Home » Chapter 6: The FASD Student & Behavioral Issues

Chapter 6: The FASD Student & Behavioral Issues

Overview of the FASD Student and Behavioral Issues

Alcohol compromises and modifies brain development and thus affects behaviors.
Dr. Barbara Morse, a researcher, has called it a “behavioral teratogen”.
(Malbin, 1993)

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder is a neurological disability. Students with FASD exhibit many common behaviors due to the brain damage that occurred before birth. These behaviors occur across all FASD populations, ages, races, socio-economic backgrounds, including those those with normal IQs. (Dr .Ann Streissguth, a pioneer in the field of FASD, has developed a behavioral phenotype with 36 distinguishing FASD characteristics that is used as a research tool called the Fetal Alcohol Behavior Scale or FABS.)

While there is a recognized FASD behavioral profile or phenotype, behavior problems vary from student-to-student, and some students will have more difficulties than others. In the classroom, it is critical to observe each student and respond to his/her unique profile of learn- ing and behavior strengths, needs, and weaknesses. Observation provides insight into a student’s temperament and how he/she responds to stress, copes with difficulties, and responds to change. When each student’s unique profile is considered, a successful educational program can be determined.

Experienced and devoted teachers, unfamiliar with the behavioral profile of FASD, often experience frustration working with these students. These students are usually quite verbal and social. Yet, these students exhibit unpredictable and inconsistent behaviors. Their difficulty with “cause-and-effect” is challenging for the teacher. These students do not follow the rules. Teachers misinterpret these behaviors and consider these students to be manipulative, lazy, and inattentive along with a host of other misunderstood behaviors.

The students most at risk to be misunderstood are the students with an average to above average IQ. These higher-functioning students show no physical evidence of brain damage.  They seem capable and look normal. They hear:

“You deliberately disobeyed me.”
“You knew the rules, but you chose to break them.” “You knew better.”
“If only you tried harder.”

Almost without exception, children with FAS[D] fall in the mentally handicapped range in terms of adaptive behavior, no matter how bright they are intellectually.
FAS[D] Support Network
(Lasser, 1999)

These students are at high risk of suffering from secondary characteristics as they get older.

In fact, the FASD student is on a different developmental track than his peers. While not necessarily age appropriate, milestones are reached when “developmentally appropriate” for their developmental age. These students do progress, but it is at their own individual rate, one that is a slower rate than their peer group. As a result, some of the FASD student’s behaviors are viewed as immature.

Recognizing that the FASD behavioral phenotype stems from a neurological disorder is the missing clue for many educators. This essential information provides an understanding of the ramifications of this disease. Common misinterpretations of FASD student behavior can be avoided (see ‘Misinterpretations’ box below). As educators begin to understand that FASD student behavior results from prenatal alcohol-induced brain damage, their perceptions, expectations, and approach to behavioral interventions will change.

Misinterpretations table

Misbehavior is often an FASD student’s attempt to communicate his needs. The behavioral phenotype is affected by cognitive, memory, and attention difficulties. The student with FASD is often confused or overwhelmed, and may not know what to do. He/she may react to problems in a misguided way; these students have difficulty communicating their needs (i.e., they don’t say: “Please slow down, I don’ t understand”). When an FASD student is in a classroom where his needs and skills are not understood, behavior problems escalate. When the behavior is misunderstood repeatedly, a sense of failure and defeat ensues.

Traditional behavior modification techniques are not successful with this population. Typically, behavior modification does work with Severely Emotionally Disturbed (SED) students when they are deliberately manipulating or disobeying classroom protocol. When they have a system set up with meaningful rewards or consequences, the response is usually effective. The FASD population is different. They are not manipulating or disobeying deliberately in the classroom; they do not understand what was expected of them. They have poor cause-and-effect reasoning and difficulty generalizing and understanding abstract concepts.

Thus, a reward and punishment system will not work for them when they do not understand the misbehavior in the first place.

When educators recognize and understand the FASD behavioral phenotype, effective interventions can be determined to encourage success. Dreikkurs, an expert on child-rearing, suggests that rather than try to change the child, flexibility should be used to “influence” a child (McCreight, 1997). This is precisely the direction educators must take with the FASD student. The FASD student has brain damage; however, the educator and the environment can influence how a student learns to control his behavior.

There are many educational strategies that have been successful in teaching behavior management to FASD students; Chapter 4 refers to several effective teaching strategies. Successful behavior management requires a teacher who understands the behavior and, most importantly, is compassionate and nurturing. FASD students need adult assistance to protect them from the overstimulation they encounter, as well as the confusion they have interpreting their environment. The FASD student experiences internal confusion and is in need of external structure and support. The team approach with parents, discussed in Chapter 4, can lead to a more successful behavior management plan. The educator must determine the student’s strengths, weaknesses, and needs and modify the educational environment accordingly.

An educator’s successful interventions depend upon an awareness of the neurological impact of FASD, the associated behavioral characteristics, commonly misinterpreted behaviors, and sensitivity to the child’s disabilities. The following is a list of common behavior characteristics of FASD students:

Behavioral characteristics


In this chapter, general teaching strategies for behavioral issues are discussed. This is followed by a more detailed presentation of teaching strategies for six specific behaviors (in bold above) associated with FASD students.