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Tips for teachers

Get a “busy box” for you classroom. As soon as the pupil with Down syndrome is done with his/her work, they are allowed to go and fetch the “busy box”. In this box you have one or two (not more than three) activities that the learner can do on his/her own while the rest of the class carries on with their work. Make sure to change these activities on a regular basis (twice a week) as to avoid boredom.


1.  Keep him/her in his/her peer group, maybe a year older than the rest of the class. It is not recommend that a learner with Down syndrome be put in a class where he/she is more than two years older than the rest of the group.

2.  In as much as the child with Down syndrome in the main stream will have to learn to cope with his/her new environment the rest of the school will also have to learn to cope with the new learner. All the pupils in the school must be prepared for this situation. This task rests solely on the shoulders of the teachers and principal of the school. Don’t emphasise the physical differences as this is the only thing that will then be noted by others. Rather emphasise:

  • We are all different and unique.
  • We are all created in our own unique way, and we have no right to tease somebody else because they are different.
  • Explain on an age appropriate level that we fear what we are scared of.
  • Ask for their help – A learner with an intellectual disability develops slower and will need our help.

Use the learners with special needs to raise awareness in your school. Some Principals even go as far as to accommodate children with different special needs in their schools, because this creates awareness for all involved. In the past the isolation of children with special needs created a lot of misconceptions regarding Down syndrome and other similar disabilities. These misconceptions breed fear. It makes us fear the disabled.

3.  Start a buddy system – the learner with Down syndrome is supported by a member of the class – a buddy. Make it special for the buddy. For instance the buddy wears a buddy badge; the buddy and the learner with Down syndrome can stand at the front of the row (Children with Down syndrome can sometimes feel a bit claustrophobic therefore it is a good idea to let them stand either in the front of the row or right at the back); they are allowed to play a little longer after break; leave before the others for break etc. (all these “perks” depend on how you arrange your class activities). Change the buddies on a regular basis, daily or weekly. This will prevent the buddy from feeling burdened. The buddy will also have tasks like looking after the learner on the playground, or when walking to and from class the buddy must make sure that they stay in line and don’t get lost. Under no circumstances must the buddy be expected to help in the classroom with schoolwork.

4.  It is very important that the communication between the teacher and the parent is positive and open. This will ensure cooperation from the parent. Do not give the learner too much homework! To overload with homework causes unnecessary stress at home, and the learner does not need to go to school 24 hours a day. Do not reverse rolls! You are the teacher and they are the parents. Mom should not be a teacher at home, she must be left to be a mom, she must help her child with a realistic amount of homework, or to reinstate work that was done in class. Work very closely with parents on the issue of homework. Do not put too much pressure on the learner – stress can lead to behavioural problems.

5.  Be realistic in your expectations. A learner with Down syndrome will probably not be able to keep up with the other learners on an academic level. To put unduly pressure on yourself and/or the learner will lead to other problems including behavioural problems. One of the main reason for inclusive education is the development of appropriate social skills.

6.  Ask for help! Nobody expects you to be a super teacher. Just be an understanding and accommodating one. Where can you get help?

  • The Down Syndrome Association in your area will do everything within their power to help you.
  • Therapist, especially therapist with Neural Developmental Therapy (NDT) can be of great help.
  • Experts in the field of Down syndrome, especially the Department of Education at your nearest University.

7.  Start a support group. Try to get together once a term. The parents, teachers (even from other schools), therapists and everybody who is interested in inclusive education can be invited. The coordinator can try and get a guest speaker who can give practical advice regarding inclusive education. Don’t make the sessions too formal, have informal time where attendees can exchange tips and ideas. These support groups are priceless for all involved.

8.  Persons with Down syndrome all have low muscle tone. This will make them tire more easily. It also prevents them from sitting down and concentrating for long periods of time. Gross Motor exercises is and will always be very important when it comes to learners with Down syndrome – You move the mind by moving the body. It will help tremendously if you can, in between lessons (a minute is enough) give them one or two exercise to do. They can do it at their desks – include the whole class.

