Teaching children with Down Syndrome

Sending your child with Down Syndrome off to school can be a real challenge, but here are 10 tips from a former teacher turned parent about teaching children with Down Syndrome.

This year was hard. I’m not going to lie. My own personal growth has stretched me more than I felt comfortable in doing. Totally out of my comfort zone and I shed enough tears to prove it. Just ask my husband or Big Brother’s teacher. But in reflecting back upon the ups and downs, it’s been so good for me. And so good for our family.

You see, this was the year I resigned from my teaching job instead of returning to work after maternity leave with Little Brother. I’ve absolutely loved teaching and have particularly enjoyed teaching Kindergarten and Grade 2. But after 8 years of teaching and two kids later, it was time to step outside of the classroom and focus on my family.

I thought I would have this school thing all sorted out. You’d think that by having my own kindergarten classroom during my teaching career, this would be a walk in the park. Boy, was I ever wrong. In fact, I do think there are several major “cons” to that. But I also think, in the long run, it’s an incredible opportunity to gain perspective and to become a more insightful and understanding teacher if I ever choose to return to the classroom.

So what have I learned as a special needs parent after our 1st year of Kindergarten? I’m glad you asked…

Teaching children with Down Syndrome

#1 – Provide your child’s teacher with current information about a diagnosis.

We can’t simply assume teachers and support staff know everything about kids with special needs. Before this school year, they didn’t know my child and they had their own sometimes limited experiences with individuals with Down syndrome. So, it wasn’t fair for us to assume they would know about Big Brother’s diagnosis.

We’ve been very fortunate to be in a location that offers professional development opportunities for educators and parents at a yearly conference called See Me Beautiful. It’s an amazing opportunity to spend the day with your child’s teacher and/or support staff. I mean, when will you ever have that opportunity to have an entire day dedicated to just your child and those they spend their days with at school?!?! This conference is priceless.

It is important that Big Brother’s teachers have the most recent information about his diagnosis, strategies to promote inclusion, problems solving, proper terms used to discuss a diagnosis, etc. We’ve requested that an Educator Package from the Canadian Down Syndrome Society be placed into his file and we give a hard-copy to his classroom teacher.

We’ve also purchased a copy of Supporting Positive Behavior in Children and Teens with Down Syndrome: The Respond but Don’t React Method by Dr. David Stein to be passed on to our son’s teachers. As a parent and teacher, this is by far my favourite resource as it provides solid understanding of why our child does what he does. Dr. Stein also has his work posted to YouTube. If you have a child with Down syndrome, check him out.

Whatever your child’s diagnosis may be, get the most current and relevant info into your teacher’s hands. Don’t make them go searching for it. By offering targeted professional development and reading opportunities, you are giving them the best opportunity to understand your child needs and their learning style. You are empowering them with the tools needed to help your child be at their best. It truly is a win-win for everyone.

#2 Growth may be slower in areas you didn’t expect. 

This has been such a tough one for me to grasp. I had these expectations. Inflated. Unrealistic. Very-difficult-to-achieve-in-one-year kinda goals. But my sweet sweet child, in all his goodness, loves to show his mama she’s not in control.

You see, I expected things to start coming together academically this year. Letter and number recognition. Sight words. Reading. Printing. It’s been absolutely painful to watch.

There are all sorts of reasons behind this. The list is long. We are 100% aware of that. But it’s painful to see how inconsistent Big Brother’s academic knowledge is so that it can be documented on a report card. This can be discouraging!

This is where it becomes critical to build a relationship with our child’s teacher right from the get-go. To know that they are on our child’s side. They are an advocate. A cheer squad. Another voice to speak up when we aren’t around. They know that just because our child may demonstrate inconsistencies, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t retain the knowledge. There’s a certain amount of comfort with that as we know our son isn’t “written off” in the academics department. He simply needs more time and an out-of-the-box approach to testing and assessment.

Just because the growth has been slower that I expected, I do see that we are moving forward. While the day-to-day growth may seem insignificant, Big Brother has moved mountains in the big picture.

#3 Your child may not always receive one-to-one support and that can be a good thing.

This is such a touchy subject in special needs parenting circles. Everyone has their own view, their own standards of safety, their own understanding of what 1:1 support means.

Our goal in having Big Brother supported at school is independence. Developmentally appropriate independence. This means, his independence will probably look much different than those around him – extra needs or not.

As his parents, we also hold the value that we do not want him dependent on an adult for every moment of every day. He doesn’t need the extra pressure of being monitored and watched for every little screw up he makes. Yes, we do expect him to be provided a safe environment (hello, flight risk!!) but he also needs to be in an environment where he can move around without an adult following right behind his every single move. To be able to make choices, navigate challenges, problem solve, to build friendships with his peers.  All the things that are so important for every child to learn. Skills that will develop with greater importance as he grows. There is nothing more discouraging than seeing a child’s peers talking only to a support staff instead of talking to a child. We want Big Brother to be a peer, not to be the side-kick of the adult doing all the navigating for him.

Yes, he does need a lot of extra support for many many things. He needs extra coaching to develop skills that come naturally to most. But he also needs independence and we are 100% ok with that as long as he and his peers are safe.

#4 Discuss your long-term goals for your child.

It may sound like crazy talk discussing what our goals and dreams are for Big Brother as an adult when he’s only in Kindergarten. But let’s face it. How are we going to work towards independence, a job, sports, post-secondary education, and a positive social life as an adult if we don’t start laying the foundation in childhood. Adults don’t just one day wake up with these skills in adulthood. And individuals with special needs are no exception.

