Feb 11 2021

How to Teach Students With Down Syndrome? 14 Effective Strategies

Positive Action Staff

Leslie Duffen, the father of three-year-old Sarah, discovered his daughter could learn to read at three years old.

But children learn to read all the time, yes?

Not always.

Especially not some children born with Down syndrome.

Yet at only three, Sarah was beginning to imitate and use single words from flashcards held up by her father.

Through this exercise, Leslie confirmed that Sarah mastered written words faster than she did the words spoken to her.

Using this language learning hack, Sarah could comfortably attend a local comprehensive school where her language skills placed her ahead of most.

In fact, by the time she was 12, she had received all but one year of her education in mainstream schools.

This shows you that children with Down syndrome can benefit from a rich learning experience when given the opportunity.

This kind of learning accommodation requires a tailored curriculum that factors in children with Down syndrome.

And this is where Positive Action’s curriculum comes into play.

“I am very grateful for these lessons. They fulfill a need that so many children are lacking in the educational process today.” — Linda Davis, 2nd Grade Teacher, Davis Elementary

How Do You Explain Down Syndrome to a Child?

To support your child, start by understanding what Down syndrome is for yourself.

A child with Down syndrome has an extra chromosome — chromosomes are small “bundles” of genes that determine how a baby’s body forms during pregnancy and how their body functions after birth.

Typically, a baby is born with 46 chromosomes, but children with Down syndrome have an extra copy of one of these chromosomes, chromosome 21.

The medical term for this phenomenon is ‘trisomy’; thus, Down syndrome is also referred to as trisomy 21.

This extra copy affects the baby’s physical and mental development. Although children with Down syndrome might share some similarities in appearance and behavior, each child has different abilities.

Some common physical features in individuals with Down syndrome include:

  • A flattened face, especially the bridge of the nose

  • Almond-shaped eyes that slant up

  • A short neck

  • Small ears

  • A single line across the palm (palmar crease)

  • A tongue that tends to stick out of the mouth

  • Tiny white spots on the iris (colored part) of the eye

  • Small hands and feet

  • Small pinky fingers that sometimes curve toward the thumb

  • Poor muscle tone or loose joints

  • Shorter height as both children and adults

They may also experience challenges with motor skills, speech, and language.

How Do You Interact With a Child With Down Syndrome?

Overcoming existing negative stereotypes about children with Down syndrome calls for people-first language.

Here’s how it works:

  1. In your language (both written and oral), put the person before the disability.
  • Use “My student with Down syndrome” instead of “my Downs kid” or “he’s Downs.”

  • Say “My student receives special education” instead of “He’s a special ed student.”

  • Encourage all other students to think of students with Down syndrome as people first.

  1. Acknowledge how words can create barriers.
  • Avoid terms with overt negative connotations like “retarded” or “handicapped;” use “developmentally delayed” instead.

  • If you’re unsure about how to refer to a child with Down syndrome, ask their parent.

  1. Use emotionally neutral expressions.
  • When referring to your students, say, “My student has Down syndrome instead of “My student suffers from Down syndrome.”
  1. Steer clear of stereotypes like “They’re so loving/happy all the time.” Children with Down syndrome experience a wide range of emotions and are not all alike.

  2. Use examples of what the student needs instead of labeling them as having “problems.” For example, “Billy needs…” rather than “Billy has problems or special needs.”

  3. Don’t use the terms “mild” or “severe” because one is either a child with Down syndrome or not. Yes, there are varying degrees of abilities, but using “mild” or “severe” can insult parents or other families who overhear.

We know that adopting these habits takes some adjusting. So here’s a video showing how students with Down syndrome interact with their friends for some inspiration.

How Do You Accommodate Students With Down Syndrome?

  1. First, always speak directly to the student, using clear, receptive language and short sentences.

  2. Place a strong emphasis on visual learning when teaching reading to students with Down syndrome. Think visual demonstrations, pictures, and illustrations.

  • Include additional images in handouts when you can.

  • Put up colorful charts around the room.

  • Play videos with closed captions to reinforce content.

  • Break up blocks of texts with lists and tables and use bolding and underlining to highlight important points.

  • When tackling material with advanced vocabulary, draw small images against difficult words in the margins.

  1. Repetition is the name of the game when it comes to phonics training. Yes, adults may find this monotonous, but children greatly benefit from overlearning material. Simply use automated options like flashcards and computer programs to mitigate the boredom.

  2. Learn sight words and vocabulary from the student’s environment. When students with Down syndrome know 50-70% of the words on a page, it frees them up to focus on the more challenging terms they come across.

  3. Students with Down syndrome generally have good social skills. So encourage them to organize tasks with other students who can act as appropriate role models.

  4. Give the student enough time to process language and respond. It may take longer for some students with Down syndrome to comprehend information and then commit it to memory.

  • Offer additional help by asking them to repeat back what they’ve learned at the end of a lesson or in peer work.

  • Group activities where students collaborate to fill out charts and information organizers are also helpful.

  1. No victory is too small. Set attainable goals and adjust difficulty levels according to each individual’s capabilities.
  • Learning just one letter or a new sound over a week is a sure win for a child with Down syndrome so reward each accomplishment with badges and lots of praise.

  • Design special assignments that cater to the student’s strengths so that you can create opportunities for guaranteed success.

  1. Believe in your student’s abilities. Most students with Down syndrome have to put in more work than their peers to achieve the same results, so plenty of praise and reassurance keep them on track.

Teaching students with Down syndrome calls for a lot of self-compassion. Teachers already experience moments of stress, anxiety, and pressure managing students without Down syndrome.

So the key here is to pause when you need to and remember that you, too, just like the student with Down syndrome, are giving your best.

Rise to the Challenge: Help Children With Down Syndrome

At Positive Action, we recognize each person’s unique value: parent, teacher, and student alike.

We help students who receive special education integrate into mainstream classrooms by equipping them with social skills and intrinsic motivation.

Additionally, our special education curriculums will provide your school’s leadership with specific tools such as:

  • Committee Handbook
  • Surveys
  • Calendars
  • Templates for meeting logs and agendas
  • Behavior management forms
  • “Dear Parents” letters

“Positive Action is a good curriculum, and we tied it in with our PBIS. It really helped in making this a safe school where academics and behavior work together so that everybody can learn.” — From a Principal in Robeson County, North Carolina

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