Monday, October 21, 2013

Learning with Down syndrome

The more children with Down syndrome you know, the more it is apparent that not all children with Down syndrome are alike.  The fewer you know, the more apt you are to generalize that they are all alike, and that their potential is the same. 

This bothers me.  Especially entering into the school system, I don't want Sophia's educators to simply place her into a learning category simply based on her diagnosis.  Just because someone has taught a child with Down syndrome, doesn't mean that they know what all children with Down syndrome are like or what all children with Down syndrome are capable of.

Children with Down syndrome are not all born with identical learning problems, health problems, appearance, and potential, nor are they born in the same environment.  Even though all children with Down syndrome have some characteristics in common, they are each their own unique person, with their own unique strengths and weaknesses.  Which is why our kids have IEP's (Individualized Education Programs), to meet their own special needs in school. 

School curriculums for your "typical" students are determined by the school district, but the curriculum for a student with special needs is determined by the student's own strengths and weaknesses and written down in his or her IEP.  That student's "team of educators" can then plan a program to the individuals unique needs.  Then if the individualized program is not successful, the team must figure out why and make changes so that it can be.  If the child fails in a program developed just for him or her, then something is wrong with the program. 

Inclusion is something that most parents of children with special needs really strive for.  We want our children to be full members of his or her age appropriate classes to the extent that they can be.  Inclusion not only benefits the child with special needs, but actually benefits the rest of the class even more.  When "typical" children are around children with special needs on a daily basis, they learn about that student.  They ask more questions about that student and really get to know who that student is as a person, not as a diagnosis.  Children are more likely to make friends and help out their classmate when they understand why he or she does the things that they do.  And in turn these "typical" peers go out into the community being more educated about special needs, and hopefully more accepting of others differences.

A well written IEP is so important for children with special needs.  Teachers who only went to school to teach in "regular" education classrooms, are not prepared to teach a child with special needs.  These teachers need the support and the plan of the IEP, and the rest of the child's team, to make their student successful.  I read this next paragraph in a guide book for parents and teachers and thought it was right on:
      'During a team meeting about a child who was to be included in a kindergarten class, the kindergarten teacher said, "Frankly I am scared.  I don't know how to teach this child, what to expect of her, or how to deal with her behaviors."  A father of another girl with Down syndrome who was also at the meeting responded, "Now you know how we felt when we first had her.  We were scared too.  We did not know how to parent her, what to expect from her, or how to deal with her behaviors, but we learned.  You will too."'

It takes a village to raise children, and it takes a village to educate them.  No one person can do it alone.  Some children just learn easier than others.  They require less assistance, no modifications to their work and they just flourish naturally.  But some students need extra help, some just a little and others a lot.  It's a learning process for everyone involved, but you need to have a plan and a support system backing up any child in order for them to shine. 

Some Learning Practices:
*  Inclusion: Being included in a general education classroom is less likely to stigmatize and provide a much more natural environment for the students.  With inclusion there are more opportunities for peer relationships to occur and much of research states that full inclusion works better.  Children with behavioral issues can benefit from seeing the correct way to act in a classroom from his or her peers.  Children with speech delays can benefit from hearing his or her peers communicating to one another on a daily basis.  And your typical peers can learn a very important lesson about accepting everyone around them, no matter what their different abilities might be. 

* Intellectual:  There have been many studies over the years that have documented that many children with Down syndrome plateau---that is, they display a pattern of advances and declines in their rate of development in specific areas.  Just because a student has Down syndrome, don't expect that they will only be able to master skills up to a certain level of learning.  Always strive to move the child along the learning curriculum, and never assume the child isn't capable.  Don't expect and encourage a child to stop learning any more than what they have mastered so far to a certain point.  Learning is a lifetime experience for people who have Down syndrome, just as it is for those who do not. 

*  Short attention spans:  To help students who struggle with attention issues, try making direct instruction into shorter periods of  time along with smaller chunks of activities to help support learning.  Introducing new material slowly, sequentially and in a step by step fashion will help to ensure maximum learning occurs.

*  Distractibility:  For children who are easily distracted, employ strategies that work to minimize distractions such as keeping the student away from a window, using a slightly more structured environment, keeping the noise level down and having an orderly classroom where students are free from surprises and know what your expectations, routines and rules are.

*  Behavior Management Techniques:  Positive reinforcements are always a much better route to take.  And reinforcers need to be meaningful to the student, find out what motivates and drives your student to want to do better. 

Today's classroom has many students with special needs included into it.  Having an inclusive classroom lets all students learn what it means to be a full member of a school community.  Treat all students as valued learners.    

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