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gillian marchenko

Author and Speaker


10 things teachers should know about Down syndrome


about Down syndrome

10 things teachers should know about Down syndrome

It’s that time of year again. Backpacks are bought. New tennis shoes are donned. Back to school. It’s also time to educate our teachers on what they should know about Down syndrome.

I have two girls with Down syndrome. Polly is going into 2nd grade, fully included with an aid, and Evangeline is going into 1st grade in a special education school.

When a parent asks me how to find a good school for their child with Down syndrome, after having been down the education road now for five years, my answer is this:

It depends on the TEACHER.

It all comes down to the teacher in the classroom. Teachers can make or break the experience for the child, for the family, for the classroom, and for the whole school, especially when it comes to children with Down syndrome.

So here’s my list of 10 things teachers should know about Down syndrome:

1. Know the definition of Down syndrome.

Here’s a technical definition for adults: Down syndrome is a genetic condition. There are *three* types of Down syndrome: trisomy 21 (nondisjunction) accounts for 95% of cases (what my daughters have), translocation accounts for about 4% and mosaicism accounts for about 1%.

People with Trisomy 21 have 47 Chromosomes instead of 46 in each cell. This is because of an error in cell division called nondisjunction. At some point, a pair of 21st chromosomes in either the sperm or the egg fails to separate. As the embryo develops, an extra chromosome is copied in every cell of the body. (Read on to find out how to explain Down syndrome to kids …)

2. Use people first language.

People first language is simply putting the person before the disability in speech. Don’t say the Down syndrome girl. Use the child’s name, and if needed in the conversation, add that she has Down syndrome. (e.i. Polly, who happens to have Down syndrome.) Also, the correct term is Down syndrome. Not Down’s syndrome. A child does not have Downs. Terminology is important, and often mistaken.

3. Pay attention to how you treat the child.

Remember, you set the tone. Please treat your student with Down syndrome like the other kids in class. I’ve been in classrooms where the child with Down syndrome is babied, or considered the class project. Don’t give special treatment, and don’t ignore him or her because it is easier. Your other students are watching, and they will act like you.

4. Explain Down syndrome to your students, and to the school.

In an inclusive setting, teachers should talk to their class and explain Down syndrome. At the beginning of each school year, I visit Polly’s class to discuss Down syndrome. Invite the parent to come help! Here’s a post that will tell you exactly how to teach kids about Down syndrome.

5. Find out about health and safety concerns.

An added chromosome can bring about health and safety concerns. Be sure to review your student’s medical records. Find out if she has any constraints for recess or gym, and check with the parents about safety issues.

6. Identify how the child learns.

First and foremost, children with Down syndrome LEARN! But all children learn differently. Your job is to figure out how your student learns, and then work with other professionals in your school to modify the classwork to give him every chance to succeed.

My kids are visual learners, and it is difficult for them to stay on task. So their teachers break things down to small, step by step assignments, and reinforce with visual and tactile cues. Not sure how/what to do? RESEARCH. Ask the parents. Check with special education teachers.

7. Partner with the child’s parents.

No one knows your student better than her parents. Network and communicate with them often. Don’t wait for an IEP meeting that happens twice a year. I have a communication journal that I send back and forth with my kids’ teachers daily.

8. Read your student’s IEP often.

I seriously think that some teachers just skim students’ IEPs once and assume the school therapists will help the student achieve her goals. My recommendation? Read the IEP often. Look for ways to incorporate your student’s goals in the everyday life of the class.

9. Don’t assume your student can’t do something.

Always start with the idea that he or she can do anything other students do. Just realize you may have to break the task down or teach it in a different way. Model the task for your student, or maybe pair him up with a buddy who can help. Peer interaction will be a huge motivator for a child with Down syndrome.

10.  Realize that you play a big role in your student’s success!

Create a wonderful environment for your student. Use his gifts and talents and interests to motivate him in his work and give lots of positive feedback and encouragement. What a privilege it is to play such a vital role in your student’s life.


CLICK HERE: 10 things teachers should know about Down syndrome  AND DOWNLOAD THE PDF. You have permission to print it out and give it to the teachers in your life. I ask that you link back to me, or email me for permission to reprint for larger groups at 

Parents, do you agree with my list? What would you add? Teachers, any other suggestions? Have a great year everyone!

Did you like this? Share it:
  1. I love this and thank you for it. I posted it to my fb. I’m new to this new technology and still learning how to use my phone. I do not know how to link something back to you or bookmark…yet!!! However, I would like to share this. Can I recieve your permission via this reply?? Thank you, again. This is very enlightening, and I would liketo refer to it when dealing with schools and teachers.

