Primary school

The majority of children who have Down syndrome will be educated in their local primary school with additional supports to help them learn.This environment is known to be helpful for speech and language development. If your child is still communicating mostly with Lámh signs, it is possible for the school to access Lámh training ahead of time.

Children who have Down syndrome are visual learners and will often learn by imitating the other children. They benefit from direct teaching in a language-rich environment. That said, they will be very likely to need understanding and support from teachers and classmates. The DSI booklet: supporting children who have Down syndrome in Primary School may be helpful.

Video about education:

Children and adults who have Down syndrome sent us videos about their experiences in education and our Speech and Language Consultant Nicola Hart put them together into this short film to show teachers at our upcoming education conferences. A huge thank you to all who contributed!

Receptive language

Children who have Down syndrome are likely to understand more words than they can use when they start primary school, but it may still be harder for them to process long instructions, or learn new words and concepts. Using resource teaching time to introduce new vocabulary ahead of topics will help your child to participate in the classroom. New words should be taught using different modalities (such as pictures, videos, signs and written words) to support understanding. Teachers will need to reduce the amount and the complexity of new concepts, but, as far as possible, the topics should be the same as the rest of the class.

It can be helpful to anticipate new topics at home. If you know ‘autumn’ is the class topic for next week, for example, then a well-timed walk in the woods to look at autumn leaves will help your child to participate.

It’s important that your child’s teachers remember to keep instructions short, clear and positive. It’s much easier to understand “We walk in the corridor” than “Don’t run in the corridor”. If you think about it, in the first sentence, the key word is “walk”, whereas in the second, the key word is “run”! Sometimes children don’t fully understand the instruction or the rules, and language problems can easily be misinterpreted as behaviour problems.

As your child progresses through the school the gap will widen, requiring the teacher to actively differentiate the curriculum and be clear about learning goals. An IEP (Individual Education Programme), which includes targets for language and communication will help everyone to be clear about goals. There is a template for an IEP in the booklet Supporting Children with Down Syndrome in Primary School.

Literacy

Children who have Down syndrome may learn some aspects of language better through reading than listening. Professor Sue Buckley, one of the leading researchers in this area, often says: ‘Teach the child to read to speak’. Teaching reading is one of the best ways we know of developing spoken language abilities in school-age children who have Down syndrome.

Good quality literacy instruction focusing on sight word recognition is best in the early years. It’s good for the child to be included when the others are learning Jolly Phonics letters and sounds, but using those sounds to blend and segment words may be difficult until the child has a large vocabulary of sight words. Sometimes doing the Jolly Phonics sounds in class will help raise awareness of different sounds, though, which can help support speech development.

Literacy will continue to develop throughout the school years and into adulthood, though at a slower pace than the other children in the class. Having said that, it is important that the child’s reading book be age appropriate, and also that if there is a class reader, your child has a simplified version of this, rather than a different book altogether.

The Reading and Language Intervention (or RLI), which has been developed in the UK, is specifically designed to meet the needs of children who have Down syndrome.

Expressive language

Expressive language is a term describing the signs or words that your child uses to try to communicate with you. Many children who have Down syndrome are very good at getting their message across. Others will have considerable difficulty. Help your child build up a core vocabulary of words or signs, and these will develop further as they learn new words and ideas in school.

It’s really important that your child has something to communicate about! Give choices, whenever possible. Allow small mistakes (we often learn from our mistakes, and if you’ve forgotten something, you need to communicate to let people know!).  Avoid situations where you communicate about your child while they are present; the handover from school to home is a good example – if your child has just heard the teacher or SNA tell you all that happened, they don’t need to try to tell you themselves.

If your child is not always understood, then good use of a communication book is essential in the early primary school years. This book should just have a couple of lines every day going from home to school, and school to home. It should focus on supporting your child’s communication, so the couple of lines should be about whatever your child is likely to want to communicate (whether that is granny’s birthday party last night, or the fact you ran out of weetabix this morning!). Knowing the likely topic will help your child to be understood, so put yourself in their shoes and focus on what they think is important enough to talk about. Sometimes, as your child’s vocabulary expands and they start putting more words together, they may become more difficult to understand for a while, as their language is getting more complex. Don’t pretend to understand if you don’t. That’s frustrating for everyone. Encourage your child to try again, and model ‘total communication’ approaches, using signs, gestures, pictures and words to get your message across and to help your child get his or her message across to you.

