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Helping Children with Down Syndrome Succeed

Dr. Kawthar Hameed Abdullah

Ed.D Educational Psychology & Special Education

Every student who has Down’s syndrome is unique. Individuals differ across all aspects of social and cognitive development as well as in their family support and educational opportunities. Children with Down’s syndrome need experienced teachers and therapists who understand their skills, abilities, strengths, and interests and who can guide them through the next steps through engaging teaching and learning activities.

They need to be welcome, socially included members within their classrooms and schools. The positive attitude of the whole school is fundamental: schools need a clear and sensitive policy on inclusion with committed and supportive staff, especially the senior management team. Most children with Down’s syndrome need additional support for optimal learning in all types of schools. The quality of support the child or young person receives can have a tremendous impact on his or her learning.

Methods that support success include:

  • setting up and organizing situations for learning by imitation

  • daily practice of targeted skills built into engaging class activities

  • planned activities that become part of the child’s routine

  • support for positive behavior and for friendships

  • adaptations that use learning strengths and support areas of difficulty.

From this basis, teachers can plan differentiated programs of work across the curriculum. They can share their expertise about what works well with new class teachers as the child progresses through school.

Phonological awareness

Teaching children with Down syndrome involves using special techniques to meet their needs. Teaching phonics to children with Down syndrome is particularly effective. Here are some suggestions for teaching phonics and reading to children with Down syndrome:

  • Learning how letters link with the units of sounds that build words helps to develop children's phonological awareness. Teaching that helps to make the sound system of a language clearer helps children to identify, produce and observe the sounds that they say and write.

  • All young children and many older children with Down syndrome benefit from practicing saying the sounds that make up speech and joining the sounds together to build syllables and words. This is a particularly useful way of teaching reading to children with speech motor difficulties, who may be considered as having speech dyspraxia.

  • Connecting sounds with letters or groups of letters may help speech awareness, phonological awareness, reading, spelling and writing, and speech production. It is also likely to help their higher-order language processing, by increasing their perception of grammatical words and promoting the development of grammar comprehension.

Children should learn about phonics from an early age, beginning with learning about the sounds they make and then the name of the letters.

Children with Down syndrome will have different degrees of phonological abilities for reading tasks. They will have differing abilities to produce or say sounds even when they can understand them, different abilities to recognize sounds in word; even when they know them as isolated sounds, and different abilities to say single words, words of different length and complexity, and sentences.mEach child’s individual starting points and progress will vary, as will the stage at which the child will begin to use phonic skills for reading and writing and the level to which their skills will progress.

Skilled readers with Down syndrome, who began early and have continued to develop literacy skills with their peers, may be very good at reading using the phonics skills they have acquired. It is not unusual for such readers to be able to read and pronounce, and sometimes spell, words that are considered to be a fewbyears ahead of their chronological age.

Modifications for home and school

Ensure learning is multi-sensory

Material that’s presented in multi-sensory channels and includes auditory, visual, and tactile elements, may be easier for a student with Down syndrome to absorb. For example, in teaching a new vocabulary word you may have the child trace the letters in sand as they say the word out loud and see an image of its meaning, instead of just reading it off of the board. Multi-sensory games where learners have to answer a question, repeat the answer spoken by a classmate, and then move an object, such as placing a seed in a cup, can also be effective.

Include plenty of visuals

Students with Down syndrome tend to be visual learners. Add supplementary images to handouts when you can. It is especially important to break up long blocks of complex descriptions. Consider investing in some colorful charts to put up in the classroom and play videos with closed captions to reinforce content. Textual input enhancement can also be especially effective for a visual learner. Use bolding, underlining, bright colors and other formatting to call attention to important points and help with noticing and intake of new information. In teaching material with advanced vocabulary, you may consider glossing difficult words with small images or graphics in the margins.

