There was a time in our history when Down Syndrome children were hidden from society and spent their lives in institutions. Today we know better, thankfully. My experience in teaching Down Syndrome children left me inspired to be a better teacher to my less challenged students as well. Of all the children I taught, there was no student who inspired me more than Daniel.
He was in my class three years in a row and I got a bit too attached, I suppose. Daniel was just one of those unforgettable children from my teaching history, and I’ll never forget all the ways that Daniel blessed my life and career, so if you have a Down Syndrome preschooler in your classroom too, here are some ways to mainstream his needs into the classroom so that all the children in your class will have a successful experience;
The Down Syndrome Child:
Briefly defined, Downs Syndrome is a congenital disorder, caused by the presence of an extra 21st chromosome, in which the affected person has mild to moderate mental retardation, short stature, and a flattened facial profile. It is also referred to as, ” trisomy 21.”
The syndromes are further characterized by the weak muscles throughout the body, a short, wide neck and stocky legs. You’ll note a single crease across the center of the palms of the hands. This is called a transverse palmar crease or simian line. The Down Syndrome child will have small, low-set ears, an irregular sahped mouth and tongue and most likely crooked teen. His eyes will be slanted with a wide bridged nose.
A child may have other medical conditions related to Down syndrome, such as, cognitive impairment, heart defects and eye conditions. They are also prone to respiratory infections.
What does mainstream mean?
To mainstream actually means, “to include,” children with disabilities into the regular classroom. Inclusion has been required by law since 1991 and public school systems are required to provide preschool educational services to children with disabilities beginning at age three. Some states extend this law to include even infants.
Studies have shown that early intervention can assist the child with Down Syndrome to develop to the particular child’s maximum capability, and today we know that the abilities of those with this syndrome far outreach what we once believed would be possible.
Mainstreaming is the active participation of children with disabilities along side children who are developing within the average range of functioning. The services should include the preparation of individual goals of the Down Syndrome child which are set up by a team of professionals and the parents. Instruction will also include the services from various professionals trained in working with Down Syndrome, such as therapy for speech and motor skills.
Why should we mainstream Down Syndrome children?
1. Mainstreaming provides the disabled child with opportunities for learning that don’t exist in the special education, “pull-out,” class, such as age appropriate peers and a higher, more challenging curricula.
2. Less challenged children also benefit, as they are exposed to the diversity they will find in society, which develops into more tolerance of the disabled in our communities.
3. The more we challenge the Down Syndrome child, the less assistance he’ll need in his adult life. Independent living is the major goal, which is easily achieved with most Down Syndrome students who are given the opportunities.
How should the classroom be set up for mainstreaming?
Two vital things must be accomplished.
1. A teacher trained in child development who structures her classroom around building language, cognitive, social, fine and gross motor development.
2. An organized classroom which is based on a structured environment to foster learning.
Basically, you’ll need to set up your classroom as you would to foster learning for all your students, with modifications for the Down Syndrom student. I was able to do this by dividing my classroom to into the five developmental categories.
The Language Station:
Your area to enhance language skills should include books, pictures and audio tapes. This will be your story time area, and you’ll have lots of pictures and other means to address the Down Syndrom child’s needs.
I used sign language, along with my spoken words to foster language with Daniel. When any child has a variety of sensory instruction, they learn faster and with more comprehension. Each child in my classroom had their own, specific language goals, so I spent time with each child individually working on language skills, according to their own particular needs. That’s why it’s vital to have an assistant or two in your room. If you don’t, ask a parent to volunteer.
The Cognitive Station:
Here is where I provided a bucket for each child, placed on a shelf. The child’s name was printed on each, to teach printed word name recognition. You’d be surprised how quickly Daniel learned to recognize his own name in print, as well as all the other names.
Each bucket contained activities designed to address the child’s particular needs, and they’d work independently during, “bucket time.” The kids thought of it as play time. Puzzles, matching shapes, colors and designs are good cognitive activities for bucket time. Daniel needed to learn to match related pictures, so I’d ask him to put pictures of all the things which go in a home in one area, the animals in another and the shapes somewhere else. This helped him acquire the ability to sort and categorize.
