Homeschooling Children with Down Syndrome
Guest post by Kelly Stone.
World Down Syndrome Day is March 21 each year (3/21). That date was chosen because people with Down syndrome have a third copy of the 21st chromosome.
Although everyone with Down syndrome will have the atypical chromosome configuration in common, writing an article about how to homeschool students with Down syndrome is still sort of like writing an article about how to homeschool people with blue eyes! Everyone is different, and that’s probably the first thing any parent planning to homeschool should understand. You are free to pick and choose ideas that apply to your own student, and that freedom is one of the many advantages of homeschooling!
What follows are tips and ideas from my experience teaching my own son, who has a dual diagnosis of Down syndrome and autism. Among the choices of mild, moderate, or severe, a medical record from my son’s well child visit years ago describes his developmental delay as “severe.” But at age 14, with only reasonable effort on my part, Joshua masters new skills every day.
I was already homeschooling Joshie’s five older brothers and sisters, so it was only natural to assume I would homeschool him, too. I did notice some differences between teaching him and teaching my typical kids, and those differences are what this article will briefly address.
Joshua had none! He could attend to something for only a few seconds, and then only if it was especially interesting to him. This has increased to close to ten minutes if he’s very engaged with the project, but I have had to use a different schedule than I’ve used with my typical kids. Early on, a lesson might simply require him to put one puzzle piece in a puzzle, and we celebrated mightily when he did that without my assistance! Later, I might leave out two pieces and then three. These days, Joshie can quickly and efficiently dump and reassemble most preschool puzzles, and his fine motor skills have benefited in the process.
My child cannot sit still or attend long enough to listen to a storybook, but I read to him anyway. He has surprised me by mentioning things I have read to him, even when I didn’t think he was paying attention. I require him to sit beside me for the first two pages, and then he is allowed to wander about the room, returning to look at a picture or sit beside me again as desired. Being read to increases his exposure to language and models reading as an enjoyable pastime.
During twenty-plus years of homeschooling, my older kids and I fell into a pattern of starting early and being finished with lessons by noon. They preferred to do school work for a few hours and leave the rest of their day free. Joshua is unable to concentrate for hours at a time, and he is a visual, hands-on learner. Instead of stacks of textbooks, I have a plastic storage container that contains eight small drawers which I stock with eight brief activities each day. I try to do approximately one activity per hour with him. I fit many of these in during everyday activities. We might review flashcards while waiting in the physical therapist’s office or write his name while lunch is warming up. I try to use activities that teach or review a wide range of skills, and none of them take longer than ten minutes.
I have learned to be satisfied with very small baby steps. Someone with Joshua’s degree of delay will probably be mastering basic skills for his entire life. I keep a journal and take lots of pictures. I look back every six months or so. There is always some improvement. He might have learned one new color or mastered two additional sight words. No accomplishment is too small to be appreciated, and my journal shows steady progress.
Suggested Subjects for a Child with Down Syndrome
Early on, I made the mistake of concentrating on academics. I really wanted Joshua to learn to read (and, at fourteen, he can enjoy simple phonics readers, which is super exciting.) However, I didn’t realize my son would need help learning very basic life skills that my other children had picked up incidentally. Eventually, I realized I needed to add lessons in eating with a spoon, wearing long sleeves when it’s cold outside, and preparing snacks. He still can’t drink out of a regular glass by himself, but he can place items I’ve prepared on a plate and warm them in the microwave. These things are going to be more important to him as he grows up than knowing the name of historical presidents.
Modified Materials for Learning
Many curriculum materials intended for typical kids weren’t a good fit for Joshua. For example, a book to teach colors might show a red fire engine, a yellow banana, and green grass. That was all too confusing for him. I finally prepared a book from colored copier paper where each page was simply a different color of paper. I had the pages laminated and comb bound. We could then talk about the red page or the blue page and concentrate on the colors, without being distracted by the objects.
Later on, I made some flashcards that all depicted teddy bears . . . but each bear was a different color. It’s been important to limit the number of different attributes when teaching Joshie a new skill.
