Reprinted with permission of the Special Education Support Service (Ireland)
© Special Education Support Service 2005

Note: The Special Education Support Service wishes to acknowledge and thank Niamh ní Aogáin, Education Psychologist, Down Syndrome Ireland, for her input in the compilation of this document.


Down syndrome is the most common cause of a learning disability. A genetic condition, Down syndrome is a chromosomal disorder affecting one in every 546 births in Ireland. People with Down syndrome have an additional number 21 chromosome, so their chromosomal count is 47 instead of the usual 46.

Common Characteristics:

A child with Down syndrome may have a different learning style to his / her peers. Being aware of the characteristic strengths and weaknesses of this learning style will encourage progression and will help you, the teacher, to devise appropriate, meaningful and relevant activities for your student/s. Children with Down syndrome are usually exceptional visual learners.

Remembering that every child is unique in his or her own way, this learning profile is intended as a general guideline. While children with Down syndrome will share certain physical traits, each child is an individual, who will be defined by his/her particular family heritage and characteristics.

Down syndrome is not a label. Children with Down syndrome vary in their learning and physical abilities as much as typically developing students do. These children do, in fact, have learning strengths you will want to capitalise on during lessons. However, children with Down syndrome generally develop slower than their peers, and they may stay at a certain developmental stage longer. For instance, a deficiency in auditory short-term memory affects the child's ability to process, understand and assimilate spoken language long enough to respond to it. Generally speaking, children with Down syndrome will be better able to understand language than communicate it themselves. Consequently, their cognitive skills are often underestimated. Be sure to take time to listen to your student and be patient when waiting for a response.

The child is also more susceptible to certain medical conditions, which affect the thyroid, heart, sight, hearing and overall health.

Success is the ultimate motivation for the child to learn. Using the errorless learning method as much as possible will help the child enjoy the school experience and reach his/her potential.

What can I do as a teacher?

  1. Encourage a positive environment

    Your input is invaluable in fostering the kind of accepting and helpful atmosphere a student with Down syndrome will prosper in. Having a positive attitude solves problems even before they surface. Laying the groundwork for including a student with Down syndrome is as important as what happens once the child arrives. Some schools have found it beneficial to talk to the parents of the class, including the parents of the child with Down syndrome, before the school term begins. A network of open communication between all the parents will, in turn, filter down to the students. Including the parents, an informed class will be less likely to make snap judgments about the child with Down syndrome.

  2. Communicate with parents and family

    Having a child with Down syndrome in your classroom is an experience that can fuel apprehension not just on your end, but with the parents of the child as well. Open and honest two-way communication will ease the transition for all during this exciting and challenging time. Learning about the child's history and preferences will actually be an enormous help in adopting relevant teaching material for the child.

    Talk to the parents about the child's background and daily routines. How many brothers and sisters does s/he have? What are their names? Where does s/he play? What is his/her favourite food? Including photographs of these people and familiar places or activities in the curriculum will be extremely helpful to the child, who will likely respond well to visual cues. The child will be highly motivated by seeing him/herself in the photos, which will optimise his/her acquired reading and writing skills. Collaborate with the child's parents and start a homework journal, a diary of daily events, which will be a good starting point for any written or language activity in the classroom, such as news time.

  3. Work on reading

    Reading is vital for the development of speech and language - it enables the child to visualise language and to overcome learning difficulties associated with listening. The child has more time to process the text during reading, which will help him/her to understand the meaning of the text and store it in the memory. Speech processing, on the other hand, is a short-term stimulus which can be lost if the child's auditory short-term memory is not very effective. Reading also helps the child to understand syntactical rules, word morphology and grammar. Improved articulation and word production skills become enhanced during the reading process, and the child can even practice sentences s/he may not yet be able to say. Learning to read also has a profound effect on the child's self esteem, independence and quality of life.

