Supporting Children with Down's Syndrome
Updated: Aug 23, 2022
We are all mostly familiar with Down's Syndrome, some of you may have a child with Down's Syndrome in your class. You will be conscious that they have an intellectual disability, and that they often have speech which is not quite clear. Down's Syndrome is rather more complex, though, and it may be helpful for teachers and support staff to have an understanding of some of the likely strengths and difficulties. Every learner 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.
Life is changing for people who have disabilities, as society becomes more inclusive. Mainstream education is becoming more common, and this has brought considerable benefits. We do recognise, though, that it can be challenging at times to include a child who has Down syndrome in the classroom.
What is Down's Syndrome?
Down's Syndrome, sometimes referred to as Down Syndrome, is a genetic condition that usually causes some level of learning disability. It is caused by having an extra chromosone in the cells, and this occurs by chance at the point of conception and is not inherited.
A person with Down's Syndrome will have some level of learning disability but the level of ability is different for each individual. Children with Down's Syndrome may take longer to reach their developmental milestones compared to their peers, and will need support in different aspects of their life. There are also other features commonly associated with Down's Syndrome, and we will explore these in depth in this article.
Typical Learning Profile Of A Child With Down's Syndrome
Each child is unique so it is important to understand the child you are supporting and identify their strengths and areas where they need support. However, there is a 'typical' learning profile that can help you in the first instance whilst you are trying to get to know your child.
Strong visual awareness and visual learning skills (despite poor vision)
Ability to learn and use sign language, Makaton or PECS to aid communication
Strong desire to learn from their peers and to learn via imitation
Delayed motor skills which can cause clumsiness and difficulty with physical manipulations
Speech and language delay causing difficulties in comprehension, understanding and expression.
Poorer short-term auditory memory
How Can You Support In Class?
Now let's explore some of the strategies you can use in the classroom to support a child with Down's Syndrome. We will examine each major area of difficulty or impairment for children with Down's Syndrome and offer easy-to-use suggestions on how you can ensure they are well supported in school.
Around 80% of children with Down's Syndrome will have some form of hearing impairment and even a mild impairment can result in 1/3rd of speech not being heard correctly. In a noisy classroom, this could mean that a child with Down's Syndrome is missing 2/3rds of speech.
What can you do?
Make sure the child is sitting close to the front of the room, closest to you.
Cue the child by name before giving an instruction or asking a question.
Provide visual aids that support verbal language such as PECS and visual timetables
Teach new material in a quiet setting, potentially at an individual learning station or desk.
Speech & Language
As Down's Syndrome impairs speech and language, all children with Down's Syndrome will have speech and language disorders over and above what would be expected for their intellectual ability. Read that sentence again. Try to imagine how frustrating it must be to be continually underestimated because of poor speech and language.
Language is the content of the message: receptive language is what the child understands, expressive language is what message the child is trying to convey. It can be difficult for a child with Down syndrome to process language, or to understand the message. It can be difficult to think of words, and to organise them into a phrase or sentence in order to respond. It can be difficult to learn new vocabulary just by exposure, like the other children in the class.
Speech may be unclear for various reasons. It can be difficult for the child to hear all the sounds in a word; difficult to make those sounds; difficult to remember the order of sounds and syllables; difficult to coordinate movements and breath; difficult to say words fairly consistently so that people can understand. Many children will supplement their speech with signing or visual aids, at least in the early years.
What can you do?
Use short sentences and simple language
Allow processing time, count to 10 before giving a next instruction or question. Do not overload them with questions or instructions.
Use positive sentences, i.e. highlighting the behaviour or action we want to see. For example, "Walk in the corridor" vs "Do not run in the corridor"
Think about your word order. For example, the sentence, "We will go to the playground after your snack" could be interpreted as "Playground, then snack". It would be best to say "After snack, we will go to the playground".
Use visual aids to support language - visual timetables, picture lists, PECS.
Although we have discussed that children with Down's Syndrome typically learn better visually, over 70% of children with Down's Syndrome have some degree of visual impairment. Regardless of whether the child wears glasses, you should ensure that the materials used in class are accessible.
What can you do?
Use large print with good contrast - 20pt font, black on white is great!
Use big, bold, colourful pictures. Pastel or soft colours are not ideal.
Provide thick black markers or pens instead of pencils to aid with writing.
Consult a teacher for the visually impaired for further advice.
One of the prime features of Down's Syndrome is low muscle tone and therefore delayed gross and fine motor skills. Some children with Down's Syndrome require the support of an Occupational Therapist, but there are a number of things you can do in class to support their motor development.
What can you do?
Use markers or felt tip pens instead of pencils for writing so that the child does not have to maintain downward pressure when writing.
Seek advice of an Occupational Therapist if/where necessary.
Allow frequent movement breaks. This is great for all children, not just those with additional needs, as it will help aid concentration! You could incorporate 'life skills' into these breaks, such as getting the child to hand out snacks, take documents to reception or to help with any admin tasks you need to do.
We are all familiar with the concept of differentiation - ensuring that content and activities set in class/for homework are tailored to the needs of each child. This could mean simplifying or reducing the amount of work set for students with SEN. For example;
In a spelling test, it could be 4 words instead of 10
For comprehension, it could be 2 questions instead of 5
It could be using a laptop or computer instead of writing
Differentiation is important as it allows the child to still access the content of the lesson without being excluded if the work is too overwhelming. The work set must always be age appropriate, including developmental age (the age at which they function emotionally, cognitively, socially and physically).
Children with Down syndrome have the right to be educated in their local school, and to be given appropriate supports to enable them to access the curriculum and learn effectively. A teacher who has high expectations of the child with Down syndrome, and who differentiates the classroom curriculum to support them to learn, will give them the best start.
How to use Differentiation in the Classroom: The Complete Guide
The Inclusive Classroom: A new approach to differentiation
Whole Child Reading: A Quick-Start Guide to Teaching Students with Down Syndrome & Other Developmental Delays