Effective teaching starts with knowing your students. You have to know the skills they have now and the skills they can learn next in order to function with greater independence in their environments and ultimately live a good quality of life.

Assessments: Getting to Know Your Students

The assessment gives the educational team accurate information on the student in each domain so they can develop meaningful and useful goals. Obtaining “developmental ages” that compare the child to non-disabled children is not the purpose of the assessment, and it is not useful information.The last thing parents wants to hear is how much their child is lagging behind. What they want to hear is what the next emerging skills are and how they can help their child accomplish them.

  • The HELP is a well known tool that is used to assess infants and children up to five years of age in each developmental domain: self-care, social, cognitive, fine motor, gross motor, and communication. Each child’s educational team, including the parent or caregiver, participates in the assessment. The team identifies the sequential skills in each domain that the child has accomplished, and the child’s individualized education plan is developed based on this information.
  • Assessment of Applied Academic and Functional Skills, is the tool used to assess students ages 6 and up. The functional domains include self-care, social, communications, and leisure skills. Applied academics include reading, writing, spelling, math, science, religion and social studies.

To purchase either of these assessments, please contact us.

Individualized Education Plans (IEP): Planning for Student Success

The next teaching tool, the IEP, is a map that tells you where the child is (present level of performance), where you plan for him or her to go (long term objectives), and how he or she is going to get there (goals). The educational team develops an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for each student that is based on his or her assessments. IEPs contain the following information:

  1. Basic information about the student such as name, birth date, and health restrictions

  2. Summary of assessment information in each domain

  3. Long-term goals in each applicable domain

  4. Short-term objective to meet each long-term goal

  5. Record of beginning dates of implementation of objectives and date of completion

  6. Teacher reports/comments section.

For the IEP form, please contact us.

The long-term goals and short-term objectives should be SMART:

  • Specific—state exactly what the student is ‘to do’ (child will stand with both feet flat on the floor with knees relaxed supporting himself by holding on to a stable surface…)
  • Measurable—criteria for accomplishment is stated in measurable terms (…for 3 consecutive minutes two times during a 30 minute period during therapy session)
  • Achievable—assessment data and observations indicate that the student is able to achieve the objective
  • Relevant—the child has an immediate and on-going use for the skill
  • Time limited—the date instruction started and the expected date of accomplishment of objective

Setting the Stage for Learning

Classroom Arrangement

Classrooms are organized with specific areas for large group, small group, and individualized instruction. In addition, preschool and toddler classrooms have learning centers for specific activities, such as a ‘home center’ or ‘drama center,’ toys, and water/sand table. The furniture is the appropriate size for students, and each student has his or her own chair, customized so he or she sits with a 90- degree angle at the feet/leg, knees, and hip (referred to as 90/90/90 seating). The chairs are labeled with the student’s picture and name, and he or she uses it throughout the day for seated activities. When students can read their own name, the pictures are dropped.

Classroom Schedule

The classroom schedule provides physical order and predictability for the child to function in the school environment. It should be balanced between:

  • Small/large group activities and one-on-one instruction
  • Quiet and active activities
  • Structured and unstructured activities
  • High teacher involvement and low teacher involvement

An illustrated schedule is displayed at student level. It provides the child with:

  • Vocabulary for school activities
  • Sequence of activities—at any point in time, the child can see what is happening now, what has already happened, what is going to happen next, and how many more activities will happen before going home
  • Information the child needs to transition from one activity to the next independently

Classroom Rules

Rules, illustrated and labeled with written words, with matching rule cards attached with Velcro, are displayed at child level and reviewed daily.

Guidelines for rules:

  • State rules in simple, positive terms—what students are “to do” rather than what they are “not to do.”li For example, for preschool classes, use a rule like “be kind” or “be nice,” rather than “no hitting, no biting, no kicking, no pushing.” When a child does anything that is unkind, he has broken the “be kind” rule. For older students, this rule might be “respect others”
  • Customize rules for each class depending on the ability level and behaviors that need to be learned and practiced. For example, if there are students in the class who take their glasses off, add the rule “wear your glasses.” For older children, a rule may be “sit straight in your chair”

Customized Instructional Materials

We have developed instructional materials designed for specialized instruction to meet the learning needs of children with Down syndrome for each level, in both the developmental and functional/academic programs. These include:

  • Poster size schedules, attendance boards, rules, weather, and units material
  • Task analysis charts that illustrate each step in performing self-care tasks such as brushing teeth and washing hands
  • Lotto games for units of study and academic subjects
  • Adaptive journals, individualized for each level
  • Personalized reading books for each reader
  • Word bank for each reader
  • Picture cards, flash cards, and lotto games for teaching reading
  • Text books for science and social studies
  • Worksheets and games for math—money, telling time, taking data

Lesson Plans

Lesson and therapy plans are developed to meet objectives within the classroom structure and schedule. There is a master plan for activities that take place routinely during the daily schedule, a weekly plan for additions and changes that will take place each day during each activity within the master plan as new units of study are introduced and children progress, and there are individual plans for meeting IEP objectives that will be accomplished during one-on-one instruction.

