Academic Difficulties


Many individuals with FASD experience academic difficulties, which may reflect underlying difficulties or lack of exposure to consistent schooling. However, they also have many areas of strength that can form the foundation for meaningful intervention approaches and positive educational experiences. Gaining an understanding of an individual’s academic strengths and difficulties helps to ensure appropriate supports and creates opportunities for success.

Academic Skills

Academic skills are often a reflection of the way in which many different types of underlying cognitive abilities are functioning together. As such the reason for difficulties in these areas can be hard to trace back to a specific factor. Areas of academic learning that are common issues for these kids are number processing tasks such as math, language based tasks such as reading and spelling, and motor based tasks such as writing and sometimes physical education. Researchers have found considerable variability in the academic abilities of teens and adults with FASD. One study found that adolescents and adults with FAS and FAE were, on average, performing at a grade 2-4 level in reading, math and spelling. Multiple underlying cognitive factors (noted below) have been identified as contributing to some of these observed difficulties. Efforts to create shared understandings between youth, educators and communities of care have demonstrated improved behavioural and academic outcomes for youth with FASD indicating that with appropriate support these barriers to accessing their academic potentials.

Recognizing that many factors may contribute to a child's success in school enables us to consider ways in which 1) the schooling environment can be safe and supportive, and 2) academic supports can be best implemented. A general principle to work from is that "all behaviour is functional." This requires us to consider what function a behaviour may be serving (e.g. "I'm overwhelmed!" I'm confused!") and to generate alternative ways in which that need might be met. Many children with FASD are in need of early intervention in the school system. As a child moves through his/her school years, special help and programming may need to be put in place. Since children who have an IQ in the low average range, but problematic academic and adaptive skills, appear as though they should be able to function in an average classroom, they may miss out on the help that they need to compensate for poor adaptive function or difficulties in the areas listed above. 

Safe school environments are often those that provide familiar structures and routines, as they may help to proactively reduce stress and confusion. Helping to intentionally support this may include examples like the following:

With academic help, a child with FASD might have reduced difficulties. This can prevent adverse outcomes such as dropping out, and can prevent a cyclical pattern of school difficulties and mental, emotional, and social problems. I.e. a child may be having trouble in school because he/she is struggling with depression and cannot understand the social cues of his/her peers. A lack of difficulty in school might lead to feelings of fulfillment, causing the child to engage with peers.


Professionals without Parachutes: Supporting Students with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD)
Developed by Dr. Jacqueline Pei and her colleagues, Stephanie Hayes and Alethea Heudes. This PD resource provides an explanation of FASD, its effect on the brain and the impact it can have on student learning, social/emotional behaviour and the classroom environment. Strategies for designing classroom instruction and routines to support students with FASD are also highlighted (from Edmonton Regional Learning Consortium)

Cognitive Interventions to Improve Math Skills
Video webinar with handouts by Dr. Carmen Rasmussen and Dr. Jacqueline Pei discuss math deficits in FASD. Looking at existing math research in Atlanta and replicating the research in Alberta with some modifications (from FASD CMC Alberta)

Motivation and Learning
Video presentation by Nathan Ory on strategies to motivate learning (from POPFASD)

Environment: Strategies for managing classroom environment
Video with strategies and suggestions to support learning through a structured classroom environment (from POPFASD)

Reach to Teach- Educating Elementary and Middle School Children with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders
Strategies for improving school success –reviews FASD, cognitive challenges, social skills, negative behaviours, environmental accomodations (from SAMHSA)

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Education Strategies: Working with Students with a Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder in the Education System
Teaching strategies from NOFAS and University of South Dakota; contents include environmental modification, functional assessment, communication, executive function, social skills and behaviour. Resource listings in appendices include: general FASD information, teaching, social emotional books for children, social emotional books for young adults, audiovisual resources and websites

Making a Difference: Working with Students who have Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders
Comprehensive guide- How to adapt teaching methods to help students affected by FASD in the classroom environment. Includes information on FASD, structure, behaviour, sensory difficulties, language, academics, social skills, and transitions (from Yukon Deartment of Education)
Specific academic information beginning in section 10

What Educators Need to Know about FASD: Working Together to Educate Children in Manitoba with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder
FASD overview; common characteristics of FASD; strategies for teachers and parents to assist in meeting the needs of children (from Healthy Child Manitoba)
Academic achievement: P. 25

Teaching Students with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder: Building Strengths, Creating Hope (Programming for Students with Special Needs: Book 10)
Overview of FASD; Concepts for teaching and strategies to help with learning needs (from Alberta Education)
Key concepts for planning effective education programs: p.15
Academic information and strategies: p. 96

Understanding Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD): A Comprehensive Guide For Pre-K -8 Educators
FASD overview, teaching and learning strategies for the classroom (Written by Chandra D. Zieff, M.Ed. and Rochelle D. Schwartz-Bloom, Ph.D.)

FASD: What School Systems Should Know About Affected Students
One page fact sheet from NOFAS outlining educational difficulties for those with FASD and suggestions for support

Carolyn Strnad: Addressing Disagreements on IEPs
Video resource from MOFAS with strategies and suggestions for ways to address disagreements on IEPs. Note: MOFAS is an American organization. Specific information such as timelines and procedures may be different for Canadian schools

Carolyn Strnad: The Extended School Year
Video resource: Carolyn Strnad discusses "Extended School Year"- instruction provided to students outside of the regular school schedule (i.e. during spring break) when the IEP team deems necessary (from MOFAS)

Carolyn Strnad: Advocating for Your Child in School
Video resource for caregivers with suggestions, particularly in regard to IEP's, on how to advocate for your child in school (from MOFAS)

Carolyn Strnad: Special Ed Accommodations
Video resource discussing the adaptations/supplemental aids page of the IEP including suggestions and information on accomodations, modifications, supports, and assistive technology (from MOFAS)


Do2Learn Academics
Academic resources page from Do2Learn

Teaching Students with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome/Effects: A Resource Guide for Teachers
Website containing information for teachers (along with strategies) about students with FASD, attention problems, cause and effect thinking, social skills, personal skills, memory, language, motor skills, and specific academic subjects (from BC Ministry of Education)

Group for parents who are home-schooling kids with FASD to share resources, methods, encouragement, etc.