Down Syndrome Awareness Week: 14 tips for inclusion

Down Syndrome Awareness Week: 14 tips for inclusion

The director of education at Portsmouth Down Syndrome Association offers advice to make schools as welcoming as possible to those with the condition




Down Syndrome children are just as able and willing to learn

This week is Down Syndrome Awareness Week, a chance to raise awareness, champion inclusion and celebrate the wonderful achievements of our members in their educational settings.

But this is also a celebration that has particular significance for our Portsmouth-based education centre. 

Most people are unaware of the pioneering role that Portsmouth has historically played in altering the path of education globally for individuals with Down syndrome.  

Few realise that much of the research during the 1980s onwards – which was a catalyst for this change, proving that individuals with Down syndrome were, in fact, able to able to read and could be successfully educated – historically came out of our centre in a small backstreet in Portsmouth. 

The tireless work of pioneering educationalist Professor Sue Buckley OBE and her team changed the lives of these individuals for the better.                              

It is incomprehensible now that until the Education Act of 1970, children born with Down syndrome were deemed ineducable and, consequently, were denied that most fundamental of childhood rights, an education. 

While some were granted access to charitable training centres, the majority were consigned to live out their years in institutions or at home in isolation. 

It was not until the 1980s that these individuals with an extra chromosome 21 started to very slowly be included in mainstream schools. 

Positive, able and willing learners

We now understand that children with Down syndrome have the most incredible potential and, with the right specialist guidance, they are being successfully educated alongside their peers in mainstream education, and are genuinely valued and productive members of their communities. 

Individuals with Down syndrome have additional needs but they share many of the same needs as their typically developing peers, and they can learn effectively alongside them with appropriate support. 

While all pupils are individuals with differing strengths, there are some common strategies and interventions that can be implemented to aid successful learning and development, and the pupil’s own strengths can be used to advantage.

Key components of the specific learning profile

• Strong visual learning skills and visual memory; reading can be a strength.

• Strong kinaesthetic learners.

• Good social learners; strong empathetic and socialising skills.

• Individuals respond well to familiarity and routine.

• Speech and language delay.

• Weak short-term auditory working memory.

• Short attention span.

• Auditory and visual impairment.

• Difficulties with fine and gross motor skills.

• Low self-esteem.

Building on these positive traits, there are a number of key considerations schools need to take into account to make sure they provide as positive and welcoming a learning environment as possible.

1. Staff attitude 

The most important predictor of successful inclusion is staff attitude. Schools have a responsibility to create an inclusive school environment where diversity is valued. 

The number of children with special educational needs and disability (SEND) attending mainstream is growing, so it is essential that staff and pupils have a positive attitude about Down syndrome and inclusion, and believe the child should be in their school. Be prepared to be flexible in your approach as inclusion will work differently for each child.

2. Visual supports

Ring-fence time for making visual supports to reinforce auditory input and aid comprehension of abstract concepts.

Use visual Velcro timetables with staff photos, simplified written instructions with visual reinforcements, picture aids to help sequence events, summarise with diagrams and symbols, and utilise existing visual aids such as Numicon for mathematics.

3. Boost reading 

Reading can be a strength. Pupils benefit from initially learning to read through a whole-word learning approach alongside phonics.

Use the written word to aid communication and effective instruction. Word and picture matching exercises can be used successfully to introduce and reinforce new vocabulary and comprehension in all stages of education.

4. Hands-on learning

Pupils with Down syndrome favour learning from hands-on activities and practical demonstrations, and benefit from opportunities to practise and consolidate skills.

Plan meaningful activities based on the pupil’s experience, and use tactile, physical resources such as money, clocks and information and communications technology to reinforce concepts where possible.

5. Independence and support in harmony

Individuals with Down syndrome can experience low self-esteem and be sensitive to failure. As a result, they can become overly dependent on one-to-one support.

Promote an appropriate level of working independence, encouraging peer support if required, so adults can step back. 

Equip pupils with the skills and resources they need to succeed and set up scaffolded activities so the pupil experiences success on a regular basis. Praise efforts, celebrate achievements and showcase work. 

6. Social acceptance 

The desire to socialise, communicate and imitate peers can be utilised to enhance and increase learning opportunities. 

Provide appropriate role models, pair with a partner/small groups for activities ensuring the pupil is fully immersed and given an achievable but meaningful responsibility in the group.

Give pupils responsibility: to be a monitor, to support another child in need, and to give out registers around school or books or resources at the start of class. 

Let them know they are a valued member of the class and school community.

7. Friendship support

Pupils will need extra support to form meaningful friendships and successfully interact with peers. 

Utilise buddy systems, sensitively scaffold social opportunities, set up small friendship clubs where pupils can take part in a fun activity, and encourage sharing, turn-taking and other social skills.

8. Speech and language therapy provision

Individuals can understand more than they are able to communicate and, as a result, their cognitive skills are frequently underestimated. 

Ensure regular (at least monthly) speech and language therapy provision is in place from the outset and timetable daily practice.

Do not neglect the language component, including grammar. Makaton signing can bridge the gap and help reduce frustration. Allow for time to process language and respond (wait for 10 seconds). 

Devise activities that encourage communication but are supported by visual resources – surveys, carrying messages, shared reading.

9. Photo diaries

Encourage the use of a photo diary showing interests at home to share with friends, with a sentence to reinforce each photo so the pupil is equipped to start conversations. This can also be used in school so the pupil can share their achievements at home. 

There are some great inexpensive and simple-to-use apps available, including Special Stories which can be used to support all areas of the curriculum.

10. Consider attention spans 

Pupils with Down syndrome tend to have shorter concentration spans than their peers and tire more quickly, especially as a result of intensive one-to-one support.

Make lessons short, appealing and adequately differentiated. Divide lessons into smaller activities with regular non-physical/physical breaks. Vary the demand from task to task.

11. Use the right resources

Remove the pressures of writing by utilising cloze procedure (where words are omitted from a passage and students are required to fill in the blanks), scrapbooks, matching labels and pictures, top-and-tail sentences, sequencing photos or readymade sentences, multiple choice, storyboards, spider diagrams and photo records.

12. Consider classroom layouts

All of those with Down syndrome experience poor visual acuity. Transferring information from a class whiteboard to paper is difficult.

Seat pupils at the front of the class, make use of a personal mini-whiteboard and visual resources placed in front of the pupil; use large bold black print in books/worksheets, black (felt) pen rather than pencil, high-contrast uncluttered images, exercise books with bold lines and a larger gap between lines.

Bifocal glasses are recommended.

13. Be aware of behaviour issue causes

Behavioural issues do not automatically arise from having Down syndrome.

However, owing to speech and language impairment, behaviour may be used as a form of communication and to demonstrate frustration. Always reinforce positive behaviour, have high behavioural expectations and model good behaviour.

Give pupils space and independence, prepare for any changes in routine, empower the pupil by offering choices, ensure tasks are appropriately differentiated, incorporate frequent breaks, use distraction and redirection, avoid confrontational situations and allow timeout for a situation to diffuse before addressing it.

If the behaviour is ongoing, keep a record of when it is happening to help identify the cause so the problem can be addressed.

14. Engage with carers and parents

All pupils with communication issues benefit from the use of a home/school link book which provides an invaluable medium to celebrate achievements and share information regularly with those who know the child best.


Rachael Ross
Rachael Ross MBE, Chairperson and Director of Education at Portsmouth Down Syndrome Association

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