New words are taught with Times New Roman font because that’s what he’s most likely to encounter in real life. When he’s mastered a word, I’ll sneak in an additional font to introduce the idea that things don’t always look exactly the same.
We’ve done similar generalizing exercises by matching a card that shows a photo of a lion with a card that depicts a cartoon lion (or tractor or apple). We also might sort all the giraffes in one pile and all the cats in another. It’s important for him to understand that it’s still a cat, even if it’s a different size or color, pointed in a different direction, standing, or sitting. Eggs and potatoes are an advanced study of this kind since there are whole eggs, scrambled eggs, or fried eggs, and whole potatoes, mashed potatoes, or French fries.
Joshua has vision problems, so I have set up a simple template on my computer that rules a piece of paper in thirds, horizontally. His flashcards are large, with large font. He likes to hold them himself, and the larger cards are easier for him to manipulate and view.
Due to low muscle tone, Joshie has fine motor challenges. He tires holding a pencil and he has difficulty pressing hard enough to make marks he can easily see. A marker has been a better option for him, as it requires very little pressure to make bold strokes. Still, circling or underlining something on a worksheet is difficult, so we use Bingo dabbers to make a large dot instead.
Until Joshua could write his name (which still requires hand-over-hand assistance), I created sheets of file folder labels with his name printed on them. I would lift the corner of a label and he could peel it off and place it on his worksheet. This allowed him to see his name in print while exercising the small muscles in his hands in a way that prepared him for later pencil use.
Motivating a Child with Down Syndrome
When learning a new activity, Joshua is highly motivated by the opportunity to earn a reward. Rewards are different for each child, and I will often allow Joshua to choose what he wants to work for. He will look at pictures of each available award, limiting his choices to two or three, and point to what he wants to work earn.
Kids with developmental delays might enjoy unusual rewards, and that’s fine with me. Joshua enjoys dangling string, so he will often choose to work for the opportunity to dangle a shoelace for one minute. (We use an egg timer.) He usually enjoys one cheese puff after he has tried to write his name. Since he highly values praise, he will often select an “Attaboy” for his reward, which is our way of saying that I will tell him what a great job he did and point out all the wonderful colors in his painting or other fine work.
Typical kids are usually expected to do their school work to earn a grade or just because it’s something they must do, and some parents prefer not to use tangible rewards. I do back off on offering my son a reward once a skill is mastered, but tangibles will probably always be necessary to motivate him at times. This isn’t much different than giving a typical toddler an M&M when they successfully use the bathroom, or even giving an adult a paycheck for their week’s work.
Goals for Homeschooling Down Syndrome
Goals for my older children have included qualifying for certain awards, attending a specific college, and acquiring advanced skills. Joshua has exceeded expectations in many areas, so I don’t want to sell him short, and I never decide in advance that he “can’t” learn something. We at least try, and then try again. At the same time, I don’t want to put undue pressure on Joshie or be unrealistic about what I expect him to accomplish.
He’s fourteen now, and I have realized I need to respect his choices as I respected his older siblings’ decisions about their own futures. Of course, Joshua will need more guidance, but if he is more interested in studying about vegetables than planets or birds than other animals, I will help him achieve his desired goals of learning more about the things that he feels are important to him.
People with Down syndrome need varying levels of support. Some may have jobs and be self-supporting, while others need a little more help. I have decided a reasonable goal for my own son is that he will perform activities of daily living as independently as he is able, that he will be someone others enjoy being around, and that he will love life!
Meet the author – Kelly Stone!
Kelly Stone is mom to six children whose ages range from 14 through 35. She has homeschooled for over twenty years. Kelly works as a freelance writer and educational advisor from her home office in Oregon. Her nest is rapidly emptying, but she still shares it with her two younger children, chickens, rabbits, quail, lizards, frogs, and the family dog, Ruby. Kelly’s preferred activities all tend to include the word “home”: homeschool, homemade, homesteading, home office, homegrown, and good home cooking!