Unique Considerations For Students With Down Syndrome

March 11th, 2013 No Comments

Now it’s time to look at some behavioral and/or physical considerations that must be taken into account when developing a plan for your student with down syndrome. Here is where you’ll be attempting to use some of the accommodations to alleviate the behavior issues. But, it might not even be that simple.

It’s important not to assume that your particular student struggles with all of these issues simply because he/she has the disorder. However, planning in advance for the potential of these handicaps will help you and your team create a system that ensures success for everyone involved.

Down Syndrome Considerations


Unfortunately many people associate Down syndrome with someone who is stubborn. The reality is that while your special needs student may be stubborn, it is not necessarily a symptom of Down syndrome. In truth, there are many people who are stubborn who have no handicap at all! That said, stubbornness can be a difficult behavior to overcome.

“Stubborn behavior is a direct result of lacking the skills or language to negotiate a position.” – Down syndrome network of Montgomery County

How do the students acquire these skills? By listening, learning, and applying them. So it’s a delicate thread to be woven into the fabric of each and every lesson.

Many students with down syndrome do not have the ability to express their fear or resistance to a new practice. Until they have the language to express their feelings, stubborn behavior will continue. When you run into resistance, try to help your student see the positive outcome of what you’re asking him/her to do. See if you can come up with some phrases that your student can use when they are feeling unsafe or unsure.

Ultimately, experiment. If the stubbornness is born of an assignment that the student won’t even start, tell them,  “You can complete this assignment in just one paragraph, you don’t have to write a full page.” The student suddenly feels more comfortable as if he/she can actually complete it and gladly does his/her work.

Let’s say the assignment means completing the reading of a textbook chapter then answering questions afterward. The student, however, wants to see what everyone else is doing instead, which may or may not be helpful. The difficulty lies in the fact that none of the other students are allowed to do this. So be flexible. Your flexibility will cancel out the stubborn behavior. Say something like, “Very good. I had forgotten to tell everyone to work together on this particular assignment. Thank you for reminding me. Then pair up the students.”

It may not always be that easy to incorporate into a lesson, but there’s always another alternative. With practice and the willingness to change, lessons might actually become more fun.

Attention and distractibility

Students with down syndrome often have difficulty paying attention for long periods of time. In addition, the classroom environment and fellow peers may be a source of continual distraction. Try to keep your instructions as clear and simple as possible. Use visual aids whenever possible.

Dealing with distractibility may be a bit trickier. You don’t want to isolate the student in the corner, but you need him/her to learn as well. Perhaps you can have a quiet place for an exam only? That way there are moments in the day where there is quiet, but the student doesn’t feel isolated from his/her classmates. Make sure your other students aren’t a part of the problem either. Distractibility is not limited to special needs students.

All students become distracted. The younger the student, the harder it is to pay attention. But, even the time of day matters. Early in the day, students may be fresh or even tired so they appear to pay attention. If students took a test first thing in the morning, they may be tired and easily distracted by the second period class. This is when you have to consider the circumstances as well.

The best way to handle this is to first wake them up a little. Have them stretch and touch their toes. Remember this is always dependent on the student and the circumstances.

If the student can’t do this because of physical limitations, then have the students clap to a beat the first five minutes of the lesson or have the students write on the board or ask the students questions about their favorite topics. Sometimes you might even have them write their answers in the air, anything to get their blood circulating.

Distractions flourish when students are bored or tired so anything they find interesting will stimulate their desire to pay attention.

Memory retention

Characteristic of Down syndrome is the inability to retain information. Repetition of small bits of information is crucial. Offer homework assignments that reinforce the concepts in school and whenever possible, have a student who’s mastered the concept help your special needs student do some repetitive activities.

These activities need to involve sounds, movement, and colors. Don’t expect a child to just repeat and remember.

For instance, have the student tap the letters in a word if he/she is studying for a spelling/vocabulary test.

Have the student use their favorite color to write the words. Give the student a chance to draw an image to match the word. Always give the student breaks in between repetitive lessons.

Speech and language issues

Many students with down syndrome suffer from hearing loss; this directly affects speech. Furthermore, a small mouth and/or large tongue (characteristics of Down syndrome) may also impede speech. In many cases, a language specialist will need to work with your student on a regular basis. Use simple questions and give extra time for response. The truth is that Down syndrome children are often more intelligent than their words are able to express.

Knowing this should give you the motivation to help them achieve more than what their bodies offer them. Just spending that time with them, allowing them that time, results in powerful revelations about their unique perspectives.

Everyone else may see an assignment the same way because they follow instructions and know what their teacher wants. They simply do their assignment and turn it in. Well, the student with special needs sees it differently. This requires more effort, therefore more of a struggle. The outcome many times transforms the assignment into a special insight.

The assignment may be to verbalize a response to a question such as “Why should schools have rules?” The student may have a speech impediment that makes it difficult for him/her to pronounce r’s so this might take a while. However, just wait. The response might just give you something to think about.

Low muscle tone

Hypotonia may affect how your student performs. Adjustments may need to be made with desk size and writing tools. Ergonomic considerations can make a big difference to a student who is struggling to write well.

Even though the student may have various tools already, pay attention to how they write and how they sit. Maybe a small pillow on the back of the chair or on the seat of the chair will help them feel more comfortable and therefore help them perform better.

Other physical handicaps

Children with Down syndrome often suffer from Sleep Apnea, Upper Respiratory infections, and sometimes heart defects. These conditions will at some point affect the learning process, so it’s important to continually communicate with parents if you notice an abrupt change in behavior or ability.

Communicating doesn’t mean you have to have extended conversations. Just state the behavior issue either by phone or email and ask whether there’s been a change at home or any difficulties health-wise.

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