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Guide to Down Syndrome for Teachers

written by: Anne Vize • edited by: Elizabeth Wistrom • updated: 1/5/2012

Down syndrome is caused by a chromosomal abnormality, and it is a condition which can have physical and intellectual components to it. This article will answer questions like, "What is Down Syndrome? How do I work with Down Syndrome kids?" and more.

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    What Is Down Syndrome?

    Learning to teach Down Syndrome kids is something that will become very much a part of your teaching skill set in special education. So you need to know the basics first, right? Well here is some information to explain what Down Syndrome is.

    You need a few science basics first! All our cells contain chromosomes. In each chromosome is DNA. This is the stuff of life - it helps build our bodies into the shapes they are, it makes us look the way we do, it controls every tiny element of our being. There are meant to be two pairs of chromosomes containing DNA in each cell in your body. In Down Syndrome kids there is an extra chromosome at pair number 21. Instead of two, there are three chromosomes. Hence, the other name for Down Syndrome -- Trisomy 21. This extra chromosome causes changes in the early development of an embryo.

    Down Syndrome is the most common genetic condition. The chance of a Down Syndrome pregnancy increases with increasing maternal age. It can be diagnosed before birth through medical testing.

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    Physical and Medical Effects

    Down Syndrome kids will be fairly commonly seen in your work as a special education teacher. Teaching Down Syndrome kids means having a good understanding of the physical and medical effects of their disability. Remember that all kids are different, with different needs and abilities.

    Down syndrome kids may have:

    • a need to learn educational content at a slower pace or in a different format to their peers.
    • low muscle tone.
    • eyes which slant upwards and outwards.
    • chubby hands.
    • arms and legs which are shorter relative to their torso length.
    • medical conditions which cause health issues in childhood and adulthood.
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    Teaching Tips

    Teaching Down Syndrome kids is a rich and rewarding experience, as is teaching most children. Many special education teachers will tell you of the warmth, affection and need for interpersonal connection that is shown by many Down Syndrome kids. This is not because of any particular feature of Down Syndrome, and it may be that this tendency towards warmth and affection is one of the myths about Down Syndrome kids, rather than fact.

    Teaching students with Down Syndrome gives you the chance to build on social skills, teach critical literacy and numeracy skills, and help them move from being part of the sheltered world which was once on offer to them and into the broader community. They now enjoy a life expectancy which is much higher than it once was, thanks in part to medical treatments which can more effectively deal with the cardiac problems which used to be a major medical problem for afflicted children.

    As a teacher, your focus should be on developing skills appropriate to the age and ability level of the student with Down Syndrome. For example, a classroom focus on practical literacy skills in areas such as reading sight words, building decoding skills, increasing comprehension and fluency and applying reading knowledge to practical situations can all help increase general literacy levels for students with Down Syndrome, or indeed any student in a special needs or mainstream setting.