  2. Donna Rogers says:

    Dear Gillian,

    I received your list for teachers from Sensory Swim. I absolutely love it! My son,
    is 6years old and transitioning next year to kindergarten. Oh yeah, he happens to have Down Syndrome. I have had him in preschool since age 2. He has learned rather quickly that if he doesn’t like the way a teacher approaches a lesson or treats him, he will simply not comply. When he feels like the teacher cares, he will learn quickly and insist on doing the task all day long. He also had an experience where a teacher made it clear to the class that my son rarely followed directions and this
    annoyed her. The class then followed suit. After running into a few of the kids out shopping with my son. He would say “HI” and they would look at him like “bad boy.”
    Well we moved on to a much better teacher. He did very well and for the first time went to school without a struggle. And the search for these amazing human beings we call teachers, that HAVE the patience, care and desire to have our kids learn effectively and break down barriers when they don’t, continues…..We are in the process of the kindergarten IEP right now. I will be asking for permission to pass on your list. I also plan to address my son’s class and answer any questions the kids/teacher may have. Thank you for this great list. It is so well written and right on!
    see to it that our kids learn

  3. Ann Holmes says:

    Thanks, Gillian! I’m sending this link to my daughter-in-law to send to school with our granddaughter. The name designation is so often incorrect even by people who should know – Down syndrome. Thanks for making that clear – bugs me!

  4. grace says:

    great list…and yes, the teacher makes all the difference. amazing how our kids take non verbal clues, and understand the ‘insides’ of those around us… my son made it quite clear that he had a lot of friends at school, and some buddies! 🙂 loved that he could discern the two. he also knew which teachers were ‘safe’ for him! i hope and pray that this list will help many…. <3

  5. B Stone says:

    Your message proves how NORMAL children with Down Syndrome are. all of your advise would work wonders for every child in any teacher’s classroom. Thank you. BTW I always thought it was Down’s . Now I know!!!
    Keep advocating for your girls.

  6. Melissa R. says:

    What a great list! So many helpful reminders! As a teacher of students who have Down Syndrome, I applaud your list, and agree so much depends on the teacher! So, it is up to us to do all we can for these kiddos- just as we would for ALL kiddos!

  7. RUTH says:

    Nice article! As a sister with a sister with Down Syndrome who functioned very high (6th grade level), we were so pleased schools expected the best of her. (Small town – god bless them). My parents also expected the best of her and didn’t let her ride on her disability. She died when she was 51, but lived a fabulous life. My only disappointment – group homes in her last years where they “did” too much for her and she started losing her skills. Eventually she lost them all to Alzheimers, but early on, I’m like WHAT? She can make her own bed, etc. And BTW, I’m a DD Social Worker, so I con’t talk about this lightly 🙂

  8. Tara says:

    Well done but one point. It depends here you are. In the uk we refer to Downs Syndrome. Like Edwards syndrome and many others. We are aware that Robert Langodon down did not have and does not own it. This happens in many medical discoveries but its is only downs syndrome that it has become a ‘thing. It was he who ‘owns’ the work he did to identify it. In that way the s is kept in differential respect. It is only the US that has decided to change it.

  9. valueall says:

    .oh my gosh-that was truly awful!!! “children with DS CAN learn”??? What-the? Of course they can-that’s a given for goodness sakes (sorry but this has really pushed my buttons). Please-after 12 years of school with my child with DS the biggest, THE most important thing I can advise is “NO DRAMA!~” A lot of people in services, including education, love drama …making a fuss about having a child with DS in the classroom and explaining to the other kids about the “special kid in the class” is exactly a good example of that-its creating drama. Just be ORDINARY! My boy just went to school like his siblings and the kids just accepted him-loved him (and many went on to get holiday jobs in the disability sector…..his peers were lovely kind kids in the main and they LEARNED a lot of this from my son-he TAUGHT them…they owe him for his teaching them all about love & acceptance-he is very non-judgmental and they could see that. He also has an extremely high EQ-Emotional Intelligence-which he showed to other kids…….) I did supply teachers with info from the practical, no nonsense, no drama DownsEd UK centre for ideas on communication-he learned to read and write via normal teaching and as for IEPS!! Waste of time (and jolly nuisance having to sort out child care so you can attend. Also they are soooo depressing as they are usually deficit-model based and you hear a litany of all the things they can’t do or how bad their behaviour is-no other parent has to listen to that. Also never have notebooks-they end up the same-need a good stiff whisky to steel yourself to read the daily negative, dramatic entries). Just do goals like you do for other students and have tele-conferences with “allied staff” …… I can say that primary school was fab cos the head teacher had an intellectually disabled sister and was into no nonsense/no drama education for kids with DS…..was all down hill after that and I can most definitely say that the best day of his education post primary school was his last day! Its also really sad to think that he has taught himself more via You Tube then his last 6 years at school. Just my experince

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I understand why the term “can learn” is bothersome, but for many people, unfortunately, it is still a message people need to hear.

