Teaching Students with Down Syndrome

Happy little boy with Down Syndrome playing with bubbles

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Down Syndrome is a chromosomal abnormality and one of the most common genetic conditions. It occurs in approximately one in every 700 to one 1,000 live births. Down syndrome accounts for approximately 5 percent to 6 percent of intellectual disabilities. Most students with Down syndrome fall into the mild to moderate range of cognitive impairment.

Physically, a student with Down syndrome is easily recognizable due to characteristics such as a smaller overall stature, flat facial profile, thick epicanthic folds in the corners of their eyes, protruding tongues, and muscle hypotonia (low muscle tone).

Cause of Down Syndrome

Down syndrome was first identified as a discrete disorder with a set of similar symptoms or 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 for Teachers

There are a number of best practices for working with students with Down syndrome. In teaching, best practices are procedures and strategies that, through research, have been shown to be effective. Those strategies include:

Inclusion: Students with special needs should be full members of age-appropriate inclusive classes to the extent they can be. Effective inclusion means that the teacher must be fully supportive of the model. The inclusive 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 than classrooms that are segregated according to cognitive ability or special needs.

Building self-esteem: The physical characteristics of a student with Down syndrome will often result in a lowered self-esteem, which means the teacher needs to take every opportunity to boost self-confidence and instill pride through a variety of strategies.

Progressive learning: Students with Down syndrome usually face many intellectual challenges. Strategies that work for mildly disabled students and/or students with significant learning disabilities will also work with these students. Most students with Down syndrome do not progress beyond the intellectual capabilities of a normal developing 6-to-8-year-old. However, a teacher should always strive to move the child progressively along the learning continuum—never assume the child isn't capable.

Solid intervention and high-quality instruction lead to improved academic achievement for students with Down syndrome. Through a multimodal approach, a teacher uses as many concrete materials and real-world authentic situations as possible. The teacher should use language appropriate for student understanding, speak slowly when necessary, and always break tasks into smaller steps and provide instruction for each step. Students with Down syndrome usually have good short-term memory.

Minimize distractions: Students with special needs are often easily distracted. Teachers should employ strategies that work to minimize distractions such as keeping the student away from the window, using a structured environment, keeping the noise level down, and having an orderly classroom where students are free from surprises and know the expectations, routines, and rules.

Teachers should use direct instruction in short periods of time along with brief activities to help to support learning, and they should introduce new material slowly, sequentially, and in a step-by-step fashion.

Employ speech-and-language instruction: Children with Down syndrome can 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. Teachers should use patience and model appropriate interactions at all times.

Behavior-management techniques: Strategies used for other students should not differ for the student with Down syndrome. Positive reinforcement is a much better strategy than punitive techniques. Reinforcers need to be meaningful.

The strategies a teacher uses to reach and teach a student with Down syndrome will often be beneficial to many learners in the classroom. Using the above strategies can be effective with students of all levels of ability.