Playing to Their Strengths: Teaching Children with Down Syndrome

19 Feb

Below is a short tutorial directed at my son’s teachers; a love letter of sorts, if you will. He is 3, and in a preschool for exceptional children within our local elementary school. I think these ideas apply broadly though, to all professionals and all parents whose children have Down syndrome or other cognitive disorders. I hope there are takeaways in here that apply to children of any age. Let me know what you think!

To My Son’s Teachers: Research-Based Strategies for Learning

Some notes from a conference presented in Charlotte, N.C., last fall by Down Syndrome Education International, a UK-based research and training organization that has been using clinical trials to study how people with Down syndrome learn for 30 years. Professor Sue Buckley is the lead scientist at DownsEd and was the featured speaker at the conference along with some of her colleagues. For more information:


You may have heard that children with Down syndrome are “visual learners,” meaning that they learn better when information is presented visually rather than just spoken to them. The reason for this is that they have specific impairments in their auditory short-term memory and relatively strong visual memories.

What this means is they may need visual prompts like pictures or signs in order to learn language, follow directions, or answer questions. For a one-step direction or word, no visual prompt may be needed, but if you are asking the child to complete a two-step direction or say two or more words, a visual aid may be necessary until the child has mastered this skill.

(Visual aides like pictures are also great for a child who has difficulty with transitions so he knows what to expect next.)

For instance, when trying to increase the length of your child’s spoken phrases, holding up a card with two dots (or three dots, etc., depending on the child’s level) and pointing to each dot as you say each word can help serve as a visual reminder to compensate for the child’s weaker auditory memory. This is known as a pacing board.  If your child looks at his toy and says “ball,” try to get him to add the color also by using a pacing board with two dots and saying “Ball. Red ball,” and pointing to each dot as you say “Red…ball.” For more information about this, please see the fascinating book by Libby Kumin, PhD., CCC-SLP, “Early Communication Skills for Children With Down Syndrome: A Guide for Parents and Professionals.”

Language Learning

About a half dozen studies have shown that reading progress is often above the mental age for language and verbal skills, and in many cases children with Down syndrome can read at age level! The researchers at DownsEd, as the organization is called, learned that many 3-year-olds could remember a visual word easier than a spoken word.

(Mathematical skills are more difficult, and often lag 2 years behind reading skills. More on that another time.)

Reading can be fostered in the classroom and at home with the use of letter cards or letter books — pages with a letter written in big type and accompanied by a picture of something that starts with that letter. Show the card, then say the letter sound to the child, then say the word and see if the child repeats it. Over time, you can ask the child to categorize by putting all the “b” words in one pile, the “d” words in another, etc.

Studies of children naming picture cards showed that speech production was clearer when imitating (watching closely as the adult spoke the word slowly). This showed that another problem was storage and retrieval from memory, not a motor skill or vocabulary issue, although some children with Down syndrome also have oral-motor weakness that impedes their speech.

Children with Down syndrome are good at matching games, so you could have a group of pictures with the word written underneath, and have the child match the corresponding picture with the word underneath. Over time, you can gradually progress to having the child match only a word to the correct picture, and then match word to word, with no pictures at all.

Once children with Down syndrome acquire a basic vocabulary through signs and spoken words, introducing the printed word will help them increase their vocabularies and also begin to learn grammar. In fact, once a child is putting 3 or 4 words together, reading will be the best way to learn grammar (for instance “Mommy is driving the car,” rather than “Mommy drive car.”)

Reading, Word Recognition

Preschool children can start whole word/sight reading when they have a vocabulary of 50-100 words and are able to match pictures (find the one the same) and select pictures (Where is the dog?).

Phonics instruction should not begin until the child has a sight vocabulary of 30-40 words, or with the rest of the class in school. Many of the early phonics skills will overlap with speech and language activities that teach letter sounds and initial consonants.

The computer plays to the visual strengths of children with Down syndrome, said Professor Buckley. She said the iPad is going to revolutionize education of our children. So please keep encouraging them to use the computer and don’t hesitate to play letter and number recognition games.

Errorless Learning

One fascinating tip presented at the conference is that children with Down syndrome are very sensitive to failure. If they sense they will not be able to do something correctly, they may simply refuse to do it. You may present a task to them, and they may start smiling at you or otherwise getting distracted. This may be just a behavior, but it may also be their way of trying to “get out of” doing the task.

A way around this is to use errorless learning. In other words, do not let the child get something “wrong.” Assist him in getting the answers right until he learns to do it himself. For instance, if you are asking the child to point to the dog and he points to the duck, keep prompting for the right answer. Avoid saying the word “no” or “that’s not right,” or similar language.

Instead, say something like, “That’s the duck, do you see the dog?” Prompt a few times and if the child doesn’t get it, take his finger and point to the dog, saying “There’s the dog!” Similarly, if you are asking the child to choose from among a group of cards and he is not finding the right one, gently push the correct one forward to encourage him to choose it. Praise him for making the correct choice and try another activity. Over time, you will slowly decrease the amount of support and prompts you are giving to the child.

  Ending on a High Note

Perhaps the most striking yet simple idea presented at the conference by Professor Buckley is that we all should treat our children according to their chronological age as much as possible, not their developmental age.

