Even though Down Syndrome is one of the most common developmental disorders and according to international estimates, there is 1 baby born with Down Syndrome in every 800 births, there are still so many misconceptions about the condition in Pakistan. As a result of this lack of awareness, people with Down Syndrome are often misunderstood, disregarded, ridiculed and held back from achieving their true potential.
Moreover, educational institutes which are supposed to be the harbingers of values such as tolerance, acceptance and inclusion, often do the opposite when it comes to children who are differently-abled. And as a result, one doesn’t come across students with Down Syndrome in mainstream schools across Pakistan too often. Of course, there are a few exceptions – schools, which are doing an outstanding job of including students with disabilities while at the same time, demonstrating to their more typical students these much-needed values.
So, for the schools and educators who give more weight to their school’s overall grades and reputation than character-building AND for those who mean well and try to do their part but are simply unaware, this is what I, as a parent of a child with Down Syndrome, have to say:
1.Know WHAT Down Syndrome is!
Know its definition and why it occurs. Know what Down Syndrome entails for your student. This is important not only for you to get to know your student with DS, but also to be able to explain to your more typical students why your student with DS may learn differently or may need things to be done differently. There are many sources on the internet that describe how to explain Down Syndrome to children. Make use of them! One of my personal favourites is: https://themighty.com/2015/02/how-to-talk-with-your-child-about-down-syndrome/
2. Know what INCLUSION is.
Inclusion is a philosophy of education based on the belief that each and every individual has an inherent right to fully participate in society. Inclusion is not just having a child with a disability sitting in one corner of the classroom with a resource teacher. In a truly inclusive set-up, every child has a sense of belonging. The teaching style is based on differentiated instruction (teaching that is tailored to every child’s needs) and so, different and diverse students learn side by side.
3. Know that inclusion benefits ALL children.
When effectively implemented, inclusion offers academic and social benefits for all students – those who have disabilities AND those who don’t. Friendships develop, and it helps typically-developing students to be more appreciative and understanding of differences while students with disabilities are more motivated. True acceptance of diversity ultimately develops within the school environment and is then carried into the home, workplace and community.
4. Have HIGH expectations from your student.
Like all of us, learning is a lifelong experience for people with Down Syndrome. And although individuals with Down Syndrome learn at a slower pace, nonetheless, they do learn. Do NOT baby them. If you do so, your more typical students will pick up on your cues and behave in the same manner towards your student(s) with DS.
This may hinder socialization and building of friendships.
5. Know how HEALTH CONCERNS associated with DS can affect learning.
As a teacher you must consider the effect that chronic health problems have on learning. In a majority of cases, behavioural problems are NOT due to having Down Syndrome and often, medical or mental health problems go untreated due to the assumption that they are typical of this condition. This can lead to the child being unsettled in class. Complete health examinations by professionals should always be pursued in case of issues.
6. Kids with DS can UNDERSTAND more than they can express.
Due to speech delays, they understand messages conveyed to them, but cannot produce messages of equal complexity. This may lead to the false perception that your student with DS does not understand. As their teacher, you will need to find ways to bridge this communication gap in addition to developing ways of assessment that is not dependent on speech production.
7. Have a PLAN.
Pursue measurable goals so that progress can be monitored and refer to these goals regularly. Parents play an integral role in allowing the education plan to be successful so it is crucial to have them on board. Encourage meaningful participation from them as equal members of the Individual Education Plan (IEP) and communicate with them often.
8. Children with Down Syndrome are very attuned to NON-VERBAL cues.
These children are socially sensitive, often more so than their neurotypical counterparts and they are especially sensitive to failure and rejection. While attending a regular school system is beneficial for them, it can also expose them to negative responses from adults or other children and frequent criticism or correction. Thus, they may need more encouragement and positive feedback than other students to keep them motivated.
9. Place extra emphasis on teaching them how to READ.
As beneficial as reading is for all students, it has innumerable benefits for kids with DS, and in fact, is a strength for many of them. Research demonstrates that teaching reading to students with Down Syndrome enhances and facilitates language development because typically they are visual learners. By giving them the gift of reading, you contribute immeasurably to their personal development and prepare them for community life.
10. YOU pave the way for their success as adults.
For individuals with Down Syndrome, success as adults in the community and workplace requires the opportunity to continue to grow and learn in the classroom, something which only you, as a teacher, can give. By providing the right environment and interventions, YOU can change your student’s life in ways you cannot even imagine.
Recognise this privilege. And do your best to honour it.
Are you teaching or have taught a child with Down Syndrome? Tell us your learnings and experiences in the comments section!