People with Down syndrome have a learning disability, but this does not mean they cannot learn.

In the past expectations were often low and people with Down syndrome often had very limited opportunities.

However, in the last generation expectations for people with Down syndrome have increased dramatically.  They are now expected to learn and contribute to society.

  • They now live with their families rather than in institutions.
  • They attend school with everyone else.
  • Their health needs are better managed.
  • They have more opportunities.

This has led to achievements far higher than previously thought possible, for example people with Down syndrome usually learn to read and write.  With support, many get jobs and live independently. They continue to learn into their adult lives.

Areas of development

Learning is often divided into:

  • Gross motor skills – big movements like walking.
  • Fine motor skills – small movements like writing.
  • Language – understanding others, communicating with others and being able to speak.
  • Social skills – getting along with other people and behaving in an appropriate way.
  • Cognitive skills – being able to solve problems and think.
  • Although people with Down syndrome have some learning disability, we should never forget that each individual is different with their own strengths and weaknesses.
  • People with Down syndrome have delays in all areas of development – speech and language have the most delay and social skills have the least delay.

How to help people with Down syndrome learn

1. Think ahead

  • What skills will be useful in everyday life for the person you are working with?
  • Remember social skills may matter more than academic skills

2. Minimise weaknesses

2.1 Motor skills

    • People with Down syndrome have low tone in their muscles, commonly known as ‘floppy’ but known medically as hypotonia, which means balance can be more difficult and they will tire easily.
    • They tend to have short arms, legs and fingers which may make movement and using usual equipment harder.

So, we suggest we:

    • Try to stop unusual movements or posture which may harm their joints and make future development harder.
    • Provide supportive furniture and easy to use pens and other equipment.  Then they can concentrate on their learning rather than their motor problems.
      Consider orthotic aids.

“The school got new equipment for my daughter.  Her handwriting is much better now her feet can touch the floor, her desk slopes and she has a pen that is easy to use.”

2.2 Language

    • People with Down syndrome understand more language than they can produce
    • They usually find it hard to learn through listening
    • They often find speaking difficult.  Speech may not be clear. They may use key words not long sentences.

So, we suggest we:

    • Judge their learning through other skills not by their speech
    • Chat to them as you would with anyone else.
    • Only give one instruction at a time and try to back it up visually.
    • Use sign language if possible.
    • Engage in speech language therapy.
    • Engage with an early intervention provider.

“I was teaching my daughter to write letters of the alphabet. It was hard work doing it in the order the book suggested but she loved it when instead we did the letters in her name which she already recognised.”

2.3 Cognitive skills

    • People with Down syndrome may not think quickly or in complex ways.
    • They may not automatically learn skills, just by exploring things around them.
    • They may often have a poor short-term memory.
    • They may find new and unfamiliar situations difficult.

So, we suggest we:

    • Plan to teach each skill they need and how to use it in different situations.
    • Teach in small steps with repetition.
    • Be consistent in the language we use and the way we teach something.
    • Have patience.  Wait… For a response.

“My son went straight from breastfeeding to drinking from a normal cup.  Why bother to teach him to drink from a sipper cup in between.”

3. Work with the strengths of the person

3.1 Social skills

    • People with Down syndrome have great social skills.
    • It is easy to forget how important these people skills are.  They can be more important than academic skills in helping adults to have a good everyday like and be part of their community.
    • People with Down syndrome often learn best working directly with other people.
    • Set learning situations up for success.  Guide people with Down syndrome to make the right choices and praise them often.

3.2 Learning through their eyes

    • Many people with Down syndrome are visual learners, so it helps if we use pictures to support other ways of learning.
    • Using sign language may help with general language development.
    • They may find it quite easy to sight read.
    • They learn more easily by copying someone else rather than listening to instructions.

“We made a step by step picture sequence to show at bath time.  It took a lot of practice but now he manages all by himself.

The Ministry of Education website offers a wide range of resources on different topics for learning support on their section Te Kete Ipurangi.

Under the section Learning Support, the site offers a host of resources your family, school or teacher may find helpful.

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