Experiential math

crib numbers

The 4-year-old was a handful to say the least. His birth mother had abused alcohol during pregnancy, leaving her son with a host of behavioral and learning problems.

He couldn’t sit still for more than 30 seconds. Cochlear implants allowed him to process sounds, but a short attention span made learning or following directions challenging. When his foster mother brought him to Marcus Autism Center (an affiliate of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta), she told a therapist she was unsure whether she could adopt him.

But during a six-week program designed to improve math skills and behavior, the boy made remarkable progress. His attention span went from mere seconds to 10 minutes. He made dramatic gains in math, and his performance also improved on tasks of general cognitive functioning. With the improvements, he and his foster mother were able to better connect, and she did adopt him.

Developed by faculty members at Emory School of Medicine, the Math Interactive Learning Experience (MILE) program offers a comprehensive math intervention for children with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) or fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs). The program also includes education workshops for parents and guardians of children exposed to alcohol prenatally.;

The umbrella term for the range of disorders that can result from prenatal alcohol exposure is FASD. The most severe of these disorders, FAS, is a lifelong condition that causes physical and mental disabilities. Abnormal facial features, growth deficiencies, and central nervous system problems may characterize FAS.

Historically, children with FASD were described as “unteachable,” and therefore little attention was paid to helping them. The MILE program is one of just a few programs ever developed to improve educational and behavioral outcomes for alcohol-affected children. 

"When FAS was first identified, there was a debate about whether alcohol really caused developmental problems," says Julie Kable, a pediatric psychologist at Emory and Marcus, who helped develop MILE. “Since then, 25 years have passed, and we know that alcohol abuse during pregnancy really does cause long-term problems."

Children with FAS have difficulty regulating their behavior, says Claire Coles, a pediatric psychologist in Emory’s psychiatry department who leads an FAS clinic at Marcus. "They have trouble organizing themselves and difficulties with impulse control. They also have visual and spatial deficiencies, which affect their ability to learn math," says Coles, a co-creator of MILE.

In one study, more than 55% of children who participated in MILE significantly improved in math performance. All parents in the program reported an improvement in their children’s behavior, so much so that many of the children’s teachers requested a briefing on MILE. After six months, the participants were tested again, and more than 68% of them showed persistent improvement in learning and behavior.

Specifically MILE teaches math to children using the FAR technique—focus and plan, act, and reflect. The children solve math problems while using a timer so they can see the passage of time—an important component, says Coles, because “alcohol-affected children often have no concept of time.” 

The program focuses on presenting math through experiential learning that involves manipulation of items. "They need to see it, feel it, experience it," Coles says. 

For parents, the educators provide behavior management techniques that help prevent children’s temper tantrums and other negative behaviors. Parents also learn to use everyday situations to reinforce math skills—for example, helping their children count creamers or sugar packets when eating out. Drilling math facts, however, is a “no-no” in the MILE curriculum. 

More important, say Coles and Kable, is that MILE children experience success in a learning environment, become more open to learning, and achieve improved relationships with their parents. 

The team currently is taking the MILE techniques to a broader audience of Atlanta schoolteachers. —Kay Torrance  

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