Down syndrome, also known as Trisomy 21, is a genetic disorder caused by Chromosome 21. It is one of the most common causes of intellectual disabilities that influences development throughout life.

Down syndrome is associated with increased risks of health problems like mild to moderate heart defects, hearing loss, weakened immune system, poor eyesight, difficulties in communication and swallowing disorders along with some learning difficulties. However, not all areas of development are affected equally- there are particular patterns of learning difficulties, which helps in apprising different ways of teaching and supporting children with Down syndrome. 

Identification of needs

It would be a good start to understand how development and learning differs for children with Down syndrome so that effective teaching approaches and therapies can be devised. After an assessment and identification of their acquired knowledge, a holistic curriculum can be designed for them.

Cultivating peer acceptance

Alongside ensuring support for these children in a classroom, a teacher has to communicate the basic information about them to others in the class to promote an understanding of their needs. The teacher can plan for icebreaker activities for peer/ group acceptance; teach basic sign language to everyone so that others can have a meaningful conversation with students with Down syndrome. 

Setting up the classroom

Highly simple yet effective accommodations can be integrated for children with Down syndrome in an inclusive classroom. The following are a few examples:

Placing the student in the front row. Having an appropriate sized desk and/or a footrest for students to reduce fatigue and provide better posture support. 

Facilitating the teaching- learning process

Keeping the instructions short and clear can help the children follow through. Supplementing direct instructions given to students with sign language or gestures and expressions can aid in better understanding. While questioning, allowing ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ responses and providing two choices to select from can encourage the student to answer. Allowing more time and practice helps the child to learn and apply knowledge better. To avoid distractions, noise levels of the activities have to be monitored. 

Utilizing the learning strengths of Children with Down syndrome:

Barring the learning challenges, children with Down syndrome accomplish many things on a day-to-day basis. They enjoy communicating by making good use of non- verbal skills including babbling and gestures in social situations. Children with Down syndrome have the ability develop good social skills and appropriate social behaviour. The following ways can be employed to support their learning strengths:

  • A distinct preference for visual learning:

The highly recognized and most suitable strategy that works the best for such children is a visual demonstration of the content in the simplest creative way. Illustrated visual activities help enhance a number of areas of development including language acquisition as well as motor skills. This in turn strengthens their short- term verbal memory.

For example, creating live working models, using voice modulation for stories along with visual aids, customising a board game to teach the various concepts can aid better understanding. The same methods can be used for evaluating the learning. Using large font size and pictures for printed materials and colour coding or highlight the keywords in long sentences can also help. 

  • Enhancing the ease of vocabulary acquisition:

Acquiring language has many significant effects on being able to think, remember and reason. Many children with Down syndrome can develop reading skills earlier than what might be expected for their cognitive and language levels. Recognizing situational factors that affect communication and classroom performance is crucial. With the guidance of the Speech and Language therapists, a language- rich environment can be created for students at school as well as at home. Giving plenty of vocabulary building opportunities for them by reading with and to them and labelling objects and drawing children’s attention to size, texture, shape, colour etc. is yet another way of improving vocabulary. 

  • Focusing on the scope of age- appropriate self- help and daily living skills: 

There can be a wide variability in progress of motor skills among the children with Down syndrome. Motor regulation can be developed through early intervention and engagement in positive behaviour. Their strongly empathetic and social nature creates curiosity in learning new behaviours they see around in their surroundings. Hence, social stories are one of the best ways to teach independent living skills to children with Down syndrome.  

  • Catering to the ease of adapting to technology:

Technology has become an integral part of our daily lives, which can be leveraged to assist children with special needs. Children with Down syndrome also like to express like any other child their age, and most of them might need special strategies to help them in their communication development. Use of multimedia may help them express themselves better to people who are not aware of sign language.

It also creates interest among the children and motivates them to participate in the activities presented to them. Technology can also be used for creating online fun and engaging games to measure their learning. 

It is imperative to assess and determine how children with Down syndrome learn best. The same can be done through the process of designing and constructing individual learning programmes to support these children, especially during their early years. The intensity of intervention plays a major role in the language and cognitive development of Children with Down syndrome.

A student who receives intervention for one hour for five days a week will show more progress than another who receives intervention only for an hour in a week. Parents of children with Down syndrome also play an equally crucial role as their teachers, occupational therapists and their speech pathologists, to intensify the intervention programme developed for their children.

Therefore, it is always a team effort to enhance child- centric support to provide the best opportunities for children with Down syndrome as they grow and progress.  

Author: Ms. Charmy Adhia

Teaching Faculty – DLP, The Aditya Birla Integrated School