As an example, she told us about her own daughter, who is now an adult and has never had a strong spoken vocabulary. They always treated her very protectively, and she took a special bus to either school or day service until the age of 22. Around that age, she joined the “real world,” moving to a supported living situation and beginning a relationship with a young man.

Finally, she came into herself, Professor Buckley said. Her daughter learned more between the ages of 20 and 30 than in the previous 20 years, she said.

I love this story! Let’s all work for full inclusion for our children and have the ultimate goal of letting our adult children be adults when the time comes. I anticipate this will be harder than it sounds. Thank you for helping us get there!

17 Responses to “Playing to Their Strengths: Teaching Children with Down Syndrome”

  1. Mom February 19, 2012 at 1:46 pm #

    An excellent blog, Vicki. You have a very clear way of explaining your thoughts and a direct method of showing the correct way of teaching the Down Syndrome child. Continued success in your endeavors.

    Love, Mom

    • modernmessy February 19, 2012 at 2:40 pm #

      Thanks Mom, as always, for your support! And for commenting on my posts 🙂

  2. katybastowKaty March 5, 2012 at 3:49 pm #

    I’ll have to check out the other resources on your site! Thanks for this post though – I was a 2nd grade teacher before my son with DS was born 6 years ago. You’d think that knowledge would carry over well, and it somewhat has, but I still feel at a loss most of the time. Seeing the study you found that shows it’s not uncommon for children with DS to read at grade level makes me want to find the genetisct that worked with us those first few days after Grant’s birth: he told us Grant would never read, never write his own name. 5 minutes of internet searching back then made me realize how false that was and how reading is actually one of their strengths in comparison. Thanks again for the info!

    • modernmessy March 5, 2012 at 4:44 pm #

      Katy: Thank you SO much for reading and responding! It is sad to hear so many stories of parents being told what their child cannot do, when there are so many things they CAN do!! Even a quick search of will tell you that. It’s a great resource for you as a parent and teacher, so I hope you’ll spend some time exploring it. It’s probably my favorite Down syndrome-related web site. Keep reading my posts and please click around my blog more too!! Glad to have you. — Vicki

  3. justine January 4, 2013 at 11:34 pm #

    most helpful, am teaching a DS child this year so am doing some reading to get some ideas how to best help her on her learnign journey,

    • modernmessy January 5, 2013 at 9:48 pm #

      Thank you so much for writing to let me know! Your students are fortunate to have you as a teacher. Please do spend time looking through the web site of Down Syndrome Education International; they are the experts. Best to you and your student!

  4. Anumeha February 27, 2013 at 7:02 am #

    Hi, thanks for the help it is really important to help our kids achieve their full potential and for that we can use all the help we can get, keep up the good work

    • modernmessy February 27, 2013 at 9:43 am #

      I am so glad you found this helpful. Thank you for writing to let me know!

  5. operationhaveitall May 13, 2013 at 10:29 am #

    Thank you for reminding me about this post, which I read when you posted and which I am printing now, as we prepare for Charlie to enter public education (ack!!!). SO useful, and also inspiring. Thank you!

    • modernmessy May 13, 2013 at 11:06 am #

      So glad you found it helpful!! I just loved what Sue Buckley said — hopefully you can catch her another time. Good luck with the preschool transition — he’s going to do great.

  6. ItsmeSonya August 26, 2014 at 9:38 am #

    Reblogged this on itsmesgg's Blog and commented:
    A great reminder about being successful and how different success may look, but it is still success!

  7. Stacy October 2, 2014 at 10:05 pm #

    Hi! I found your blog tonight because I am trying to educate and prepare myself for a little guy with Down Syndrome who will be mainstreaming into my Transitional Kindergarten. Your tips are very helpful and I printed them. I am super excited about him joining my class. I want to do everything I can to ensure success for this sweet boy! Thank you. I will be reading more of your blog. Thank you so much!

    • modernmessy October 3, 2014 at 10:42 am #

      Thank you so much for writing in! I am always thrilled to hear from teachers, because they are most important to our children’s success in school. Your students are so lucky to have you, preparing already for your little guy’s arrival! Be sure to visit Sue Buckley’s web site often for educational and also behavior tips. Often behavior is the most difficult thing for a child with Down syndrome in the general education classroom. Be sure to look up “positive behavior reinforcement” if this is an issue for your student — this works very well for children with Down syndrome. Come back again and follow me on Facebook, where I post articles and updates about education.

  8. Kaycia Johnston February 2, 2015 at 1:43 am #

    Thank you for this amazing blog. I just started working with a young girl with Down Syndrome and this has given me so many awesome ideas on where to start and how to keep her motivated in learning. Even peoples comment have been so useful! Thank you again.

    • modernmessy February 2, 2015 at 1:48 am #

      Thank you so much for writing in! It’s wonderful to hear about teachers who are seeking out information. Definitely check out the work of Down Syndrome Education International. Another website I like is — it breaks down the teaching of reading to people with Down syndrome into clear and simple steps. Have a wonderful journey with your student!

  9. bh59 February 8, 2015 at 8:02 pm #

    This is wonderful!
    I am a daycare teacher with a lovely 4 year old girl with downs in my group. I am grateful for this and know I will keep reading here!

    • modernmessy February 8, 2015 at 8:47 pm #

      Wonderful, Brenda! Thank you so much for writing. That little girl is lucky to have you, and vice versa! It will be a fun journey for you. Please do keep reading; I am trying to get the blog updated soon!

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