By Carrie Aitkenhead
In our blog series for Down Syndrome Awareness Month, we have shared how you can support friends or family members with Down syndrome and we have gotten tips on parenting a child with Down syndrome. Now we’d like to turn to the topic of educating kids with Down syndrome. Thanks to Krista Rowland-Collins, educator and mother of Adele, a child with Down syndrome, and Pamela Brillante, author of the National Association for the Education of Young Children publication, Essentials: Supporting Young Children with Disabilities in the Classroom, for their expertise.
By law, children with Down syndrome in the U.S. must be provided with an appropriate and free public education, and we at Melissa & Doug believe wholeheartedly in this policy of inclusion! Here are some tips that may assist parents and educators in creating a more inclusive classroom environment for everyone.
- Start by educating peers and parents
To help a child with Down syndrome integrate into a classroom, it’s helpful for a parent to create an “About My Child” note that can be shared with the teacher, classroom peers, and their parents.
“We made a brochure about Adele and handed it out to all of her classmates,” says Krista Rowland-Collins. “This helps inform teachers, parents, and children on what to expect and opens the door for open questions and communication. We talked about Down syndrome, her likes, her strengths, and her needs.
“Families don’t always know what to say or how to say it, so I added a link to a blog I wrote, ‘How to Talk with Your Child About Down Syndrome.’ I also included my phone number and email address, so any parents can ask questions or connect directly. Adele already has playdates set up and she’s also been invited to a birthday party!”
- Request a quiet, calm space in the classroom
Kids with Down syndrome can benefit from having a quiet, calm space in the classroom where they can go for a break or to play or work independently when needed. An important part of supporting a child with Down syndrome is helping them manage transitions and giving the child time to calm or rest when overwhelmed. Having a quiet, calm space to take a break is an important part of an inclusive classroom. Soft materials and and or quiet toys may help deliver a desired calming effect while resting or playing independently.
- Donate open-ended play materials to the classroom
Facilitating play with open-ended toys or materials may help develop and nurture friendships between children of all abilities. According to the NAEYC, learning to play with peers is the first step to developing friendships and supporting a child socially and emotionally. Having these opportunities to play together with toys that are more fun with more than one person may give children many bonding and learning experiences that will support them throughout the school year. This also adds to the creation of a community of learners.
We have provided the links below to help teachers facilitate open-ended play and use toys in the classroom as tools for cognitive practice of social-emotional, conceptual, and practical life skills:
- Share your child’s strengths and interests with the teacher so they can be incorporated into learning
Your child’s IEP (Individualized Education Plan) will help develop a plan of action for all professionals and adults in the child’s life. “The student’s IEP will determine what that individual needs to progress and be successful in the classroom, and will inform a teacher if the child requires additional adult support or instruction,” explains Pamela Brillante.
In addition to the IEP, it is vital to discuss with your child’s teacher what your child likes to do for fun, and what he or she is good at.
When we asked Krista Rowland-Collins about how Adele’s passions play into learning, she talked about her daughter’s love for dancing and music, “Music is one of the ways that brings learning to life for her and makes her happy. She turns the karaoke machine on and blasts the music. She wiggles her body and loves to dance with her own shadow, which totally cracks us up! She has learned many new songs this past year. She brings joy, light and love to the world.”
As for other tips on educating kids with Down syndrome, Krista offers this: “The teacher needs to believe fully in inclusion. They need to be flexible and understand that sometimes our children need a little extra guidance and support. It’s so important that they talk about differences with the students in the classroom. We are all unique, we all have our strengths and areas where we need some extra help. I find that parents don’t always talk about these things at home, so it’s nice to see educators take the lead.”
- Provide a resource list for the educators in your child’s life
As a parent of a child with Down syndrome (or other special need), you’re likely to accumulate a number of go-to resources with helpful information. It can be a good idea to share a list of your favorite, most useful resources with the educators in your child’s life. Some of our favorites:
“The Essentials: Supporting Young Children with Disabilities in the Classroom” by Pamela Brillante
Includes specific classroom tips for educators
National Down Syndrome Society
Check out their Education Webinars
National Down Syndrome Congress
Features a comprehensive FAQ section for what parents may need to know about their child’s education
Down Syndrome International Education
Includes links for learning modules and videos