Teaching Special Needs Students with Down Syndrome

Teaching Special Needs Students with Down Syndrome
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When discussing teaching strategies of special needs children with Down syndrome, there are some generalizations that can be made. For example, children with Down syndrome are largely concrete thinkers and learn best when visual learning is emphasized. This may not hold true for every child with Down syndrome, but is true for the majority. Strategies that work well for teaching special needs with Down syndrome included are:

  • Focusing on Visual Learning

  • Using Hands-on Activities

  • Making Lessons Relate to Life Experience

  • Minimizing Fine Motor Demands

  • Use Short and Long Term Memory Aids

  • Shorten Assignments or Break Them Down into Smaller Tasks

These strategies will be helpful for modifying curriculum for inclusion in the mainstream classroom.

Focusing on Visual Learning

Lessons will best be remembered by the special needs students when accompanied by a picture or visual representation of a concept. Visual aids are common in elementary school, but are used less often in junior-high or high-school. Modifications will need to be made as often as possible to include visual aids. Sequenced photo representations of a student’s school schedule have also been shown to be very helpful. These pictures help them understand what is expected of them throughout the day and encourage participation in lessons.

Using Hands on Activities

Many of us can identify with the concept of learning better through hands-on application. For many people, it is easier to remember something if we are given the opportunity to do the task ourselves. Special needs children with Down syndrome learn best when they are shown how to do something step by step. Model the correct way to do something and allow the student to copy your direction. Some examples include teaching color by identifying a color in the classroom and teaching addition problems with counters and beans rather than worksheets.

Making Lessons Relate to Life Experience

The ultimate goal for special needs students with Down syndrome is for them to be able to incorporate the skills they learn at school into their everyday life. When teaching the student about money, we want them to have the ability to use money independently. Role-play real life situations as often as possible to help the student make the connection between what they are learning and daily living skills. Using money when shopping, reading signs, and measuring quantities for cooking are just a few ways lessons may assist with living skills. Role-play a grocery shopping situation with the student to help them understand how money can be used and also help them commit what they have learned to memory.

Minimizing Fine Motor Demands

Special needs students with Down syndrome often have a difficult time manipulating small objects. Reducing frustration while learning and ensuring a successful experience will keep them motivated to learn. Lengthy assignments writing numbers or copying information may cause the special needs student to lose interest in the assignment. Minimize fine motor demands whenever possible without interfering with the learning process.

Long-Term and Short-Term Memory Aids

Musical rhythms, visual representation of concepts and mnemonic devices are examples of memory aids that will help special needs students with Down syndrome retain what they learn. When the student is struggling to master an educational concept, incorporate these memory aids as often as possible. Songs can help with learning the alphabet, counting, and learning word families for mastering phonics. Pies and pizzas cut up into sections are examples of clear visual aids for working with fractions.

Shortening Assignment Length

Keeping special needs students motivated is critical. Many students develop avoidance behaviors when it comes to classroom instruction they find particularly difficult. Keep the lessons enjoyable and ensure success by reducing the work to smaller tasks. Use positive feedback, or possibly a reward, when lessons are completed successfully to encourage participation.


  • Body, A. & Frost, L. (2002). A Picture’s Worth: PECS and Other Visual Communication Strategies. Bethesda, MD: Woodbine House
  • Buckley, S.J., Bird, G. & Byrnes, A. (2001) Number Skills for Individuals with Down Syndrome: An Overview.