Lesson plans for each classroom activity consist of the following elements:

  • Student objectives - what the students are ‘to do’
  • Materials - list of instructional materials required for each lesson
  • Procedures - what the teacher and/or other team members are ‘to do’
  • Evaluation - state if data are taken, and if so, how often, who is responsible for taking it, and the criterion for mastery

Precision Teaching: Ensuring Student Success

Students are taught with precision, following the IEP objectives. Instruction is such that all activities are planned and implemented to meet student objectives, at each stage of learning: acquisition, practice to fluency, transfer, and generalization. Progress toward meeting objectives is measured by data and direct observation. When a student is progressing, his or her program is continued. When a student is not progressing, his or her program is reevaluated along with the student’s physical and emotional health, to determine possible causes. The program is changed, and on-going data is taken to determine the effectiveness of these changes. This precise, systematic method ensures that all children progress and succeed at their own rate.

Interactive Instruction

The ability to communicate and interact with others is crucial to learning. In order to communicate, there must be at least two people, a “sender” of the message and a “responder” to the message. The interaction is back and forth - taking turns being the sender and responder - just like playing table tennis. When the teacher takes all the turns, it is like a dart game, where there are no responders and no interaction. Students become disengaged, disinterested, and distracted. Teachers can talk for 15 minutes or 15 seconds, but students are apt to remember only the last thing the teacher said, if they are still listening. Students with Down syndrome do not learn from lectures.

For whole group, small group, or one-on-one instruction, students need a way to respond and demonstrate that they have comprehended and processed the information.

Whole group

For whole group activities, each student should have the means to respond to the information as it is presented, and should also have the tangible means to remember it. An adaptive journal that has each student’s objectives for each period provides the means for the student to respond and have a “textbook” that provides the tangible means for him or her to communicate about the information. The student’s “homework” will be to take the journal home and use it as a guide to tell his or her parents what happened in school that day. Pictures, illustrations, and symbols, with words under them, are used for students who are not reading, and written words are used for readers.

For example, during morning greeting, students participate in taking the roll. Their journals, depending on the level of the student, will have a picture of each class member with their name under the picture, or just the names of the classmates. As the roll is called, students will be given time to respond by recording if each person is absent or present, as directed by the teacher (or student that is helper that day), such as circling students absent, and underlining students present, or putting an “X” by those present, and a “O” by those absent. Student can then count, as a group, the number of students present and absent, and record the number in their journal, by circling the number, or writing it in. Students can then take their journal home and relate the information to their parents. Other topics at greeting time usually include the day’s weather, dates or days of the week, the class rules, and the current unit of study.

Small group and one-on-one instruction

The teacher presents the visual stimuli (illustration, written word, object, chart, or demonstration of an action) paired with words, tells the learner what they are to do (match, select, name, point, circle with pencil, or imitate an action) and waits for the learner to process the information and respond. The teacher then provides feedback, correcting incorrect responses by showing the learner the correct response and asking him or her to try again. For correct responses, the teacher provides verbal praise paired with a visual, tangible object, such as a token or sticker. The student can keep track of his or her own data by plotting it on a chart each day.

Stages of Learning

In order for the skill or information to become a permanent part of their repertoire and be useful and meaningful, students need to progress through the stages of learning.

  • Acquisition—acquiring new information or skills, most often using match, select, and name sequence during this stage
  • Practice to fluency—student practices to become fluent and competent in the skill
  • Transfer—student transfers the skill to different activities and using different materials
  • Generalize—student spontaneously used the skill whenever and wherever the opportunity arises.

When students “forget” previously learned information, and appear to be regressing, the chances are good that he/she had not been taught the skill beyond the acquisition stage, so the skill was not learned. Students should be taught skills for which they have an immediate and on-going use for, so the environment should present opportunities for practice, transfer, and generalization of the skill.

Strength-based Programming

All programs are designed to take advantage of the relative strength in visual short-term working memory that learners with Down syndrome have. This strength is utilized at all levels, using the same methodology, and expanding the curriculums to accommodate each learner as he or she progresses through each level.

