Study Review

Children with foetal alcohol spectrum disorders

Interventions for children with foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD), to improve academic skills and learning strategies.

Outcome Overall
effectiveness

This rating shows how effective the intervention is at achieving the evaluated outcome.

Click here for information about how effectiveness ratings are applied.

Strength of
evidence

This rating shows how confident we can be about a finding, based on how the research was designed and carried out.

Academic Skills Overall effectiveness: mixed (maximum 2) Strength of evidence : 1 (maximum 3)
Learning Strategies Overall effectiveness: mixed (maximum 2) Strength of evidence : 0 (maximum 3)

Headline points

  • The findings for the 6 interventions evaluated were mixed, suggesting we cannot be certain whether they improve academic skills and learning strategies.
  • There is limited evidence, and better quality research is needed in this area.
  • The interventions were carried out in the USA, South Africa and Canada. Their application in a UK context has not yet been studied.
  • The extent to which the evidence can be assessed to be effective is limited by the diverse nature of the studies and the differences in quality of study design and reporting.

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What is this?

  • Children who are exposed to alcohol in the womb can experience a number of different difficulties, such as; problems with the structure of function of the central nervous system, birth defects, neurodevelopmental problems, growth problems and/or cognitive impairment. The neurodevelopmental problems can continue into adulthood, including issues with language development, learning, memory, non-verbal problem solving and social skills.
  • Children who have foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (of which Foetal Alcohol Syndrome is the most severe) are likely to experience adverse life experiences. These include, issues with drugs and alcohol, disrupted education, inappropriate sexual behaviours and mental health problems.
  • Parents and carers of children with FASD report that often conventional behavioural and learning approaches and interventions don’t help these children.
  • The 7 studies in this review comprised 6 different interventions, these were; cognitive control therapy; language and literacy intervention; virtual reality game; maths intervention; rehearsal training; and videotape intervention.

How is it meant to work?

  • The six interventions evaluated in this review differed in their methods and delivery; they are designed to improve the academic skills and learning strategies of children with FASD.
  • In particular they focussed on practical language, literature and maths skills as well as fire and road safety.

What are the evaluated outcomes?

  • Academic Skills
  • Learning Strategies

How effective is it?

Academic Skills
Overall, the five studies that used interventions designed for academic skills had a mixed effect on academic skills. This is based on low strength evidence.

A study using language and literacy interventions found the intervention group showed greater improvements for reading, spelling and some pre-literacy domains, compared with those who did not receive the intervention. However no differences were found between the intervention and control group for general academic tests. There was limited information given about methodology for this Randomised Control Trial (RCT), 40 children with FASD were assigned to the intervention group and 25 children without FASD to the control group.

An RCT using a maths intervention adapted for children with FASD found a greater improvement in maths knowledge in the intervention group compared with the control group who received a standard psychoeducational intervention. There were 61 children in this study.

Another RCT using cognitive control therapy with ten children had mixed findings, with reports of improvements in behaviour in the intervention group, but no differences found between the intervention and control group for cognitive skills.

Two studies which used virtual reality games had a mixed effect on fire / street safety in children with FASD. One RCT with 32 children found fire and street safety did improve but only fire safety this was not maintained at follow-up. Another non-RCT study found an improvement in home fire safety for four children.

Learning Strategies
Overall, rehearsal training and modelling perceptual tasks had a mixed effect on learning strategies. This is based on very low strength evidence.

A study of 33 children assigned to rehearsal training to improve number memory or a control group, found no significant difference between intervention and control post intervention, but that the intervention group performed better  at follow-up. In another study, the four boys in the study could not imitate the building tasks they had been shown. There was no control group in this study.

Where has it been studied?

  • Four of the studies were carried out in USA; 2 studies were carried out in South Africa; 1 study was carried out in Canada.
  • It is not possible to make any suggestions about relevance to the UK context.

Who does it work for?

  • There was limited detail given about the participants that have been involved in these studies.
  • The studies included children aged 3-12.
  • One study (Learning Strategy Intervention) specifically targeted boys.
  • Recruitment of participants was from a range of places including clinics, schools and the community.
  • Diagnosis of FASD varied across the studies, a broad range was used, all included children with problems that could not be explained by anything other than alcohol related problems from exposure to alcohol in the womb.

When, where and how does it work?

Very little detail about the mechanisms of these studies was reported; the review did not state whether any of the interventions were more effective in one context or another.

What are the costs and benefits?

No economic analysis was given in this review.

How is it implemented?

Implementation of the interventions varied across the studies.

  • Two studies involved weekly 1 hour sessions
  • One study involved 6 weeks of tutoring
  • One study used a 4 minute video
  • For the remaining three studies no specific delivery or implementation details were given.

Who can deliver it?

One study, a language and literacy intervention, was delivered by experienced speech and language therapists.
Details of who can deliver these interventions were not specified in this review.

What are the training and supervision requirements?

Details of training and supervision requirements were not specified in this review.

What supports good implementation?

Details of how to support good implementation were not specified in this review.

Case study

In summary...

  • This systematic review reported on six interventions in seven studies.
  • The differences in quality of study design and reporting limits the extent to which effectiveness can be judged. More robust research is needed in this area.
  • There were mixed findings for academic skills. There is some evidence to suggest that language, literacy and maths may be improved by these interventions, along with learning skills. However, more research is needed to draw firm conclusions.
  • More research is needed to see if findings are applicable to a UK context.

Further resources

  • This is a summary of a systematic review of interventions for children with FASD; Peadon, E., Rhys-Jones, B., Bower, C. and Elliott, E. (2009). Systematic review of interventions for children with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders. BMC Pediatrics, 9:35.
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