Engaging Your Child with Down Syndrome

I have an email from Catherine, who writes:

Hi Barbara I came across your blog today so glad I did
I am homeschooling my son aged 10yrs who also had Down syndrome he pretty much refuses to engage and am looking for any advice thanks

I’ll answer this publicly, for the sake of parents who may find this post in the future.

Catherine, when you say your son “refuses to engage,” I’m assuming you mean he’s not interested in sitting and learning with you.

Of course, there’s a wide variety of abilities and behaviors among 10-year-olds with Down syndrome, so it’s hard to know exactly what your son is like, but I do recall that Josh, my son with Ds, was not very interested in many of the things I did with him during our years of homeschooling, even though I tried so many different things in an effort to pique his interest and get him involved in learning.

Perhaps our greatest successes were spurred on once I discovered how competitive he was. I learned this by accident. A relative gave us a gaming system, something I’d successfully kept out of our house while raising our three older children. Once this thing was in the house, it quickly became the favorite new toy of all the kids and my husband as well, and the next thing I knew, they were teaching Josh to play on it. He became very good at it; in fact, his love of video games continues to this day.

But what that showed me was that I could reach him through games. I bought some “Concentration” type memory games, and we began playing those at the end of each day after he had successfully completed his schoolwork. This gave him an incentive to get his other work done. His goal, of course, was to beat me. Given the state of my memory after raising four children, that wasn’t hard most of the time. His love of winning fed his desire to play the games.

I also used flash cards as games. I’d hold up a card, and if he got the problem or question right, he kept the card. If he got it wrong, I kept the card. Whoever ended up with the most cards, won. He just loved doing flash cards once we scored in this way. Again, his desire to win kept him engaged.

Another technique that worked for us was using his interests to make lessons easier for him. For instance, he loved doing jigsaw puzzles. Since he needed to practice his speech sounds each day, I had spent years trying to get him to repeat these sounds back to me. But once I began rewarding each successful speech sound with a puzzle piece, practicing his speech sounds became so much easier. He quickly worked through the list, amassing pieces that he could then assemble when we were through. It was amazing how much better that method worked than all my previous years of verbally coaxing him.

Ultimately, I just had to keep trying until I found things that worked with Josh. For instance, I tried for years, from the time he was tiny, to teach him the alphabet. I used every method I could think of, and more that I found in books. But after he got an “Arthur” software game for his birthday, he learned his alphabet quickly, because one of the screens on that game showed Arthur in his room with the alphabet arranged around the top of the walls. All Josh had to do was click on a letter and he would hear the name of the letter in Arthur’s voice. I couldn’t believe how quickly he picked up all the letters once he got that game. Clearly that was the way to reach him when it came to learning the alphabet. Who knew?

The bottom line, Catherine, is that you must keep trying until you find something that works. This will always be true with your son. Even now, there are times when Josh challenges us in various ways and we need to keep trying until we come up with a solution that works for him and us. This is just life with our son, so we’ve gotten used to it. You will, too.

Best wishes on your homeschooling journey, Catherine!


Don’t Be Afraid of Down Syndrome

IMG_20151229_093235So when you first give birth to a baby with Down syndrome, and it’s a shock because you didn’t know about his spare chromosome ahead of time, all sorts of crazy thoughts and fears go through your head. All you can think of are the things he won’t be able to do.

But over the years, he’ll show you that there are all kinds of things he CAN do, including trying out Dad’s new snowblower for the first time and doing a great job with it. In fact, he will regularly impress you as long as you give him opportunities to do so from the time he is tiny.

If I’d known at his birth what I know now, his diagnosis of Down syndrome wouldn’t have been nearly so scary!

Blast from the Past: Woodworking with Dad


Now that our son is not a little boy anymore, we’ve been getting him involved in useful projects that require him to work with his hands.

A few weeks before Christmas, my husband asked dsds15 if he’d like to make his gifts for family members in the workshop. Of course, he got a big yes, because what boy doesn’t like working with his dad?


The project my husband chose was a pencil holder (link includes plans) made of pine, a soft and pretty wood that’s easy to work with, which is especially important if you’re new to woodworking. The two of them spent several afternoons working on six pencil boxes, which turned out very well. The recipients were quite pleased, and our son was so proud!

In difficult economic times, working with your hands is quite the skill to have, making a person more self-sufficient as well as more useful on the job. I think we homeschoolers need to make sure our kids can work with their hands so they’re prepared for whatever our economic future holds.

(Originally posted 1/13/09. Our son is now in his 20s and still enjoys working with his dad in the shop. They even built a desk for his room together.)

One Busy Guy

When I write about homeschooling and mention that all my children have pursued their own interests, I do mean ALL of them, even my youngest, who has Down syndrome.