  • Let them stand in between desks and stretch – touch their toes – stretch – touch their toes……5X
  • Let them stand on their toes – heels – toes……5X
  • Let them stand with their legs slightly apart, hands on their hips, rotating their upper body while keeping their feet stil on the ground – they must rotate as far left and right as possible.
  • let them jump up and down in one place ……5X
  • Let them lean forward, pressing on their desks – putting weight on their arms and hands. Lift one arm and stretch towards ceiling alternate arms……5X
  • Let them lean forward, hands on their desks and do push-ups.
  • Bend arms in front, pushing palms together, push – relax –push – relax……5X

People with Down syndrome must never do summersaults unless it has been cleared with their doctor, who has taken x-rays of his/her neck. Because of the low muscle tone it is possible that the neck is not stable enough for such exercises.

Rather do exercises that strengthen the shoulder area, balance, and tone or develop ball and bicycle riding skills. Exercises where the learner can: –

  • Hang on his/her hands
  • Crawl
  • Climb up and down steps
  • Roll
  • Midline crossing
  • Jump in one spot

When you assist a child with Down syndrome to jump across, climb up or down stairs try not to raise his/her hand above their heads and pull on the arm muscles. Because of their possible bad eye sight, lack of depth perception, midline crossing, and bad balance he/she is probably already off balance, and their arm and hand raised above their head makes the situation worse. Rather press with both your hands on his/her shoulder; this will give them a sense of security.

Learners with Down syndrome must be discouraged to sit cross-legged. It is one of their favourite positions (Buddha Position) as it gives them a wider base and increases their balance. Sitting like this can however cause the tendons behind the knee to shorten which will cause them to walk with bowed legs. Rather let them sit with their legs in front of them or sideways. If possible let them sit against a cupboard or wall for support, this will also prevent them from slumping forward (flopping).

Keep the lessons short. When a learner starts fidgeting and moving around it can be an indication that he needs to move to build muscle tone to relieve tiredness.

The correct pose of all learners but especially those with low muscle tone is very important.

  • The learner, his chair and desk must fit together.
  • His/her feet must be able to touch the floor. Use a telephone index if a more suitable desk cannot be found.
  • The learners back must be at a 90º angle with the back of the chair. If the chair is too big and the learners back cannot touch the back of the chair, put a telephone index in a plastic bag and hang it on the chair between the learners back and the back of the chair.

9.  Consistent discipline is of the utmost importance. What goes for your other learners goes for your learner with a disability. A solid structure, solid routine and discipline give security, because just like any child, the child with a disability wants to know his/her boundaries. Time-out is a good way to punish. Just make sure that time-out is not used to get out of a task the learner does not want to do. Children with Down syndrome are very good at manipulating and playing their teachers.

Bad behaviour is possibly a sign of:-

  • Child is getting too much leeway.
  • Too much pressure – mostly academic (unrealistic goals)
  • Child is being teased. (People with Down syndrome is not aggressive by nature, but can display this type of behaviour if teased)
  • Wrong diet e.g. too much sugar, preservative, colourants or bread (gluten).
  • Allergies (that is making him/her feel sick)

Socially unacceptable behaviour should be addressed immediately. Bad behaviour will not stop by itself.Get behind the reason for it and sort it out.

10.  Do the exact same academic work with the learner with Down syndrome, just simplify it. They are clever enough to realise that their work is not the same as the other pupils work, they don’t like to be excluded. A Principal I know lets his teacher send home the tests his learners with Down syndrome will write a day or two before its due. This gives the learner a chance to go through it in his/her own time at home. It is a tremendous boost for the learner when he/she gets good result in the test! Everybody involved knows the test goes home beforehand and is realistic about the test results. Full marks to this school and its innovative teachers!

11.  Get a “busy box” for you classroom. As soon as the pupil with Down syndrome is done with his/her work, they are allowed to go and fetch the “busy box”. In this box you have one or two (not more than three) activities that the learner can do on his/her own while the rest of the class carries on with their work. Make sure to change these activities on a regular basis (twice a week) as to avoid boredom. Possible activities for the “busy box”:

  • beads to string
  • puzzle to build
  • colouring in picture
  • lotto’s
  • Lego blocks
  • pictures to cut out
  • reading book etc.

12.  Give the learner with Down syndrome a work chart or paste his work directly into his book rather than letting him/her copying it from the black board. There are several reasons for this:

  • Quite a few people with Down syndrome suffer from bad eye sight.
  • Short concentration span
  • Difficulty in memorising words and or sentences
  • Low muscle tone means it might take longer to copy a lesson from the black board.
  • It is easier for you to control the level of difficulty of the work.

