Special Education

Teaching Students with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Cause and Effect Thinking

Teachers and parents report that children with FAS/E make the same mistakes over and over no matter how many times they are corrected and given consequences. On the positive side, each day is a new beginning for children with FAS/E. Such children seem to have difficulty connecting cause and effect and changing behaviour as a result of consequences. This does not mean that imposing consequences is useless, but parents and teachers may need to make extra efforts to apply consequences consistently and immediately, with frequent, patient reminders of the reasons for them.

Why is there such a problem perceiving consequences? There are a number of possible reasons. First, the behaviour is often impulsive: children with FAS/E simply do not think about the possibility of a consequence, or the implications of their action. Certain rewards or consequences are often effective in the beginning, but then lose their effectiveness.

Second, consequences are often uncertain. They are used to prevent an outcome that may happen: “If you throw a snowball somebody might get hurt.” “Do not run out in front of traffic because you might get hit.” There are many times (fortunately) when dangerous behaviour does not have a consequence, or at least a natural consequence. Nobody gets hurt. The child runs out in the street in front of the truck and does not get hit. At times, it seems that it is not enough to warn children with FAS/E about what might happen; they need to experiment and find out for themselves. This can lead to serious outcomes.

Third, situations are never exactly the same. Children with FAS/E may not generalize from the behaviour in one setting to the same or similar behaviour in another setting. Sometimes such children generalize too well: instead of remembering the rule, they remember the one-time-only exception to the rule. Students with FAS/E often have a very rigid and egocentric notion of what is fair.

Strategies for Classroom Teachers

  • Take time to talk with the child with FAS/E — you will find out how the child thinks. This can help you decide on what to do to help the student to formulate an appropriate strategy.
  • Decide what is most important and what is within the control of the child; ignore the rest.
  • Be as consistent as possible in imposing consequences, make them as immediate as possible and remind the student what the consequences are for.
  • Help the student problem solve: “Where did the problem start?,” “What did I do?,” “Who did I affect?,” “What else could I have done?,” and “What else could I do next time?” Write down what is said so that the student can follow the course of the conversation.
  • Help the student take another person’s point of view.
  • Consider the student’s verbal and memory limitations in working through an incident with the student and deciding what the consequence should be.
  • Anticipate and prevent problems through close supervision or partnering with peers (i.e., buddy system, peer tutor).