For a child exposed to alcohol before birth, the best advocates are caring, loving parents. However, in South Dakota there is some help. The state has assigned two education advocates for children diagnosed with FASD.
Marcia Maltaverne is one of them. She works a territory that covers schools districts in 33 counties. She says she helps where she can, but usually she gets a call when there's a problem.
"I think teachers have a misconception about how serious the disability is in the classroom. They really look at these kids as typical, and it's difficult to make the paradigm shift they need to make," Maltaverne says. "There's brain damage in there. It is an invisible disability. They're likely struggling more than they look like in the classroom."
Maltaverne's job is to educate teachers, parents, society -- and even the children -- to ask for help instead of letting situations become too frustrating.
“There's brain damage in there. It is an invisible disability. [Students] are likely struggling more than they look like in the classroom.”Marcia Maltaverne, FASD education advocate
Maltaverne says her first lesson to teachers is that the child can learn everything they're going to teach, but will require different teaching methods. In many cases, teachers will need to move past bad or inappropriate behavior to get to the lessons, something that's not easy.
"I've never met a kid that wanted to do poorly in school. Kids would rather act out than have their peers know that they don't get it, or have peers think they're dumb or stupid," Maltaverne says. "That's what happens. Instead of letting people know, 'I don't get it,' I'm going to act out and get into trouble because, that's more acceptable than being dumb. Then they go home, and there's three hours of tears and hair-pulling to do homework and the teachers don't see that."
Maltaverne holds workshops around the state to help parents, educators and FASD students learn how to help each other. Lennox Middle School was home to one such workshop recently. That's where Matthew Finnell will be going into sixth grade this fall.
Middle school will be a big change for Matthew. He'll need to remember his schedule, change classes and keep track of his books and materials. Matthew says he's not scared about it but his parents are, and that's why they requested this training.
Some of the things that will help Matthew succeed in his new school are simple. He'll have a locker on the end of a row, where it's easier to find. He'll have a different storage tub in each classroom for his materials.
Other behaviors are more complicated. For instance, Matthew has a tendency to take things that aren't his. At one point, a teacher asks if they should search his pockets when he leaves a classroom. Matthew's parents support that and say it sets clear expectations.
Maltaverne reminds everyone at the workshop that keeping the rules simple and consistent will be best for Matthew.
The teachers in Lennox seem to want to do what they can to help Matthew succeed. Most understand the Finnell boys were all exposed to alcohol in the womb, but there are different levels of understanding. Denise Finnell has advice for the staff -- everyone needs to stop trying to treat the boys as if they were normal.
"You feel like you're being judged as a parent. We get asked so many times, 'Why are you being so hard on your kids?' They're not normal and can't rebound like normal kids. Most parents can say, 'enough,' and they calm down. Our kids, it takes them just as long to wind down as it did to wind up," Finnell says.