When interacting with learners with Down syndrome, there’s a great need for focused and individualized planning. Some respond well to direct instructions, while others need a more roundabout approach. Some children learn on their own, whereas others need their family’s participation for learning or therapy to progress.
What matters is meeting the needs of the learner where they are, empowering them to make progress in a manner that they know how.
Anthony P. Orlich delves into the heart of this endeavor, gleaning insights from his time as a school volunteer who has witnessed firsthand what these remarkable children can achieve with the right support and empowerment.
Setting Up a Successful Learning Environment
Engagement is affected by the learning environment, and a well set up learning environment can break down some of the barriers that these unique learners experience.
It’s also important to limit the amount of stimuli that the student is exposed to. It may seem tempting to always keep things fresh, use fun new teaching methods, but the student may struggle to keep up if the learning environment is constantly changing.
While not always true for all learners, it’s prudent to make interaction points accessible to the student. The American Montessori Society underscores the importance of visual learning. Visual aids should be large and eye-catching. Drawing attention to features like shapes, colors, or numbers can help learners respond in ways that are accessible to them.
A Children’s Hospital Boston pamphlet for parents states that learners with Down syndrome have trouble with language, so instructions should be short, direct, and animated if possible. Use non-verbal cues to supplement oral prompts, enunciate with care, and stress key words to better get a message across.
Varying ways to respond is also important. Aside from verbal communication, physical prompts like picking up objects or pointing at them can enhance engagement.
Learning can only happen if the student is motivated, and giving the student some control of the learning experience can help achieve this. Small choices like which activity to do next, or adapting mechanics of a game to their preference can be a powerful way to satisfy a student’s need for autonomy.
To maintain motivation throughout a lesson, surprises, hooks, and strategic brain breaks can shatter the monotony and keep interest high.
Discovering a student’s interest and integrating it into the learning session is a great way to command attention. Showing favorite characters, explaining difficult concepts through a familiar game, or tailoring visual aids to the learner’s favorite color or theme can make studying much more engaging.
When things don’t go as planned, or when the learner is responding particularly well in a certain direction, the ability to switch things up (or make things up) is crucial as well. It’s tempting to nudge the student in the prepared direction, but there are also valuable lessons to be learned by occasionally letting the student lead.
A key lesson to take to heart is this: We are all learners. Even from the children we are supposed to be teaching, there are still lessons to be learned, as long as the heart is open to accept them.