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!


Video Games and the Developmentally Disabled

Recently fellow blogger and homeschool mom Amy tweeted some interesting news: a new study suggests that kids with Down syndrome can benefit from playing the Wii even more than from occupational therapy.

Now this is just one study. Also, our son Josh has been fortunate that he hasn’t needed occupational therapy. But our experience with the Wii has been that Josh is not only very good at playing video games on the Wii and enjoys it tremendously, but that it’s been good for him in other ways, too. For instance, when he doesn’t understand written directions on the screen, he’ll write them down and show them to us so we can explain them. He sometimes keeps those directions and refers back to them. So he’s practicing his printing and reading skills.

Most importantly, the Wii levels the playing field between Josh and his siblings, and between him and other teens. He may not be able to keep up with them when playing basketball or baseball, but they’re all amazed at how often he beats them at Wii games. It’s the one area where no one cuts him any slack and yet he can win. So it does wonders for his self esteem. That alone makes it a pretty valuable tool.

I know many homeschooling parents are opposed to having video game systems in the home. I was, too. In fact, we never allowed one in our home until my sister sent my kids a system when they were teens. They played it a lot for a time but none of them became addicted to it.

Josh, on the other hand, fell in love with it early on. But it’s turned out to be a great tool for him. I think homeschooling parents should consider allowing these systems as long as they keep control of them. (They may even find they like playing them; my husband plays against Josh for a little while most evenings, and while he does it for Josh, he sure looks like he’s having fun, too!)