Give them more time

No two individuals with Down syndrome are alike in terms of cognitive processing abilities, but most will benefit from extended time limits. It can take longer for students with Down syndrome to understand and absorb information, and then commit it to memory. Provide additional assistance by having them repeat back what they have learned at the end of a lesson is a great way to help them retain the information. Group exercises where partners work together to fill out charts and information organizers are also helpful.

Encourage use of technology

Handwriting can be difficult from both a physical motor skills and executive function perspective. Encourage students to record material so they can replay class discussions and listen to them at home. Use tablets or computers to take electronic notes, and use a smartphone or electronic dictionary to help with difficult words.

Help them stay focused

Whenever possible make teaching sessions a series of shorter intervals with short breaks. That’s because learners with Down syndrome can have trouble concentrating for long periods of time and may become disruptive after a certain period. If possible, consider where a learner is sitting. Being close to a window, a door, or a noisy air conditioner can be problematic. You may also want to reduce ‘noise’ in activities by simplifying projects and taking more complex activities and assigning them to groups where everyone has different roles. In this way, students with Down syndrome can concentrate on a more manageable set of task instructions. If attention difficulties cause them to lose their place in reading, provide a ruler to run down the page, or have them use their finger to follow along.

Help them feel comfortable

Establish routines in class and stick to them. You can also increase the chances that these special students feel welcome and at ease by developing certain social rituals in class. For example, teaching students to greet each other at the start of the lesson and share their favorite or least favorite part of the homework might be a good ice-breaker. If you’re teaching younger learners, have a poster displaying some classroom manners guidelines that everyone helped to write. Each student can contribute a rule.

Develop relationships

When teaching larger groups, mix-up partners so students have a chance to work with everyone in the class. You might also find certain individuals work well together and you may wish to assign note-taking buddies or other co-operative roles to help foster these relationships.

Give them tools to stay organized

Teaching good organizational habits such as using folders, notebooks, and schedules to stay on top of classwork is important. Labeling materials, using sticky notes in books, and having squares of colored paper ready are also sometimes helpful. In certain cases, a student may prefer to use his or her phone to keep track of homework and assignments. Always make sure there is a way to stay in touch with parents to help with monitoring of homework and progress on long-term assignments.

Think about Keyboarding

Keyboarding can give students with Down syndrome the confidence they need to apply their skills in writing projects and later on in volunteer work or paid positions. Short modules help them build momentum and the phonics work can also build general literacy skills. It is also useful for students that have Down syndrome with dysgraphia or dyspraxia.

Accommodate physical impairments

Many children with Down syndrome may have a hearing impairment. If a child has a hearing impairment, record classroom discussions and make them available afterwards, so a student can replay important parts and skip ahead when necessary. Use plenty of handouts and be sure to face the student when you are speaking.

How can you modify lessons and classroom practice for students with Down syndrome?

  • Incorporate auditory, visual, and kinesthetic/tactile elements into lessons

  • Remember you are most likely teaching a visual learner who has limited executive functioning skills

  • Encourage repetition of material outside of class to help with retention and memory

  • Create a safe and judgment-free classroom environment and facilitate interactions with peers through group work

  • Ensure a distraction-free environment and provide instructions and tasks broken down into steps

  • Teach organizational skills and stay in contact with parents and family support teams

  • Make learning fun and provide opportunities for success to help encourage and sustain motivation

  • Accommodate physical impairments, motor skills difficulties, and learning differences

Remember most students with Down syndrome have to work harder than their peers to achieve the same results in the classroom and they require plenty of encouragement, reassurance, and praise to keep them on track. It also helps if they are given special assignments designed just for them, which provide them with opportunities for success. Getting to know your student can help you understand what drives him or her to succeed. Make sure to encourage creativity in the classroom and ensure there are opportunities for focusing written and oral reports on topics that motivate and inspire.

Dr. Kawthar Hameed Abdullah is an educational psychologist and special educational specialist. She holds an Ed.D in both educational psychology and special education. She has over 25 years experience working with children with different educational, intellectual, and emotional challenges.

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