One of the goals of early childhood is getting a child ready to venture out in an educational environment, where new skills and friends await her. Because intellectual disability is characteristic of Down syndrome (DS), children with DS need extra learning support. In this article we’ll take a look at how DS affects learning, and how you can harness a child’s strengths during the early years to help her reach her potential.
How Down Syndrome Affects Learning
DS is the leading genetic cause of intellectual disability. Although all children with DS are different in terms of severity of intellectual disability, they have common differences in several cognitive areas. These differences fall under the umbrella of executive function skills, which act as a sort of air-traffic control system organizing the multitude of information in our brains so we can learn, plan, and carry out tasks.
Executive function skills that children with DS tend to struggle with include:
Attention, which interferes with staying engaged with a task and learning how to sequence activities in order to successfully learn multi-step skills (such as self-care routines like getting dressed, for example).
Inhibitory control, which makes it difficult to filter and organize information. Children with DS often struggle to understand what is important and what is irrelevant.
Short-term verbal memory, which interferes with learning by listening. This is why using visuals is so important for children with DS (more on this below).
Planning and organization, which interferes with learning and using problem-solving skills.
Switching mindset, which makes it difficult to switch between two tasks (focusing on a game, being distracted by a noise, and going right back to the game, for example).
Asking for help (also known as “self-monitoring”), which makes it hard for children with DS to monitor how a task is going and whether or not they need to ask for clarification or assistance.
Cognitive Strengths of Children with Down Syndrome
Despite the common challenges mentioned above, children with DS have cognitive strengths, too, such as learning well through observation. They take in what’s happening around them – ready to imitate and reap the rewards of joining in. They are motivated by positive reinforcement, so celebrating all the victories helps keep them motivated. And although their short-term verbal memory may be delayed (can link to DS language skills article here), children with DS are strong visual learners, so using visual cues such as pictures or gestures is essential.
The Power of Routines
Routines promote learning for all children, but can be especially powerful for those with DS. Knowing what to expect can help reduce stress and reinforce memory. Keep routine tasks organized in predictable steps to help your child feel capable and confident. For example, create a step-by-step list with images for brushing teeth and post it on the bathroom mirror.
When It’s Time for School
Supporting your child’s early learning is one way to prepare her for school, but her social emotional development is another key to school readiness. In this article you can read all about DS and social emotional development.