Educators Search for Ways to Help Drug Babies : Programs Needed for Children Whose Skills Often Lag Behind Classmates'

Times Staff Writer

A day-old infant goes "cold turkey," shivering and thrashing as his tiny body convulses during drug withdrawal. The infant, who appeared in a videotape, is one of 16,000 babies in Los Angeles County born each year to women addicted to drugs, health experts said.

Although these children may often look healthy by the time they enter school, studies have shown that their motor and language skills and physical development can lag behind that of their peers, according to speakers at a seminar recently sponsored by the Arcadia Unified School District.

The seminar, which examined the effects of perinatal exposure to drugs on young children, attracted more than 150 education and health professionals interested in developing special programs to help those children.

Such concerns are growing as drug abuse continues to rise in the United States. The number of illicit drug users nationwide increased from 33% of the population in 1982 to 37% in 1985, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Existing Programs

State health department statistics show that in 1988, 375,000 babies, 5% to 10% of those born nationwide, were exposed to drugs while in the womb.

The percentage is higher--11%--for babies born to "high-risk" mothers, which includes women who had no prenatal care and those with a history of drug abuse, according to the National Assn. for Perinatal Addiction Research and Evaluation in Chicago.

"We know in time these kids will come to our school district," said Diana Wright, a psychologist for the Arcadia Unified School District and one of the seminar's organizers. Wright, a member of the district's preschool assessment team, said she and her colleagues need to learn how to identify drug-exposed children.

"Are they retarded?" Wright asked. "Do they have hand-eye coordination problems?"

"We want to look at what services they actually need and use existing programs to meet their needs," said Nancy Gronroos, also a district psychologist.

Unexpected Attendance

In Los Angeles County, 60% to 80% of the more than 8,000 children who are dependents of the courts were born to substance-abusing mothers, said Marie Poulsen, a seminar speaker and director of training and education for Children's Hospital in Los Angeles.

Although a majority of mothers who use drugs are poor, she said, the problem of drug babies cuts across socioeconomic lines.

The urgency facing educators was underscored by the number of people who attended the seminar--five times what organizers had expected. Psychologists, teachers, nurses and speech pathologists from a dozen communities including Alhambra, Duarte, El Monte and Pasadena all showed up in search of information and advice.

Demand for information has been so great that the State Department of Education is planning a weeklong summer workshop for teams of educators and social service professionals, said Linda Brekken, who is in charge of personnel development for the education department's infant-preschool program.

There were also some non-professionals at the seminar. Caroline Mraz is a South Pasadena foster mother who is raising seven children, all of them drug babies. She said she wanted to find out what special help schools can offer her children.

"It scares me that these teachers and psychologists don't know how to deal with them," Mraz said.

But Los Angeles teacher Carol Cole cited her experiences as an example of what can be done.

Cole teaches a special class in the Los Angeles Unified School District's pilot program for children prenatally exposed to drugs. Under the program, which is in its second year, three classes of preschoolers are observed by a team of teachers, psychologists and physicians.

Cole said she is sharing her observations and strategies with other educators all over the country.

Children who were drug babies may have problems with their motor or language skills, Cole said. They may walk into walls or their hands may tremble when they try to pour a glass of milk. They may also suffer extremes in behavior, ranging from apathy to aggressive outbursts, she said.

Many times, the solution can be as simple as helping a child steady his hand or spending the time to find out what the child wants but for some reason cannot express, she said. When voice commands do not seem to register with a child, Cole makes eye contact and addresses a child by name before speaking.

"We are trying to teach teachers that, unless a child's needs are consistently met over a period of time, they are not going to be interested in meeting someone else's needs," Cole said.

Cole also described what teachers in the pilot program call "sporadic mastery" among former drug babies.

For example, a child may be excited about learning to tie his shoes one day and "simply not know how to do it on a given Wednesday."

To keep tantrums under control, Cole has taught the children that, if they are unhappy about something, they should say, "I'm having a hard time and I need help." The strategy has proven popular with the children, all of whom want to be the one to help their classmates, she said.

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