I remember the social worker who told me, shortly after his birth, that he would watch his older siblings do things, but because of his innate lack of curiosity he wouldn’t do much himself. In fact, she actually said he would “watch the world go by.” As an involved parent with several years of childrearing under her belt, I found that very depressing.

Fortunately, it turned out to be wrong. In fact, by the time he was two or three, the family joke was that we were going to take him back to her office and let him loose so he could take the place apart as he did our house. Maybe then she would stop depressing other parents with her outlook.

The fact is that our son has plenty of curiosity. He expressed it physically far earlier than verbally. He was still pretty young when he began climbing into the refrigerator and the oven. He often narrowly avoided catastrophe when attempting to surf down the stairs or taste electrical cords. I once caught him trying to nuke his brother’s watch in the microwave. He was nothing if not intrepid.

These days he’s a young man. We’re no longer “doing school” as we did for so many years, but he manages to keep busy and most importantly, he pursues his interests. His days often begin with singing; this morning he burst into song along with Joseph in one of his favorite movies, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” He sings with all the fervor (if not the enunciation) of a Broadway star. It’s a pleasure to hear him.

He also has his own ideas about getting exercise. While I coax him on occasional walks, and his dad takes him bowling every week, he loves to take time out from his day to dance along with the “High School Musical” gang. I think he must know all the dance numbers by heart now, and he works up a sweat trying to imitate the dancers perfectly. Most of the time he does this with his door shut, but occasionally he requires an audience and whoever happens to be at home obliges. It’s always a good time.

He also likes to work out, and will occasionally take over the hallway to see if he can top his record of push-ups or sit-ups. He has a favorite barbell he uses to work on his biceps, which he flexes for anyone who asks (or even if they don’t).

He has other interests, including his latest, using Skype with his big brother and infant nephew. Last week he tried Skyping with his best friend, who also has Down syndrome. Those guys had a great time.

He’s so busy pursuing his interests that he often doesn’t want to stop in order to go with me to the grocery (where he mans the cart and does the scanning) or on other errands. He usually lets me know I’m interrupting his day before giving in and coming with me. But as soon as we get home, he goes back to what he was doing before I dragged him away from it.

Other people don’t understand this. They ask me why he isn’t in a sheltered workshop or bagging groceries somewhere. Seriously, I don’t think he has the time!


My Son’s Impossible Dreams

My son and I have a daily routine of eating breakfast together while I also try to read my Bible and a chapter of a Christian book.

I use the word try because while I’m trying to read, Josh is trying not to interrupt me. He has access to me all day long, so it’s good for him to learn not to interrupt. He just hasn’t learned it yet.

This morning he was discussing his desire to buy a black car, in which he will drive to the next state to see our old neighbors, his best friends from childhood. After a little while, he segued into his plans to get married and have a baby boy and baby girl. (We’ve heard this lecture more frequently since his first nephew was born last fall.)

We listen to him talk about his plans all the time. Without the right mindset it can be quite depressing, because he’s not ever going to be able to buy a car (most people with Down syndrome can’t drive, and he’s not able to hold down the kind of job, i.e. most jobs, that would allow him to save up for a car anyway). As for becoming a parent, even if he had the maturity to be a parent, which he doesn’t, he’ll never have the ability because men with Ds are sterile.

And yes, these facts have depressed me in the past and occasionally still do. The irony of this morning is that the book I’ve been reading after my daily devotions is Heaven by Randy Alcorn, and check out what was in today’s chapter:

Joni Eareckson Tada writes from her wheelchair, “I haven’t been cheated out of being a complete person—I’m just going through a forty-year delay, and God is with me even through that. Being ‘glorified’—I know the meaning of that now. It’s the time, after my death here, when I’ll be on my feet dancing.”….God is big enough not only to fulfill your dreams but also to expand them as you anticipate Heaven. When you experience disappointment and loss as you faithfully serve God here, remember: the loss is temporary. The gains will be eternal. Every day on the new Earth will be a new opportunity to live out the dreams that matter most.

I believe in God, not coincidences, so I know this specific passage turning up in my reading while my son was expounding on his future (impossible) plans is God reminding me that while there are many things my son will not be able to do on this earth, he will not be hampered by his disability in the next life.

I find this very comforting, and I hope other parents of kids with developmental disabilities find it comforting, too. But it also applies to parents of kids who don’t achieve their dreams: parents of the lovely young woman who dreams of the satisfaction of marriage and children but never finds a good man to share that dream with, or parents of bright young people with promising futures who suffer brain injuries in accidents and are left seemingly a shadow of their former selves.

It’s so easy to get caught up in an earthly perspective that makes you view everything in terms of now, but the book Heaven is reminding me that my perspective’s timeline is much longer than merely “now.” Great book, by the way; many thanks to my husband for recommending it to me.