Homeschooling a Child with Down Syndrome: Effective Strategies for Teaching

Fifteen or so years ago, I began homeschooling my oldest child, and I’ve been homeschooling ever since. I’ve homeschooled five of my kids from preschool through sixth to eight grade. Even though my children differ widely in temperament, I eventually settled on a piece-meal curricula that worked well for everyone with some minor variations and changes over the years.

And then Junior came along. Junior, with his extra special chromosome, his zest for life and learning, and his gritty stubborn streak. Very early on, I realized that teaching him would be a whole new adventure. So I was not surprised when I came across the following:

Research has shown that young people with Down syndrome not only take longer to learn new skills but also learn differently in some key areas. Additionally, they benefit from some teaching strategies that are different to those typically used in education. Down Syndrome: Guidelines for Inclusive Education, International Down Syndrome Society and Down Syndrome Education International, Dec. 2021

As I read and researched about teaching children with T21, I began to keep a rolling list of best teaching strategies and practices. These have been incredibly helpful for homeschooling Junior and teaching three more little boys with T21 who come to my home for a Down Syndrome co-op.

Today I’m sharing these strategies with you and how we can use them at home.

1. Understand the learning profile typical of children with T21.  This is the key to teaching children with Down Syndrome. Children with T21 tend to be visual, kinesthetic learners who learn by imitation. Because of their challenges with hearing and auditory processing, these children tend to have difficulty learning from the spoken word alone. There are several books that have chapters on the learning strengths and weaknesses of children with Down Syndrome. These include:

I highly recommend that all parents who have a child with T21 read the report Guidelines for Inclusive Education, which has an excellent overview of the strengths and challenges associated with the learning profile of children with Down Syndrome.

2. Prepare the Learning Environment. Because children with T21 tend to have low tone as well as hearing and visual impairments, it is important to set up their learning environment in a way that will maximize their learning. Here are some suggestions:

  • Choose a room that is well lit, preferably with natural light
  • Remove or minimize background noise
  • When your child is working at a table, make sure he/she is seated in a chair that offers sufficient back support and promotes proper posture. 
  • For reading, use a book stand to prevent your child from slumping over
  • For writing, use a writing slant. In addition, pencil grips may help your child use a tripod grasp and reduce hand fatigue.

3. Choose and/or adapt appropriate curricula and materials. To begin with, always use visual supports, either pictoral or concrete. It’s also important to keep in mind the visual challenges our children may have.  According to Guidelines for Inclusive Education, children with T21 have difficulties with writing using a pencil on blue-lined paper, reading words smaller than 18 pt font, and coping with texts, diagrams, or pictures that are too cluttered, detailed, or have little contrast. 

Hence, at a minimum, the following adaptations should be made for our students:

  • Use as large a font as possible, preferably sans serif fonts
  • Use double spacing between words
  • Give students high-contrast, high-resolution images to work with
  • Keep worksheets uncluttered
  • Do not put several different tasks on one worksheet

In addition, I find the following adaptations helpful:

  • Choose tactile manipulation of objects over work done on screens/iPads.
  • When possible, use photos of real objects instead of illustrations.
  • When teaching phonics, use color to draw attention to the word family,  digraph, consonant blend, or vowel team you are teaching.
  • When teaching math use a lot of hands-on materials such as Numicon, and Unifix cubes.  Children should count out items using a number line to help   them understand quantity. If they have difficulty manipulating small objects, give them large objects to count. Teach using concrete objects and models first, then pictoral representations, and finally numerical equations. This sequence will help children with T21 to grasp mathematical concepts. Be prepared to let your child use  concrete supports for a very long time.

Choosing and adapting material will take trial and error, careful observation, and frankly, a lot of time. But it’s well worth the effort. 

4. Determine the best time to work with your child. Build it into your child’s routine and most importantly, be consistent! Finding the right time to work with your child consistently can be one of the biggest challenges to teaching your child. I find that if I am not disciplined about “protecting” my son’s school time, doctor’s appointments, playdates, home repairs, the needs of siblings, and unexpected events easily eat into his school time. Finding the best time may take some trial and error. However, prioritizing your child’s education, taking a professional approach, and being convinced of the absolute necessity of consistency for our children will help you find and maintain a consistent routine.