    Strategies to enhance reading ability in children with Down syndrome include:

  4. Work on writing

    The writing ability of children with Down syndrome is typically defined by the following:

    Strategies to enhance the writing ability of children with Down syndrome include:
    1. Use of additional resources to make writing an enjoyable and interesting physical process
      • Different types of writing implements, e.g. markers, gel pens
      • Pencil grips
      • Larger lines
      • Boxes on page to encourage size of letters
      • Lined paper/squared paper
      • Writing board, e.g. Magna Doodle
      • Computer aids
    2. Alternative methods of recording
      • Scribe
      • Underline or ring correct answer
      • Close procedure
      • Sentence card sequences
      • Picture card sequences
      • Specialist software
    3. Visual support
      • Flash cards
      • Keywords
      • Picture cues and sequences
      • Sentence cues
    4. When copying from the blackboard, select and highlight a shorter version for the child to copy, focusing on what is important for that pupil or use a cloze method on a previously made worksheet
    5. Gross motor skills affect fine motor skills; participation in PE improves handwriting
    6. Practice - all motor skills improve with practice

  5. Work on Phonics and Spelling

    Many children with Down syndrome learn how to spell words purely by relying on their visual memory and sight vocabulary. It is vital that they are taught phonics and spelling next to reading in order to encourage word attack skills and an alphabetic strategy for reading.

    Readers who use an alphabetic strategy make faster progress, but this requires the ability to hear the individual sounds in the words as they are spoken (phonological awareness) and to link these sounds to the written word. The alphabetic reader has to be able to say the word, break it into sounds (segmenting) and then work out the probable letters needed for spelling. It takes a typical child two years to progress from knowing letter sounds (basic phonics teaching) to being able to use phonics and to decode and spell. Due to problems with auditory processing and the working memory, children with Down will find this more difficult.

    Strategies for teaching phonics to children with Down syndrome include:

    Strategies for teaching spelling to children with Down syndrome include:

  6. Work on Number / Mathematics

    Pupils with Down syndrome progress through the stages of understanding numbers in the same way as other children. With support, they can join in all classroom activities and be taught in the same way as the rest of the class. Teachers should take account of the child's learning strengths in visual processing and visual memory, offering concrete materials to the pupil when teaching number.

    Numicon materials are an invaluable resource when it comes to teaching maths to pupils with Down syndrome. Numicon teaches numbers through the recognition of patterns and through play with the number plates. The pupil is consequently able to process a visual image of each number by developing mental images of numbers 1 to 10. At a later stage, Numicon will function as a visual cue/support when teaching tens and unity, place value, counting in 5's, 10's etc. It is important to use any other visual or concrete materials to encourage generalisation of learning and transfer of number skills, e.g. Cuisenaire rods, Unifix cubes, number lines, hundred squares etc.

    However, teachers do need to be aware of difficulties that children with Down syndrome will encounter due to weaknesses in auditory processing and working memory. Teachers often underestimate the child's level of understanding due to delays in speech and language, which may hinder progress in numbers/mathematics.

    Difficulties in processing language, together with remembering what to do and in which order, restrict the ability of children with Down syndrome to complete mathematical tasks, hence the need for visual materials. However, pupils with Down syndrome often have good memorising capabilities.

    Strategies to teach number / mathematics to children with Down syndrome include:

  7. Differentiate the curriculum

    Differentiating the curriculum to suit the needs of a pupil with Down syndrome is the best way of ensuring a successful learning environment. Effective differentiation uses the child's strengths and learning styles, while his/her particular developmental stage and weaknesses are also considered. The key to this is flexibility.

    In as far as possible, allow the child to participate in all class lessons. The teacher needs to decide which or how much of the content of the class lesson the child will focus on in follow-up activities. The SNA is an invaluable resource, who, under the guidance of the teacher, can provide the pupil with modified activities in order to access the curriculum.