13.  Use music as an integral part of your lessons. Especially when you do gross motor exercises (warm-ups and toning). Let them sing songs they know and enjoy. I do realise that it is not always possible to use music this way in the mainstream classroom. Instead of giving them a task by telling them, sing it to them and see how they react. Use music to convey difficult abstract concepts like counting rhymes, days of the week, months of the year. Children with Down syndrome love music as much as the next child, they are not musically minded. It is very rare to find a child with Down syndrome that can hold a tune.

14.  Children with Down syndrome are expert copy-cats. Let them copy work from the child next to them instead of writing it down from the black board, or let their neighbour help them. Children more from other children. Because they tend to copy others without hesitation they will unfortunately also copy bad behaviour. They will do this without really knowing it is wrong, and it is most likely that the other children will find this funny. Because of the reaction they get from others the child with Down syndrome will think it is ok. These issues must be sorted out as soon and as they arise. You need to act immediately as this behaviour will not stop by itself. Always ask “When is cute not cute anymore?” Behaviour that is cute at the age of 6 is not so cute at the age of 16.

15.  Learn as much about your learner with Down syndrome’s medical condition. Knowledge lessens fear. Ask your nearest Down Syndrome Association for information, or read up about Down syndrome on the internet. In today’s day and age there is a wealth of information. By knowing Down syndrome in general and your learner specifically you eliminate any misconceptions. Down syndrome is a condition not an illness. It is irreversible and incurable. It is a part of what they are not who they are. Although the world has come a long way in understanding Down syndrome I believe that people with Down syndrome is still grossly underestimated. They are capable of far more than people give them credit for.

The learner with Down syndrome may have some of the following medical problems:-

  • Heart problems
  • Impaired vision
  • Impaired hearing
  • Indigestion
  • Low muscle tone
  • Prone to infections – lower immune system

16.  Don’t over emphasise academics. Life and social skills are as if not more important.

17.  If it is possible let the learner with Down syndrome deliver messages, notes or other small items to other teachers, not only will this give them a short break from class but it will also get them moving which in turn will help with the muscle tone.

18.  Inclusive education is not always easy. There will be problems! In general a person with Down syndrome is very loving but they can also be very obstinate. This is unfortunately part of the syndrome. Be careful to get into a power struggle, rather give them choices. Just make the second choice so unappetising that he will choose what you want him to. I also found that it is better to leave them be on these difficult days, rather carry on tomorrow. Just be very strict in as far as disruption of the class goes, this is non-negotiable.

19.  Do not put too much emphasis on what he/she cannot do. Rather concentrate on what he/she can do. If you only highlight what the learner cannot do everybody will be unhappy. After years of teaching at a mainstream school I started teaching at a school for children with learning disabilities. When I commented that a child could not do something the principal answer was this “Search for the fault in yourself. You haven’t brought your level down to the child’s level – do task analysis.” I always used this as a guideline throughout the rest of my teaching career. Learners with Down syndrome can do the same work as the rest of the class but only on his/her level. Keep it simple. If he/she still cannot cope take another step back and find the connection,

20.  Do not have more than one person with intellectual disability per teacher in a mainstream class room.

21.  A person with Down syndrome’s eyes often goes out of focus when they look down. Here are possible solutions to this and related copying and writing problems:

  • If it is possible you can put something under the back legs of his/her desk. This will make the desk stand at an angle – like the old traditional school desks; or
  • If you cannot lift the table put the learners work chart on a ledger file, this will also create the right angle.
  • Wrap an elastic rubber band around the crayon or pencil to ensure a better grip. This is a cheaper option that the pencil grips you buy and it fits around pens, pencils, crayons and kokis of any thickness.
  • Let the learner who presses softly rather use a thin koki (with elastic band around it). The result is faster and better.
  • Do finger exercises to strengthen finger muscles by:
  • Playing with dough or clay.
  • Tearing paper between fingers.
  • Screwing nuts and bolts together.
  • Putting two fingers into an elastic band and stretching it.
  • For a better/correct pencil grip, put some presstic on the pencil, press the learner’s fingers into the press tic in the correct position.
  • Make small balls with presstic, beads or stones, put these in the palm of his/her hands, keep it in position with the pinkie and ring finger. Put the other three fingers around the pencil, their grip should be correct now.
  • If the learner cannot get the correct pencil grip it does not matter too much as long as the grip he is using is functional.