9 strategies to support children with Down syndrome to engage in the classroom

ask silvia Feb 23, 2023

(Photo 250682456 © Eleonoraos | Dreamstime.com)

In this blog post, I wanted to answer a question sent to me by a teacher. 

The Question:
"I am supporting a Junior Infant girl with Down syndrome. She is bright and happy yet very stubborn regarding what she will do. She walks out of the classroom mid-lesson, although we have movement breaks, as she would rather play! I want to do the best for her".

As an educator, it is essential to remember that every student is unique and has their own set of challenges and strengths. When teaching a child with Down syndrome, it is crucial to approach the situation with patience, understanding, and a willingness to adapt to their individual needs.

One of the challenges you might face with a student with Down syndrome is difficulty with attention and focus, making it challenging to keep them engaged in classroom activities and lessons. However, there are strategies you can use to help improve their concentration and focus and create a more positive and productive learning environment for them.

So, let's dive into this and explore some possible solutions together!

  • First and foremost, building a strong relationship with the student is essential.
    Take the time to get to know their likes, dislikes, and interests. This will help you better understand what motivates them and what might distract them in the classroom. As much as possible, incorporate their interests into the tasks. For example, if you are working on colouring and pencil skills, you may print pictures of their favourite cartoon characters for them to colour in to keep them motivated.
  • Next, try to create a structured and predictable classroom environment.
    Children with Down syndrome often benefit from routine and consistency, as it helps them feel more secure and comfortable in their environment. Use visual aids such as a daily schedule or picture cues to help them understand what activities will happen throughout the day. Using visual schedules can help children understand what is expected of them and encourage cooperation, even if the student has good language comprehension.
  • Another effective strategy is to break down lessons into smaller, more manageable tasks.
    This can help prevent the student from becoming overwhelmed or frustrated, making it easier for them to stay focused and engaged. Present tasks step by step, such as focusing on one step at a time when doing arts and crafts: first draw, then colour, then cut, then glue. Use positive reinforcement such as praise and rewards to encourage good behaviour and effort.
  • Incorporating movement breaks and other sensory activities can also help keep a child with Down syndrome engaged and focused.
    This might include stretching, dance breaks, or sensory play activities such as playing with playdough or fidget toys. Movement breaks can also be simple tasks, such as asking the child to go to the shelf to get crayons or more paper, get up and put something in the bean, or go to the bathroom and wash hands. Some children work better with short spurts of focused activities with movement breaks in between.
  • Children with developmental delays often present with a language delay too.
    Support verbal information in the classroom with visual cues. You may use gestures, pictures, demonstrations, Lamh signs, objects of reference, or pointing. Aim to offer a visual cue for everything you say. For example, if you present an activity where the child has to match pictures, demonstrate how to match pictures at the same time you give the verbal instructions. Remember that children with Down syndrome may have difficulties processing language, so using visual cues will help them understand what you say.
  • Another reason a child might walk away from an activity is because they need help understanding the task or it seems too difficult.
    That can often happen with reading and writing activities. A good programme for teaching reading to children with Down syndrome is the See and Learn programme, designed to teach language and reading to young children with Down syndrome. Also, the book "Teaching Reading To Children With Down Syndrome" by Patricia Logan Oelwein has many activities to help them learn to read. You can use the approach in the book and the See and Learn Program with your students with Down syndrome before or alongside Jolly phonics.
    The Handwriting Without Tears program is suitable for teaching pencil skills and writing to children with developmental delays. These methodologies are often more suitable for children with Down syndrome than traditional approaches used in primary school.
  • Using specialised programs in the early years can make a difference for children with Down syndrome.
    Your student may be less frustrated, more engaged, and make more progress with these specialised approaches.
    Being patient and understanding is important when working with a child with Down syndrome. Remember that they may need extra time to process information or complete tasks and may require additional support and guidance from you.
  • Using an errorless method can be helpful.
    Unlike trial-and-error learning, which works well for typically developing children, errorless learning helps children learn new activities by doing them with lots of initial support and gradually removing that support. Errorless learning works well with children with Down syndrome, developmental delays, and autism, although teachers are often unaware of this technique. This strategy reduces frustration, promotes attention and concentration, and helps children learn new skills faster. I suggest researching information about errorless learning as it is a strategy your student can benefit from.
  • Student walking out of the classroom mid-lesson.
    Regarding the specific challenge of a student walking out of the classroom mid-lesson, it is essential to understand why they might be doing this. Are they feeling overwhelmed or frustrated? Are they looking for a break or a change of scenery? Once you know their motivations, you can work to address them positively and be supportive. You should discuss this with other classroom teachers and teaching support staff and try to determine why the child is doing this.

Ultimately, teaching a child with Down syndrome requires patience, understanding, and a willingness to adapt to their individual needs. By building a strong relationship with them, creating a structured and predictable environment, breaking down lessons into smaller tasks, using a total communication approach, incorporating visual supports and movement breaks, implementing specialised programs, and being patient and understanding, you can create a positive and productive learning environment that supports their growth and development.

And now, your turn. How do you support students who need help focusing in the classroom? Which of the strategies listed above would be helpful for your child? Let me know in the comments section below.

Leave a comment… 

(No email is required!)
Comment Guidelines