Learning Profile

Typical Learning Profile of a Child with Down Syndrome

“All people with Down syndrome experience some delay in their development, however, they are not equally delayed in all areas, but have a specific pattern of cognitive and learning difficulties”. Prof. Sue Buckley (Down Syndrome Education International)

The following learning characteristics can be considered typical of most children with Down syndrome:

    • Visual learning style – visual processing and visual memory skills are a strength
    • Reading is usually a relative strength, compared to oral language
    • Number can be an area of difficulty
    • Social understanding and non-verbal communication a strength
    • Movement control (motor skills) can be delayed
    • There is a risk of auditory and/or visual impairments
    • Specific speech and language delay – receptive language is usually superior to expressive language
    • Auditory short-term memory and auditory processing an area of weakness

From: Down Syndrome Education International

While children with Down syndrome will present with many of these characteristics, one must remember that it is important to remember that the learning profile of a child with Down syndrome will interact with their own family learning traits, and the quality of the education, care and social interactions they experience during their life.

When planning a programme of work for pupils with Down syndrome, remember that:

    • Children with Down syndrome need a visual teaching approach, using concrete and practical materials.
    • Some children with Down syndrome can have shorter attention and concentration spans than their typically developing peers. They may be more easily distracted and have difficulty focusing on more than one task at a time. This is related to their difficulties with processing and retaining information presented orally.
    • Others may be unable to concentrate if there is a high level of background noise or movement. Where they are supported intensively on a one to one basis, they may become very tired and need regular breaks.
    • Staff may need to have readily available additional activities to cater for children with Down syndrome who have a short concentration span. A work station where the child can go if they are finding it difficult to concentrate of a piece of work is a useful idea. Generally, work broken into short sessions with regular breaks works well.
    • Where any child has a speech and language impairment, thinking and reasoning skills are affected. As a result, children with Down syndrome can find it more difficult to transfer skills from one situation to another, to make decisions and choices, to grasp abstract concepts and problem solve
    • Pupils with Down syndrome generally take longer to learn and to consolidate new skills. They may need greater levels of repetition and opportunities to rehearse and practice new skills and learning.
    • Due to their good levels of social awareness and understanding, many children with Down syndrome are sensitive to failure and can be unwilling to work with new tasks or materials, if they perceive that they may be difficult or challenging. Breaking larger tasks down into smaller, more attainable chunks and using lots of praise and motivational strategies may help.
    • Research has shown that some pupils with Down syndrome tend to make poor use of acquired skills and in fact have higher levels of ability than they generally exhibit. Keep expectations for the pupil appropriately high, and remember that learning in people with Down syndrome continues throughout the lifespan.

Adapted from Down’s Syndrome Association UK

Implications of learning profile

Implications of learning profile – build on strengths, address areas of weakness

    • Build on the social-emotional strengths of children with Down syndrome – learning is a social and interactive process – create a supportive, positive relationship and environment for learning
    • Any hearing or visual impairments can seriously impact upon pupil learning – they should be treated and/or compensated for as early as possible, and checked regularly.
    • Speech and language development should be explicitly targeted from infancy, and addressed throughout childhood and into adulthood
    • Auditory memory difficulties should be compensated for by the use of visual supports and prompts wherever possible (signs, pictures, words). Activities designed to improve auditory memory skills should also be undertaken
    • Reading should be taught from an early age, as it is the best way for children with Down syndrome to learn language (a visual route to language)
    • When assessing the learning of children with Down syndrome and other children with language difficulties, give them opportunities to respond in non-verbal ways (pointing, choosing, matching, selecting)
    • Provide plenty of opportunity to practice and develop motor skills
    • Teach computer/IT skills – computers can be a very successful way of helping children with special educational needs to access the curriculum.
    • Research indicates that it is possible to improve the speech, language and literacy skills of children with Down syndrome, and bring these skills more in line with their other skills (social skills, motor skills, etc.) – while the learning profile exists; it is not necessarily fixed and static. Inclusive education combined with focused interventions has been shown to produce academic and linguistic gains (Buckley, Bird & Sacks, 2006)

Adapted from Down Syndrome Education International


“Certain motivational states interfere with learning. Two adverse conditions are especially dangerous: anxiety and boredom. Anxiety occurs primarily when teachers expect too much from students; boredom occurs when teachers expect too little. When curricular expectations are out of sync with students’ abilities, not only does motivation decrease, but also achievement” (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 1996)

Differentiation can be defined as the matching of work to the differing abilities of individuals or groups of pupils in order to extend their learning. A differentiated classroom recognises student differences, aims to maximize the progress of all students, and promote success.

Principles of the differentiated classroom:

      1. Learning experiences are based on student readiness, interest and/or learning profile
      2. Content and activities are developed in response to varying needs of learners
      3. Teaching and learning are focused on key concepts and skills
      4. All students participate in respectful and engaging work
      5. Teacher and students work together to ensure a balance of engagement and challenge for each learner
      6. The teacher coordinates use of time, space and activities
      7. Flexible grouping ensure fluid working arrangements, including whole class learning, pairs, and groups, and one-to-one support
      8. Time use is flexible in response to student needs
      9. A variety of strategies (such as display tables, centres of interest, independent study, setting different assignments, using visual prompts and aids, pairing children with special needs with a more able learning buddy, etc.) are used to help target student needs.
      10. Clearly communicated individual and group criteria provide guidance toward success
      11. Students are assessed in a variety of appropriate ways, to demonstrate their learning and progress

(based on C. Tomlinson, 1997)

The concentric model of differentiation is a useful tool for differentiating lessons. Other models use a pyramid type design, but with the same underlying principle. Key skills that the teacher would expect all students to learn are placed in the centre ring. The next ring contains the skills that the majority of the class would hopefully grasp and understand after the lesson. Following that are more advanced skills for a certain amount of high achieving pupils, and finally the highest level of learning and skills for the most able pupils in the class to grasp. After the main part of the lesson has been delivered, the more able students can work on through the higher level content, and students with special needs such as the student with Down syndrome can focus on consolidating the more basic skills.


Concentric model of differentiation (Lorenz, 1998)

The Special Education Support Service (SESS) also has some good resources for differentiation, including an alternative worksheet for differentiated lesson planning. Click here to access it.