As you go along, your ingenuity will take over for you, and the Down Syndrome child will teach you what will be a great way to teach him.
The Fine Motor Station:
Here, you can use many things you also use to build cognitive skills. Daniel needed a lot of help in this area, so I’d have my assistant work with him at the fine motor station. He’d string beads, sort blocks by size and pile individual blocks as high as he could. We used clothes pins for him to squeeze and place on a container to build his finger strength. We did lots of drawing, cutting and pasting.
A sand box is great for your fine motor station, along with play dough and even shaving cream! Once you’ve cleared an area and covered the children with bibs, spray a blob of shaving cream on a table. They use their fingers to draw pictures and shapes with the shaving cream, and at the same time, they have so much fun. Don’t forget to wash hands when your done!
The Gross Motor Area:
We had a physical and occupational therapist who came in a few times a week to work with Daniel, so I created my gross motor area with them in mind. I was lucky enough to have a lot of space in my classroom, but if you aren’t that lucky, your gross motor time might need to be outside.
We had several large balls, a child size stationary bike, wagons and a climbing obstacle jungle gym. The children were guided through their play in this area to address each need on their individual goals. We also used our playground equipment for climbing, balancing, jumping and strengthening Daniels motor skills, right along with the other children.
Social skills is one of the greatest advantages of mainstreaming Down Syndrome children. Firstly, Down Syndrom children tend to be very scalable. They love to play and they love being with people. My less challenged children had no problem accepting Daniel at all. The most difficulty he had socially, involved his poor articulation.
Communication will be your hardest challenge, but everyone adapts in time, and even those children whose articulation was right on track began to use sign language with Daniel, who simply adored the effort. As a result of using sign language anytime I also used the spoken word, it fostered the ability to communicate more effectively with Daniel, and improved the other children’s vocabulary and comprehension skills too.
The greatest benefit my class received with to teach the beauty and dignity of leaning to appreciate diversify. By the time Daniel moved on from my class to the regular kindergarten class, he was just one of the kids, and the sight of this became one of the most proud moments of my entire career.
Tips for preschool teachers:
1. Don’t underestimate your Down Syndrom student’s ability. Provide every challenge that you’d provide any child, but monitor his skill and assist when needed.
2. Provide a structured classroom that’s organized. Too much stimuli can be distracting for any child. The class should be rich with stimulation, but organized at the same time. and within appropriate settings. In other words, don’t have a messy classroom. This will overwhelm your Downs Syndrome child even more than it will the other students.
3. Address his needs by providing activities designed to strengthen the skills he’s lacking in, compared to those your other students have mastered.
4. Use peers to help your Down Syndrome child with puzzled and other activities. This is a great way to benefit both children. They will have to cooperate, use problem solving skills and foster language all at the same time.
5. Find an assistant if you don’t have one, and they can be your Down Syndrome child’s way to communicate his needs, by keeping him on task and monitoring his progress.
How to improve the future of mainstreaming with inclusion:
It’s a proven fact that including special needs children in regular classrooms provide benefits for all children involved, but until our society accepts this, we will continue to be confused about the abilities of Down Syndrom children, as well as others with learning disabilities.
As the teacher who experienced the success of mainstreaming, please share what you’ve learned with your community. Education is the key. Who knows how many wise Down Syndrom souls we’d have missed in our towns if someone hadn’t taken a stand to include them into our society.
Daniel, I’m happy to say, is now almost twelve years old and goes to the public middle school, where he is very popular among his peers. He’s in all mainstreamed classes and receives extra help with modified instructions and grades, but the progress he’s made is amazing.
I hope that you will be able to say that about your preschool Down Syndrom student too. If you do, you will find the reward of a career well spent by the independent way your Down Syndrom student so easily fits in with his community. Still, there will be more reward when you see how his community so easily includes and accepts him as the unique blessing that every Down Syndrom soul provides our lives.