff in that classroom."
Here's one of the things that makes this program different. Robert doesn't get punished for that destructive, impulsive behavior.
Brad Wing, the program's facilitator, says punitive teaching approaches don't work on these kids. They can't learn from consequences because their alcohol-affected brains can't process cause and effect.
"We can't punish that, because it's brain damage. You would not punish a student with typical mental retardation if they could not learn algebra. So then why would we expect our students that have behavioral outcomes of their brain damage to be able to control it, when the brain does not allow it?" Wing says. "We don't care about the ABCs and 123s. You cannot learn if you don't have your behavior under control."
When things get out of control, teachers sometimes use methods that work with autistic kids. They turn the lights down low, they use music or sometimes a light massage. A hard scratch on the back works to calm one student down when he acts out.
Even the school day is different here. Some kids have four physical education periods each day to burn off extra energy.
Brad Wing says the fledgling program is constantly evolving. What works for a student one day might not work the next. He says the main goal is to get students to recognize the triggers that set off their bad behavior.
He says staff need to constantly remind themselves that the behaviors they're dealing with are the result of brain damage.
According to Wing, one of the biggest challenges for the program is staff retention. Teaching these kids can be traumatic.
Wing says by December of the first year of the program, half his staff had quit. By the end of that year, half more had walked away, unable to cope.
"Every time you walk in the door you wonder what's next, what lies ahead. My teachers are in crisis mode," Wing says. "I don't tell stories to my friends anymore, because they find it just too unbelievable that this population could really be around. It's very hidden. There's no doubt about it, it's a very depressing population."
Cara Hetland has been a reporter for southwestern Minnesota and eastern South Dakota since 1989.