5. Demonstrate, Collaborate, then Encourage Independence. Always demonstrate first when teaching a new activity. Since children with T21 (and most other children!) learn by imitation, demonstrating first is much more effective than simply giving verbal instructions. When teaching a new activity or process, I find it is best to demonstrate it first several times before inviting Junior to have a turn. Sometimes I keep demonstrating until Junior notices an error I make (on purpose), at which point he often jumps in and starts doing the activity himself. If he doesn’t jump in, I encourage him to take turns. Once I see he can do the activity successfully, I gradually decrease my turns and increase his, thus encouraging independence. Make sure to offer lots of praise for work completed independently.

6. Avoid open-ended questions unless the answers have been rehearsed. Instead, let your child point to the answer from a matrix of pictures and/or offer verbal options. 

This is especially true when teaching new vocabulary or asking reading comprehension questions. I have found that Junior has difficulty recalling the words he wants to say, especially if it is a new(er) word. This can quickly lead to frustration. So, the following sequence of steps often helps:

Suppose your child is learning the names of different emotions.

  1. Lay out three pictures of different emotions. Point to each picture, name it, and have your child repeat the name after you. Do this at least 2 times.
  2. Then say, “Can you point to the child who is surprised?” then, “Can you point to the child who is tired?” etc.  After your child points, always name the picture (again) and have him/her repeat
  3. Next, pick up a picture and say, “How does this child feel?” Repeat until your child always gives the correct response.
  4. Turn the cards face down. Have your child choose a card and name the picture.

7. Use the process of matching, selecting, and naming when teaching letters, numbers, colors, shapes, and sight words. This process, used often by Maria Montessori, is extremely effective. 

In its simplest form, children first match two pairs of visually contrasting cards, while you name the cards verbally. 

Next, they select the card you name. ie. Can you give me the letter A?

Last, they name the card you show them:

Teacher: What is this?

Child: A

Teacher: Yes! It’s the letter A!

If your child has difficulty matching, build his/her visual discrimination by playing matching games with family photos and familiar objects. Seekaboo is an excellent resource fo playing matching and memory games.

Once your child becomes adept at the process of matching, selecting, and naming from a matrix of 2 cards, gradually increase the number of cards.

To learn how to teach reading using this method, see my post on Teaching Preschoolers with Down Syndrome to Read.

Using the process of matching, selecting, and naming in the context of play is a motivating way for children to learn.  For example, Junior and I used the Doug and Melissa cars and garages to practice numbers and colors.  This parking spot matching game was very motivational for one of the boys in our co-op:

9. Matching and Sorting is another effective way to teach children. This process can be used to teach letter and number recognition, colors, shapes, phonics, and even spelling patterns.

8. Facilitate Errorless Learning. Many children with Down Syndrome easily become discouraged or frustrated when they make mistakes. If Junior perceives a task to be too difficult, he will flat out refuse to try. In the paper, “Katrina’s  progress in learning mathematics”, Katrina’s parents note, “At every stage the biggest single obstacle has been when Katrina will not try because she feels something is too difficult for her.”

Children with T21 can be extremely adamant about not trying a task or activity they think is too hard. Hence, the importance of demonstration and teaching with the smallest steps possible to facilitate errorless learning. Steps six and seven of this post are examples of methods that reduce student errors. Here are some additional ways to help students learn while reducing the numbers of errors they might make:

  • Teach using the most incremental steps possible. Before asking a child to complete a task, break it down into all the smaller steps possible and give your child practice with each step. For example, when teaching addition facts, start with only the +1 facts up to ten. Begin by using objects with a number line. Then use Numicon shapes. Next, help your child to point to a number on a number line and count on one. Then, introduce addition picture cards that only present +1 facts. Next help your child to add +1 with just a number sentence. Play “What’s the next number?” with a number line and then without a number line. This will help your child master the process of counting on one to solve +1 facts. Finally, practice the +1 facts with oral drill. These incremental steps will help your child understand the concept and practice the process of adding +1. Then, and only then do you start teaching your child the +2 facts. And so on.
  • Use handwriting curricula that allow for large margins of error. ie. Let them trace large, wide letters at first.  As your child gains motor control, gradually reduce the margin of error so the letters for tracing are thinner and     smaller. Keep in mind that when tracing letters, children   need to know where to start, which direction to go, and when to stop. They will need to write very large letters at first to give them time to process each step.
  • Once he/she is able to start copying letters, give your child a large area to write in. Here, I have adapted the rectangles used by Learning without Tears for uppercase letters, making them larger with well-defined borders around the boxes.
  • Give clues and verbal prompts when needed.  Young children with T21 often have difficulty recalling words, especially new ones. Telling your child the beginning of the word will help them recall the answer. So, for example, if you show your child a picture of boots behind a chair and you ask, “Where are the boots?”, your child may say “boots” or “chair” instead of “behind the chair.” You can prompt your child by saying, “The boots are B….b….” That verbal prompt may help your child recall the word “behind.” As your child practices using the word “behind” in the same and different contexts, you will be able to phase out the use of verbal prompts for that preposition.
  • However, do not  assume your child always needs clues.  When you ask a question, it’s important to give him/her ample time to answer. Your child will need to process your question and recall the answer from his/her mind. This takes time. More time  than feels comfortable. So wait, wait, and watch. If you see that your child needs help, by all means give a little clue. This is to prevent your child from giving up on the activity entirely.  Then, continue practicing the exercise and/or review the question on subsequent days until you can gradually phase out the clues.