      I love how you approach school for your little guy! You sound like a great mom!

    • Sue Adelman says:

      Sadly, our primary school was also a much better experience. For high school Dev is in a “special ed” room, but working hard on core curriculum with an amazing teacher.
      Most programs are based on the negative, and if you succeed–make your goals–rather than continuing doing what works, they take away those supports…so you fail and have to re-instate what worked… such a waste of time/energy.
      So, we work quietly with the teacher/assistants. We hope to change the system for everyone, but have to start one student at a time.
      So glad your son is doing well teaching himself (a true learner)

  10. Sue Adelman says:

    Thanks Gillian, having links to letters that parents can print out is a great feature! Our daughter is almost 17 and going to be a junior in high school. She was fully included through the middle school with some pull out time. We fully believe this was the best choice for her and her classmates. Inclusion works both ways when it works well.
    As you said the teacher makes all the difference.
    So many wonderful things still await us and you!

  11. Barbara Darracott says:

    This is one of the most enlightening, informative arrticles I have encountered about children with Down Syndrome. Everything you wrote is correct. Teahcers, in general, know the definitions for educationally challenged students; unfortunately, they frequently don’t understand the wholistic components that support the students nor do they take the time to determine what those components may be.
    Actually, this scenario is applicable to all special needs students! Each child is a gift from God to teach us how to love and cherish…sometimes this requires us to love, cherish and advocate more. It is clear that your girls have a warrior as a mother! May you each continue to be blessed and he held in the palm of His hand.

  12. Deann says:

    As a teacher in the middle grades this is a reminder of not only how students with DS should be treated, but how EVERY student should be treated!

  13. […] something simple you can give to your child’s teacher about Down syndrome. Here is my 10 things teachers should know about Down syndrome post (with a free […]

  14. Uma Ramakrishnan says:

    Is academic alone enough for a kid with disability. There r so many other things to teach.My daughter assist me while cutting vegetables. She uses the vegetable cutter to cut the vegetables. She helps in kneading the dough. She keeps her toys her books neatly. Congratulate your child and appreciate even the smallest of her efforts. Some kids with down syndrome come to me for help. My daughter who is also a DS child gets those flash cards and teaches to them.. A teacher should identify the best skills in a child and should up bring the kid with that skill. Parent should give the utmost affection to a child and then and there should appreciate the kids in all aspects.

  15. jay wein says:

    Great list. I am a parent of a child with Ds and was a teacher of a child with Ds last year. I think that this list puts it pretty simply and provided me with things I did naturally last year and some things I didn’t do so well (like read IEPs as often as prescribed here). What I want to say about the post is that it makes it sound easy to do all of these things when in reality… there is a lot of time that needs to be invested into all of the students that isn’t always available. Again, I appreciate the list as a goal to reach. However, I think it’s important for parents to take note of the reality that teachers face (multiple students on IEPs, lack of preparation time at some schools, etc.) and to not expect the world of them. Putting a student with special needs’ success in a classroom solely on the general ed teacher is unfair… administration, para-professionals, special education departments, and most importantly parents all have to work together. I agree that a general education classroom teacher can make-or-break any child’s success but I guess I’m just reticent to put the “blame” on any specific person when the student is struggling or give credit when things are going well. A general ed teacher could be totally horrible and a student could have an amazing para-professional working with them and could do fabulously or vice versa. Not that these scenarios are ideal but I guarantee that they happen. Thanks for sharing your ideas!

  16. Amy Seenaraine says:

    I as well am a mom of a child with DS, and a primary teacher. I agree with the previous comment. I try to be accommodating as much as possible but it does get tricky with the many different needs represented in the classroom. It definitely takes a community to raise a child. I will continue to try my best. Thanks for your ideas!

    • Hi Amy, I completely agree with you: it takes a community to raise a child. We’ve been working on the Latch-On literacy program for over 15 years. Students and their parents absolutely love it! We have created communities of practice in Australia (over 10 years teaching the post-secondary school program), Canada and Ireland. We train teachers to teach the program because the goal is to make sure those vital literacy skills are strong and last for a very long time 🙂 feel free to drop by our website or to say hello on our twitter page (@latchonprogram). We are trying to spread the work about post-secondary school education for young adults with DS because we are looking for new partners worldwide 🙂 – Alex

  17. Teachers make or break the experience for the child, family, classroom, and school, especially when it comes to children with Down syndrome.

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