    Strategies for differentiating the curriculum include:

  8. Consolidate

    The ability of pupils with Down syndrome to learn and retain information varies on a daily basis. Pupils with Down syndrome often take longer to learn and to consolidate new skills.

    Strategies for consolidating new skills include:

  9. Manage behaviour appropriately

    Six out of ten pupils with Down syndrome have no behavioural difficulties. Significant behavioural difficulties affect one to two out of every ten pupils with Down syndrome. Pupils with Down syndrome have more behavioural difficulties than typically developing students of similar age. However, difficulties with behaviour often decline significantly with age

    Children with Down syndrome are aware of their own capabilities and can often display so-called failure avoidance, which presents itself in stubborn behaviour. The child won't like to do something if s/he expects to fail.

    Causes of inappropriate behaviour
    Acting out can sometimes be a child's only means of communication, given his/her limitations in speech and language. Occasionally, a child with Down syndrome will misbehave due to anger or frustration:

    Interacting with a child with Down syndrome

    Strategies to encourage good behaviour include:

    Boundary Training
    A child with Down syndrome may experience difficulties understanding the concept of staying within the classroom boundaries. It is common for new students in Junior Infants to wander off in their new surroundings. The child should initially be taken around the boundaries of the classroom two to four times every day, which should continue for a minimum of three weeks. Repetition will help the student internalise this behaviour, which will soon turn into an automatic response. Involve peers in this structured training to model appropriate behaviour.

References / Extra Resources


  1. Down Syndrome Ireland (2004) Including Children with Down Syndrome in Your School.
  2. Down Syndrome Ireland (2004) Including Teenagers with Down Syndrome in Your School.
  3. Horstmeier, D. (2004) Teaching Math to People With Down Syndrome and Other Hands-On Learners. Bethesda, MD: Woodbine House. ISBN: 1890627429 €19.95
  4. Kelly, A. (2001) Talkabout: A Social Communication Skills Package Oxfordshire: Speechmark Publishing. ISBN: 0863883230 £33.95
  5. Kliewer, C. (1998) Schooling Children With Down Syndrome: Toward An Understanding Of Possibility. New York: Teachers' College Press. ISBN: 0807737313 $21.95
  6. Kumin, L. (2001) Classroom Language Skills for Children with Down Syndrome. Bethesda, MD: Woodbine House. ISBN: 1890627119 €18.95
  7. Kumin, L. (2003) Early Communication Skills for Children With Down Syndrome: A Guide for Parents and Professionals. Bethesda, MD: Woodbine House. ISBN: 1890627275 €19.95
  8. Lawrence, D. (1996) Enhancing Self-Esteem In The Classroom. London: Paul Chapman Publishing. ISBN: 1853963518 £16.95
  9. Lorenz, S. (1998) Children With Down's Syndrome A Guide for Teachers and Support Assistants in Mainstream Education. London: David Fulton Publishers. ISBN: 1853465062 £18.00
  10. Oelwein, P. L. (1995) Teaching Reading To Children With Down Syndrome – A Guide For Parents And Teachers. Bethesda, MD: Woodbine House. ISBN: 0933149557 $16.95

Websites / Organisations

  1. – Down Syndrome Ireland, 1st Floor, 30 Mary Street, Dublin 1. Tel. 1890 374 374 (Numicon materials available)
  2. – Down's Syndrome Association (UK) (Education Support Pack and other educational literature)
  3. – the Down Syndrome Educational Trust Tel. 00 44 23 92855330 (Catalogue of resources available)
  4. – Down's Syndrome Scotland Tel. 00 44 1313134225 (Range of publications available)


Sound Stories Naughty Stories First Keys
Tizzy's Toybox Jemima Inclusive Writer
Word Shark (3-16 years) Grandma and Me Clicker 4
Oxford Reading Tree Stages 1-5         Harry and the Haunted House         Number Train
Sheila Rae The Brave The Hare and The Tortoise Number Shark

Reprinted with permission of the Special Education Support Service (Ireland)