9. Give a lot of repetition and review. Children with T21 often need a lot of practice and review in order to commit information into long term memory and to master new skills. Hence, it is necessary to keep reviewing new concepts/skills daily until they are mastered. Even then, once mastered, these concepts and skills need to be reviewed periodically, otherwise our children may forget them. 

Build review of previously learned material into your child’s daily routine. While this may seem redundant to you,  daily review will build your child’s confidence as he/she becomes more adept and comfortable with new concepts and skills. As the famous violin pedagogue Shinuki Suzuki wrote, “Success breeds success.” Reviewing previously learned material will help your child feel successful, and this in turn will give your child confidence in tackling new material.

Try to be creative in the way you have your child review material. Using games and novel materials will prevent review from becoming tedious. For example, Junior has needed plenty of practice sequencing numbers 11-20. So I made him several of these puzzles, which he really enjoys. He is so motivated to find out what the picture the puzzle will make.

One of the moms in our co-op made this game as a fun way to practice addition.

And here is a series of boxes that fit inside each other. The kids have to read the words on each the box and make a sentence before they get to open it. Inside the smallest box is a surprise. They are driven by their curiosity to find out what is in the last box. It’ s a fun way to review sight words.

10. Observe with Loving Eyes. During a recent talk I attended, the speaker quoted the Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper, who wrote “Observe with loving eyes.” Pieper was writing about contemplation, but I thought the quote was most fitting for teaching children. Maria Montessori once wrote, “Teach less, but observe more.” For, it’s in observing our children that we discover how best to teach and motivate them: how best to adapt curricula, how best to explain concepts, how much to practice a skill, how best to capture and hold their interest.  

I would add, and I imagine Montessori would agree, “Observe with loving eyes,” — eyes that behold each child with delight, eyes that see ability more than disability, eyes that reflect the love God the Father has for each of His precious children.   When our children see the love in our eyes and feel the love in our hearts, they will be more open to what we have to say and teach. Love is the foundation on which we will build the edifice of our children’s education. 

Being the parent-teacher of a child with Down syndrome is an incredible and unique opportunity. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” says Our Lord (Mk 9:37).  He also says, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” (Mt 25:40). Our Lord has a very special, tender place in His Heart for these children who are among the least of His brethren. What a privilege it is to love and serve Him by loving and serving our children with Down Syndrome! 

Certainly teaching children with Down Syndrome is a challenging endeavor. Homeschooling a child with T21 can be even more challenging because you’re with a child who requires a lot of help and patience nearly all day long. But I hope these teaching strategies will help you teach your child with more ease and enjoyment. I feel so indebted to all the researchers at Down Syndrome Education for all the incredible resources and articles they have made available online, which have helped me to discover how best to teach my son. These strategies have definitely been effective in our little homeschool, and teaching Junior has been a joy.

Here are links to some of the resources in this post. (Not everything pictured is available for download or purchase… yet.)

Numicon First Steps at Home

Vowel Teams Worksheets

Emotions and Feelings Flashcards

Object Function Speech Therapy Activity

Montessori Beginning Language Bundle

Montessori Language Series Bundle

Let’s Learn Letters, Uppercase

Let’s Learn Letters, Uppercase 2 (B&W)

Number sequence puzzles are available on Etsy and Teachers Pay Teachers. I also have some available for free in my Springtime printables set and my Winter Themed Printables.

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