Core Sequence

The core sequence of match, select, and name is used to teach new concepts, words, or information and to practice them to fluency. This sequence provides successful practice at each step and gives learners the opportunity to process and rehearse information in their short-term working memory and therefore become proficient.

  • Matching – this is the simplest response where the student matches the object, word, symbol, number, or quantity to sample as the teacher names it. The learner must be able to match before going to the next step
  • Selecting—the learner selects the object, picture, or word on verbal cue from the teacher. The learner must be able to select before going to the next step
  • Naming—this is the most complex response where the student spontaneously says or signs the name of the object, word, symbol, or number

Task Analysis

Task analysis is used to teach self-care and functional skills. Tasks, such as washing hands, brushing teeth, getting dressed, preparing food, and using the phone, computer, iPad, copy machine, and appliances are analyzed. Based on this analysis, the sequence of skills used to perform each task is identified. Charts, that provide step-by-step illustrated and written instructions, are developed. Student learns to follow these instructions, first with direct teacher assistance, then supervision, and then independently. These tasks are taught during the natural time when they occur in the daily routine or schedule. liTask analysis is used for on-the-job training. The trainer analyzes each job the trainee is responsible for at the workplace and writes the step-by-step directions the trainee needs to follow.

Total communication

Total communication is used to exploit the learner’s strength in visual short-term memory at all levels. It starts with the verbal word paired with gestures and hand signs, and then progresses to the use of printed symbols, illustrations, demonstrations, reading, and writing (by hand and/or using a computer).

Sign language

The inability to communicate not only interferes with the child’s ability to learn beneficial skills, but the frustration of not being able to communicate leads to the use of undesirable types of communication such as tantrums, hitting, and biting.

Sign language:

  • Provides the child with a means of communication to enable him or her to communicate his or her wants and needs, interact, socialize, and demonstrate what he or she has learned
  • Is instantly available whenever and wherever the child needs to communicate
  • Illustrations, symbols, and written words are not always available, but hands are
  • Is a visual language, and it can last as long as needed for comprehension while the verbal word vanishes instantly
  • Does not interfere with speech development because when the child is able to say words, the signs are dropped.
  • Serves as a back-up repair when the child’s verbal speech is not understood
  • Helps the learner to put words together, speak in sentences, and demonstrate that he or she can read wordsli
  • It makes it possible for students who are not talking to progress in all areas


When taught to read in a carefully programed “top down” (whole word first, then phonics) rather than a “bottom up” (phonics first, then whole words) manner, children with Down syndrome can learn to read before they can speak. Reading provides a valuable tool to facilitate learning language and speech, and it sets the foundation for all other learning. Teaching children to read and to learn new, useful, information is the key to their success.

Reading is a valuable tool to facilitate learning language and speech:

  • It gives children a visual language—the word becomes tangible and can last as long as it takes for the child to comprehend it
  • The printed word becomes a prompt for speech
  • When children learn letter sounds, they can see the sounds in the word—sounds they had not heard—and this helps with articulation
  • They learn to put words together to form new meanings
  • It gives them practice speaking in sentences
  • They can practice putting flash cards together to form their own sentences and read them
  • They learn “filler words” used in sentences that they never heard before
  • They can read scripts to facilitate social and conversational skills
  • When their communicating partner is having difficulty understanding a word, they can tell what the word “starts with” or spell it


Writing comes later than reading due to delays in fine motor and eye-hand coordination in most children. However, with today’s readily available technology, children can start using a computer as soon as they learn the alphabet. With words from their word bank, they can compose messages in pocket boards, take them to the computer, type them in, print them, or send them by email.

The book, Teaching Reading to Children with Down Syndrome: A Guide for Parents and Teachers, is available in Arabic from Saut.


  1. Oelwein, P.L. (1988). Behavioral management: Guidelines for parents and teachers. In V. Dmitriev & P. Oelwein, Advances in Down syndrome. Seattle: Special Child Publications.
  2. Patterson, B. (2002). Behavioral concerns in persons with Down syndrome. In W.I. Cohen, L. Nadel, & M. E. Madnick, (Eds.), Down syndrome: Visions for the 21st century. New York: Wiley-Liss, Inc.
  3. Reese, E.P. (1966). The analysis of human operant behavior. Wm. C. Brown Company.
  4. Sandall, S.R. & Schwartz, I.S. (2008). Building blocks for teaching preschoolers with special needs, 2nd edition. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.