 

Speech

By the time children go to school, most will be using speech as their main method of communication, and this should be encouraged. Speech is unlikely to be completely clear, though. The rate at which children develop speech sounds is extremely variable. It may be harder for your child who has Down syndrome to copy sounds or make sounds consistently the same each time. It can be difficult for him or her to coordinate movement and breath, or to move their mouth in exactly the right way.

If your child is still communicating mostly with Lámh signs, it is possible for the school to access Lámh training ahead of time through the Special Education Support Service (SESS).

Speech sound difficulties are common in early primary school. Consistent errors are usually relatively easy to understand, for example if your child always says ‘tat’ for ‘cat’. It’s much harder to understand if the mistakes are inconsistent (so ‘cat’ could be ‘ca’, ‘a’, ‘tat’, ‘cac’, etc). It’s more important for your child to learn to say things the same way, even if not exactly right, as this will help understanding. Repetition and practice using sound games or reading will help. So will focusing on words that are useful for your child – ones that they need every day.  Ideally, every child will be seeing a speech and language therapist who will help with this, though we are aware that access to therapy services currently varies considerably from county to county.

In the long term, one of the best ways to help your child’s speech is by promoting reading. Most children who have Down syndrome have clearer speech when reading than when just talking.

Memory

Most children who have Down syndrome will have relatively good visual memory, but verbal memory and working memory can be poor. Remembering verbal information and learning from listening can be especially difficult.

Working memory is how we hold information in our minds for a short time in order to do something. If you walk into a room but forget why, it’s your working memory that is at fault!

Impairment in working memory means that children with Down syndrome learn and remember skills and information in a different way to other children, and this needs to be taken into account at home and in the classroom.

Poor verbal memory is one of the things that can impact speech and can also make learning to read using phonics difficult. It’s hard to remember the sounds in order to blend them into a word. It’s hard to remember the order of syllables, and all the sounds in each one.

As memory difficulties can be persistent, it’s important that your child learns coping strategies. Remembering things in groups or categories is easier than remembering individual items. Writing a list is even better.

Memory does improve with practice and familiarity. It’s easier to remember words that we use every day. It’s also easier to remember things we have seen and experienced rather than things we have just heard about. This means that repetition and learning through seeing and doing will be very important for your child.

Your child won’t remember things they didn’t see or hear properly in the first place, so be alert to hearing and vision issues, and seek advice if you are concerned.

Pragmatics

Pragmatics is about how we use our language every day to communicate.

We use language to connect with other people, to get something we need, to express like or dislike, to let people know we want something (or don’t!). We use language to get information, to draw attention to something, or to think out loud.

In the early primary school years, your child may still use some signs to support communication. It’s very important that the school staff and other children understand at least a few key signs. The best way for your child’s teachers to learn signs is face to face in a Lámh signing course, but there are also resources such as Lámh A Song DVD and the Lámh Time app which will be fun for other children, as well as your child.

Social communication is very important for your child to learn. Social awareness is usually a relative strength for children who have Down syndrome, but social language and communication skills will still need support.  Your child is likely to learn best by watching and listening to the language of the other children in the class. Learning to take turns, to pay attention to an activity or topic chosen by someone else, to join in a game, all involve social use of language and can all be improved with practice!

Try to encourage age-appropriate social behaviour at all times. If the other children in the class don’t hug the teacher as they arrive, neither should your child, if the other children don’t hug each other, they shouldn’t hug your child.

Total communication

Total communication is about using and accepting all methods of communicating, not just speech. We can communicate using body language, facial expression, sign, gesture, sounds, words, pictures and objects.

A total communication approach encourages you to value all the ways your child can get a message across. Sometimes parents think that signing may reduce the child’s need to speak. Actually, the reverse is true. People who can successfully get their message understood are more likely to keep communicating.

In the early primary school years, your child may still use some signs to support communication. It’s very important that the school staff and other children understand at least a few key signs. The best way for your child’s teachers to learn signs is face to face in a Lámh signing course, but there are also resources such as Lámh A Song DVD and the Lámh Time app which will be fun for other children, as well as your child.

As your child’s language expands Lámh signs will probably not be enough for all of the ideas they want to share, so if speech is still not easy to understand, you need to start working on alternative ways for your child to communicate. In the long term, being able to write the word down if people don’t understand is an effective way of supporting spoken language, but other methods of alternative and augmentative communication may also need to be considered.

It’s vital that you focus on the message that’s being communicated, and value all of your child’s attempts, whether these are spoken words, signs, gestures or a communication aid.