So, what are our goals for our child as a teenager or an adult? What are the baby steps that need to happen now in order to achieve those goals? Where do we see him in 1 year? In 5 years? In 10 years? What does he need to learn this year to work towards achieving those goal?

Lay it all out on the line. We let people know we are depending on them to help our child reach those big adult goals. Our child’s teacher is an absolute critical piece in achieving these goals and dreams. We can’t underestimate that.

#5 Get to know your child’s teacher on a personal level. 

I’m not talking going out for drinks on a Friday night kinda personal level. But we like to get to know who they are. Do they have kids? Pets? Hobbies outside of school?

Give them opportunities to get to know you and your child as well. This can be especially hard for us families who children struggle with speech. But this is why it’s even more important for us as parents to help foster this. In a classroom, there are so many opportunities for teachers to get to know kids on a different level beyond academics. If your child struggles with communication, make sure you are helping to be the voice that let’s the teacher know who they really are outside of the school doors.

My former school rocked this department. The entire school culture was very much like a family and I cannot even begin to describe how those personal relationships with students and parents have impacted my life. I want this for my own family.

#6 Get to know the other parents!

Ugh. This is a struggle for me. Since Big Brother goes to school on the bus, we don’t have that daily contact with other parents during drop off and pick up. We also are fairly new to the neighbourhood and it always seems as though everyone already knows everyone. Plus, we aren’t regular participants in sporting activities due to extra challenges. This list goes on for excuses in this department.

So, to put it lightly. This isn’t our strength as two introverted parents.

This is one area we know we dropped the ball on this year and we fully admit that it’s been a challenge. But it’s never too late to start trying and we are working on it.

We’ve been slowly cultivating friendships outside of the classroom with other families and it’s been so good. There is so much value in surrounding ourselves with good people who accept our family, as crazy as it may be at times. It’s also incredibly rewarding to see how Big Brother and his peers interact. We are so fortunate to be part of an incredible school community.

#7 Meet the teacher prior to walking into an IEP meeting. 

If you aren’t familiar with the term IEP, it stands for Individual Education Plan and basically outlines goals and steps to support your child in their learning at school. I won’t bore you with the details but it’s a fairly important document for students with extra needs. There are a million and one horror stories about IEP meetings. I’m sure parents and teachers can both recount traumatic experiences.

Thankfully, our experience has been positive so far. We’re only working our way into Grade 1 at the moment, so we’ve got a ways to go. But I have found that meeting with the classroom teacher prior to the IEP meeting, where everyone is involved, is a good way to get on the same page as far as goals and plans.

#8 This isn’t “them against us”. We are in this together. 

You are the expert on your child. Your child’s teacher is the expert of their classroom. Meet in the middle. You’ve both got something of great value to offer. Both parties are needed to make the year work to support your child.

I’ve found it frustrating in the past when there were so many expectations for Big Brother to “conform” to the environment that he was in. I’ve also found it frustrating as a teacher to have the expectation to change what  seemed like everything for a student. It’s not an all or nothing sort of thing. Compromise is needed by all parties.

Big Brother is who he is. Quirks. Idiosyncrasies. Behaviour. You name it. We can’t change it all. And in fact, when we try to change it all we get hit with the biggest resistance out there and it ain’t pretty. So, it’s unrealistic to expect him to change everything in order to fit into the box of a particular classroom.

Together, you can make one kick-ass team. But it requires compromise, communication and understanding.

# 9 Find your own emotional support system. 

My personal self-care outlet is wrapped up in a tiny bottle of goodness. Essential oils are my jam and I rely on various oils to support me through the ups and downs that come with special needs parenting. And there are a lot.

My main go-to’s are Lavender, Bergamot, Peppermint, Stress Away, Vetiver, and Valor. They either help chill me out before tough meetings, remain level headed during those days that are crazier than others or deal with the butterflies before a Christmas concert when you simply have no clue how your child is going to respond.

I also rely heavily on supportive family and friends. They are a huge sounding board to help sort out those challenging situations or frustrating events. To talk things through with. Coming from a long line of teachers, it’s been good to have that perspective when needed. And the support of other special needs mamas is absolutely priceless.

#10 Patience, patience, patience.

Rome wasn’t built in a year. And there is a reason we value life-long learning in our family.

As a special needs family, our plates are full. Our schedules are busy. Our patience runs thin.

The same rings true for teachers and it’s important to be respectful of that.

The demands on both sides of the classroom doors are huge. It’s so easy to let things go South quickly when we feel our children’s needs aren’t being met. We will all get much further in this journey with a little love, patience, and kindness. Even when we don’t always see eye to eye.

Honestly, the list of things I’ve learned this year could go on and on. The learning curve has been steep. But as the school year winds down, I reflect with such gratitude for such an outstanding group of professionals we have entrusted Big Brother to when he’s at school. They are worth their weight in gold.

I was often the teacher who would find themselves crying at the end of a school year because I was so proud of my students and yet, sad at the same time of having to say goodbye.

I find myself in the same predicament this year, as I’m on the other side of the classroom door. Weepy at the thought of saying goodbye to such outstanding teachers. Weepy with pride of Big Brother’s growth and achievements. And a  a lot weepy at the thought of having to start all over next year – growing pains and all.

Teaching children with down syndromeJennifer Baker is the voice behind The Brunakers. Her days include a fine balancing act of being a work at home mom of two extremely active boys, her oldest being powered by an extra chromosome. She’s currently adjusting to life on the other side of the classroom door as a former early years teacher and now, special needs parent. The Brunakers are a Canadian military family, currently calling Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada home.  Be sure to follow them on instagram @the_brunakers and check out her blog at The Brunakers.com

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