Teaching Students with Down Syndrome

Happy little boy with Down Syndrome playing with bubbles
(Steve Debenport/Getty Images)

Down Syndrome is a chromosomal abnormality and the most common genetic condition. It occurs in approximately one in every seven hundred to one thousand live births. Down Syndrome (until recently, also called retardation) accounts for approximately 5-6 percent of intellectual disabilities.  Most students with Down's Syndrome are between the mild to moderate range of cognitive impairment.

Down's Syndrome has also been known as Mongolism due to the physical characteristics of the disorder, which presents in slanted eyes, much like the epicanthal folds of typical Asian eyes. Physically, a student with Down's Syndrome is easily recognizable due to characteristics like a smaller overall stature, flat facial profile, thick epicanthal folds in the corners of their eyes, protruding tongues, and muscle hypotonia (low muscle tone).


First identified as a discrete disorder with a set of similar symptoms/characteristics which are related to the presence of extra chromosome 21. Those characteristics include:

  • Short stature and shortened bones
  • Thick tongues and small oral cavities
  • Moderate to mild intellectual disabilities
  • Low or inadequate muscle tone.

Best Practices

  • Inclusion - Students with special needs should be full members of age-appropriate inclusional classes to the extent they can be. Effective inclusion means that the teacher must be fully supportive of the model. The strategies you use to reach and teach the Down's student will often be beneficial to many learners in the classroom. The inclusional environment is less likely to stigmatize and provides a much more natural environment for the students. There are more opportunities for peer relationships to occur and much of the research states that full integration works better.
  • Self-Esteem - The physical characteristics of a Down's student will often result in a lowered self-esteem, which means you will need to take every opportunity to boost self-confidence and instill pride through a variety of strategies.
  • Intellectual - Down's students usually face many intellectual challenges. Strategies that work for mildly retarded students and/or students with significant learning disabilities will also work with Down's students. Much literature has stated that most individuals with Down syndrome do not progress beyond the intellectual capabilities of a normal developing six-to-eight-year-old (Kliewer 1993). However, always strive to move the child progressively along the learning continuum. Never assume the child isn't capable. Solid intervention and high-quality instruction have been proven to lead to improved academic achievement for Down's students. Use a multi-modal approach which works best for all students. Use as many concrete materials and real world authentic situations as is possible. Use language appropriate for student understanding and speak slowly when necessary. Always break tasks into smaller steps and provide instruction for each step. Remember, a student with Down's Syndrome will usually have a good short term memory.
  • Short attention spans are also prevalent among students with Down's. Direct instruction in short periods of time along with smaller chunks of activities will help to support learning. Introducing new material slowly, sequentially and in a step-by-step fashion will help to ensure maximum learning occurs.
  • Distractibility - Down's students are often easily distracted. You'll need to employ strategies that work to minimize distractions such as keeping the student away from the window, using a slightly more structured environment, keeping the noise level down, and having an orderly classroom where students are free from surprises and know what your expectations, routines, and rules are.
  • Speech and Language - Down's students all suffer from serious problems such as hearing difficulties and articulation problems. Sometimes they will require speech/language intervention and a great deal of direct instruction. In some cases, augmentative or facilitated communication will be a good alternative for communication. Use patience and model appropriate interactions at all times.

Today's classroom has many special needs students, and the inclusional model is often the best model and one supported by research. The inclusive classrooms lets all students learn what it means to be a full member of a school community. Treat all students as valued learners. Although many teachers don't have experience with Down's Syndrome, they have been teaching these students very well for a long time.