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!


The Exception to the Rule

In my recent posts (see left) about the book Quiet by Susan Cain, which include my thoughts on what we can do for our introverted kids, I have yet to include the exception to the rule of introversion.

Ms. Cain points out that some introverted people who love quiet and prefer not to be in the spotlight are excellent public speakers. How can this be? And how can we help our introverted children gain such a valuable skill?

Citing a much-loved professor who gives wildly popular lectures to large groups of people, Ms. Cain explains that this man is so introverted that when he’s scheduled to give multiple speeches, he spends the intervening moments off by himself so he can regroup. Sometimes this has required that he hide in a washroom stall because there’s nowhere else he can be alone.

How can a man this introverted be able to give such wonderful lectures? Ms. Cain explains that it’s extremely important to him that he share knowledge with his students. His passion for his work helps him override his natural introversion, at least when it comes to teaching.

How can we help our introverted kids learn to do this? After all, being able to speak to a group (of a few people or many) is a useful skill in this world. Even college admission or job interviews sometimes require speaking in front of several people. This might sound easy to the extrovert, but not to the introvert.

Having read this book, I would suggest that, instead of trying to bring your introverted child out of their shell by putting them into lots of group activities, make sure they have access to things that interest them and watch them bloom. Show interest whenever they tell you about something that fascinates them. Give them opportunities to share their discoveries and interests with Grandma and Grandpa when they see them. Every child is fascinated by something; extroverts just make it more obvious.

Ms. Cain’s general recommendations for helping your introverted child include:

  • Letting them be who they are instead of forcing them into an extrovert’s mold.
  • Help them strategize how to handle upcoming social interactions if they need it.
  • Give them time to absorb new situations instead of trying to force acclimation right away.

These are just a few; you’ll learn much more in Ms. Cain’s book, which I highly recommend: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

What of the Extroverted Child?

In her book Quiet, Susan Cain emphasizes that introverts function better socially with one or two people at a time. In my posts about her book, I’ve noted that I believe that homeschooling can help the introverted child.

I’m not saying that the extroverted child shouldn’t be homeschooled. But if they’re not part of a large family, they’ll need and want more social contact than an introverted child does. It’s likely that they’ll want to be involved in regular group activities, so these are the kids you’ll want to sign up for co-op classes, Awanas, etc. (unlike the introverted child, who shouldn’t be pushed into more social time than they want).

As I read this book, I realized that three of my four adult children are introverts or mostly introverted, while one tends to be more extroverted. While I never sent any of them to school, I’ve often thought that the extrovert would have excelled in school. But our convictions about the primacy of homeschooling kept us from sending that child there. Given that there are other things to consider regarding modern public education, worries and concerns that go far beyond whether a child will be “socialized,” we don’t regret keeping that child home with the others.

But I can see where parents would be wise to identify the extroverts in their families and make sure they have ample social opportunities, just as they’ll want to provide a quiet, accepting atmosphere for their introverts. Volunteer and work opportunities will be more useful and teach more valuable lessons than activities that are purely social in nature. Nevertheless, it’s important that you give your extroverts ample access to a variety of social outlets.

Next week: The Exception to the Rule


How Schools Try to Convert Introverts to Extroverts

In this series of posts on introverts, much of the information comes from a wonderful, thought-provoking book by Susan Cain called Quiet. Last time I discussed how you can tell whether your child is an introvert or an extrovert (I forgot to mention there’s a quiz in the book that gives general insight into identifying introverts), but I noted that it can be a bit harder to make that determination about adults.

That’s because many adults are what Ms. Cain calls “closet extroverts”; they’re introverts who have had to work so hard at fitting in that they appear to be extroverts. She notes that:

Introversion—along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness—is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology…Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of feel we must conform.

Much of this oppressive standard is first impressed upon us in school, where extroverted behavior is expected and rewarded. How well I remember this from my own school experience. For example, we were regularly required to read aloud in front of the class. For some kids, this was no big deal. But for many, it was torture. While it did make me nervous, I was fortunate to have been an early reader, so I usually had no problem reading aloud well enough to avoid jeers. But some of my quieter classmates really suffered, and it breaks my heart even today to think of how often they were teased, how they must have dreaded it and how regularly it occurred.

According to Ms. Cain, today’s schools are more extrovert-oriented than ever. Many have done away with desks and individual study, seating children instead at “pods”: group tables that make it easier to do group activities. But group activities are the extrovert’s métier; how much is an introvert really going to learn in an atmosphere of noise and competitive behavior?

In a similar vein, there’s a huge emphasis on competitive sports and team-building, the thought being that today’s workers need to be team players, so why not start young by teaching kids to be team players. Whether working in teams is as productive as it’s cracked up to be is beside the point; the problem is that introverts tend not to be competitive and prefer to work on their own. It hardly seems fair to use these activities to force them to become someone they’re not.

As always, I’m going to take these observations and say that homeschooling wins again. A supportive home environment promotes learning; for the introverted child, it sounds like the ideal situation.

Next week: What of the Extroverted Child?

Is Your Child an Introvert?

How can you tell if your child is an introvert? There’s no definitive test you can give your child to make that determination. Your own knowledge of how your child thinks and acts is much more helpful. But scientists have found that studying babies can offer insight into which ones will be more introverted than extroverted.

In her book Quiet, author Susan Cain refers to a study that scientists performed on a group of four-month-old babies; they later followed up on these same children throughout childhood. Using visual observations as well as measurements of heart rate, blood pressure and other physical signs, they determined that how a baby reacts to new experiences can predict whether he will lean toward introversion or extroversion:

The infants heard tape-recorded voices and balloons popping, saw colorful mobiles dance before their eyes, and inhaled the scent of alcohol on cotton swabs. They had wildly varying reactions to the new stimuli. About 20 percent cried lustily and pumped their arms and legs. Kagan called this group “high-reactive.” About 40 percent stayed quiet and placid, moving their arms or legs occasionally, but without all the dramatic limb-pumping. This group Kagan called “low-reactive.” The remaining 40 percent fell between these two extremes. In a startlingly counterintuitive hypothesis, Kagan predicted that it was the infants in the high-reactive group—the lusty arm-pumpers—who were most likely to grow into quiet teenagers.

Later studies of these same babies, now older children, found that many turned out just as predicted:

The high-reactive infants, the 20 percent who’d hollered at the mobiles bobbing above their heads, were more likely to have developed serious, careful personalities. The low-reactive infants—the quiet ones—were more likely to have become relaxed and confident types.

As Ms. Cain said, the results seemed counter-intuitive. But when you consider that introverts tend to be more sensitive, while extroverts like noise and lots of stimuli, it makes sense.

What this means for our children is that they’re wired to be where they are on the introvert-extrovert scale. Trying to change them is not only pointless, but can be harmful. Letting them be who they are and providing them with an atmosphere where they can learn, how ever they prefer to learn, is optimal.

If you take this information and look at your own children, consider that whether a child is introverted or extroverted is not always a clear-cut issue. Most people lean in one direction but may have a few characteristics from the other side.

That’s especially true of adults, by the way; I’ll explain why in the next post.

Next week: How Schools Try to Convert Introverts to Extroverts