The vast majority of research done in recent years points to an overall positive effect on both traditional and special needs students when they co-habit in a general classroom. Both types of students benefit and learn from one another- special need students learn to model and imitate their peers, and traditional students learn how to celebrate, love, and support those who are different from them.
All that said, there are challenges too. No matter how hard you try to keep an “inclusive” atmosphere, some students might show prejudice or fatigue, especially if the student with down syndrome has some tiring habits. For example, your special needs child might always beg the same student for a piece of his/her snack. Eventually, the child may avoid the other, simply to escape the ritual. Students with down syndrome may not understand personal space. They cannot always read social cues effectively.
Just as it is important to acknowledge your student with down syndrome’s special needs and accommodations, it is equally important that you acknowledge to your other students when they need extra patience with their peer. Encouragement of them is required too!
Here are some suggestions to help foster a socially inclusive environment in your classroom.
- Be specific with your comments and compliments. “John and Mary, I see you both have done this puzzle well.”
- Read a book that discusses diversity and special needs. My Friend Isabelle is a great suggestion. For older students, read short biographies on Helen Keller, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Ludwig van Beethoven. If time allows, there’s a good book, Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper, about a girl who’s extremely smart but everyone treats her as if she can’t understand anything because she can’t express herself verbally.
- When your students comment on a particular behavior or trait, treat it as a question. They may feel like they don’t know how to ask what they are observing. Students can be cruel no matter what age they are. It’s important to address any mean comments immediately but save the lecture for later. Keep students after class and hold them accountable. Start by explaining the expectations for behavior and challenging them to help rather than point out differences. However, if that doesn’t work and the comments turn into bullying, make sure the students responsible receive appropriate consequences. The students are as good as the teacher expects them to be.
- Avoid using too many labels. Describe your students according to their personalities and abilities, not using divisive language or drawing attention to how someone looks.
- Role-play with your students. When discussing classroom rules, show the kids what it means to give someone else “their space”.
- Backward chaining. This means that you teach the end of the routine or behavior first, gradually adding more steps until they’ve mastered the whole ritual.
- Switch up peer groups. It is in the best interest of your class to give everyone a chance to interact with all members of the class. Change it up, but be aware – Children with down syndrome may feel unsure or scared of the change and may act out as a result. You’ll have to prepare and warn the child of the impending change. With older students, pair the special needs student with a student who’s more malleable at first, then start integrating the other students into that group.
- Best Buddies: This program is a great way to help students with down syndrome avoid loneliness and isolation. To start a chapter in your school, go to www.bestbuddies.org. There is an online version called ebuddies as well. However, helping the student make friends also happens in the classroom. That’s why teachers pair them and group them. Teachers see what they don’t. It’s the teacher’s job to make sure students learn how to communicate with each other.
- Identify any easily solvable issues: Does your student have a hygiene issue that is causing isolation? Speak with your team, including the parents, to see if there can be a solution at home that alleviates the social issue at school.
- Keep things moving. Boredom is a breeding ground for bickering and cliques. The class should be continually engaged, with lots of chances to get up, move around, and interact with their whole body. Oftentimes, the student may love writing on the white board. Make sure there’s a daily activity that allows him or her to do this. Even something as simple as helping pass back papers gets the student out of their seat and helps with organizational skills.
The more you know, the better able you are to navigate and succeed in teaching both traditional and special needs students. At the end of the day, it is important to remember that children with down syndrome are more like traditional children than they are different. When you look past the intellectual and physical handicaps, the human soul is no different than you or me.