NATHHAN National Challenged Homeschoolers Associated Network

Christian Families Homeschooling Special Needs Children

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Preschool and the Child with Down Syndrome

Editor's Note: This article is not just for families dealing with Down syndrome. It is for any parent who is considering teaching pre-school skills to their child, especially the child with developmental delays or mental retardation.


    Do you know how difficult it has been to put together my thoughts on this subject? It has been easier to prepare our tax return! At times like this I feel unqualified to suggest to you to do a certain number of things, or prepare a certain way, or read a particular book, because I am only a parent. I have a child with Down syndrome, just as you might. I have a degree in fine arts, which did not prepare me to raise or teach a child with Down syndrome. But the longer we homeschool the more amazed I am that Sarah has learned as she has, knowing that God has enabled me through His Holy Spirit, Who has been my Teacher! I can take little credit for Sarah's accomplishments. Yet....

I have discovered over the years that most children with Down syndrome do usually learn in a normal pattern, in varying degrees or near normalcy yet with definite developmental delays. Because Sarah can read does not mean we worked harder than anyone else, or that we are homeschooling. I say this because we cannot presuppose that all children will learn with the same teaching methods, learning styles, degrees of self-motivation, or have quality of health (ability to see and hear adequately, heart surgery or at-risk birth, strong muscle tone, or other medical considerations like allergies or illness.)

Whether you are seasoned homeschoolers and teaching pre-school skills to your child with Down syndrome or if you are new to homeschooling and yet have been involved with some sort of infant stimulation or early intervention, you have actually been home teaching since birth. Hopefully you already have the mind set that you are capable of teaching many more objectives than rolling over, sitting up, holding a cup, etc. Let me encourage you that you can help your child to go beyond: to walk, hold a crayon, skip, run, do puzzles, dress, color, turn pages in a book, brush teeth, alphabet, color, shape and number recognition, wash hands after toileting, speak and be understood, and almost everything else that is on a developmental list for birth through five or six years old.

Let's remember that some children learn at different times (like speaking before walking or vice verse) than others. Let's realize the assessment and developmental lists I like to suggest are just that, lists to determine if your child is attempting or actually ready for these new steps (which most children try in a particularly typical or predictable order). The skill on the list at an earlier age is typically the step a child tries before moving on to the next. Be aware that the 3-6 year list may begin for your child at four or five and end at eight or ten (or very possibly later).

So use those lists to help you SEE what to expect ---you anticipate and prepare your child to learn these typically normal skills, no matter what age the child might be. Even though the list says, for instance, that a child speaks in three word sentences at 2 years, 6 months, if your child is saying "want cookie", he is one word shy of a three word sentence! Sarah said, after her booster shot at four years old, "No can walk!" Use the list as a growth chart, a tool, not a "must do" list that will be your taskmaster.

What about how your child learns and how you approach teaching skills? Sarah's willingness to learn, that unique self-motivation she has, contributes to her success (and oh, how I try to view all the little accomplishments as success) Sarah's ability to learn is similar to the way imilar to the way I learn. We are auditory\visual \analytical\ judgmental, but definitely not kinesthetic learners (although we like to write, color, draw and paint). Hewitt Research Center sent me the Swassing - Barbe Modality List and a Developmental Concepts chart for ages 0 - 6 years. I read Walter Barbe's book GROWING UP LEARNING, and then read what Cathy Duffy writes on learning styles in her Curriculum Guides. Then I heard Cynthia Tobia on Focus On The Family and read her book, THE WAY THEY LEARN. This book is easy to read and offers practical suggestions and humorous anecdotes.

You must know something about your child's learning styles, especially if they differ from yours. Your kinesthetic child will not learn as well if you teach exclusively visually or auditorily. He needs to write the alphabet in the sand or in the air, make the letters with his body or with blocks, then on big paper with finger paints, then on progressively smaller areas on paper! He needs to consciously play with his tongue and watch you speak, even touch your lips and feel the air. Then spell words with plastic or paper letters.....In addition to these methods, your visual learner will learn if you read many alphabet books, cards, and pictures. Your auditory learner can learn with all the methods as well as with sing-a-long songs or rhythm and rhyme in poetry and dance (which is an excellent tool for kinesthetic learners.)

In her PHONICS FOR READING AND SPELLING, Bonnie Detmer talks about teaching to the four avenues to the brain: seeing, speaking, hearing, and touching. Your child will learn best by utilizing methods which develop these four senses as well as smell, but clearly will learn more thoroughly with his learning strength. If your child does not understand or begin to acquire a skill, teach to the other avenues for a time. Another excellent resource is Donald Whittle, past president of Hewitt and author of THE BRAIN, AN OWNER'S MANUAL, who teaches in depth with this book and his various tapes on the brain and learning.

What are pre-school skills? Again, you will find them on developmental lists. I have purchased fifteen copies of the PORTAGE GUIDE, which I used with Sarah, birth through six. You may have one for $2.00, postage paid; just drop me a note with payment. VORT Corporation also has checklists, birth - three and three - six, with guides to help you. POR-ED offers the CAROLINA CURRICULUM FOR TWO YEAR OLDS AND THREE YEAR OLDS.

I mentioned a few skills above; most lists are divided into cognitive, pre-academic, language, fine and gross motor, and social\self-help skills. As you concentrate on these skills, break them down into small, manageable units or activities. Be aware that all you do with your child, on a daily basis, moment by moment, is teaching, even if it is a simple task like stirring pancake batter or picking up toys. This is called "incidental teaching" and just as vital as teaching specific skills.

When you are working with language skills, speak as clearly and simply as you can, in short sentences, using concrete ideas. For instance, use action verbs with nouns like teddy bear or cat, sandwich or pickle, something you can demonstrate or give to your child. Be careful not to repeat those cute little mispronounced words. One of Sarah's was "Inja Nerdles" (which we thought was very appropriate)! We correct her errors carefully and lovingly, by repeating with the correct pronunciation or conjugation. There are a number of excellent materials and books available to you: LANGUAGE AND THINKING FOR YOUNG CHILDREN (Ruth Beechick); THE LANGUAGE OF TOYS, TEACHING COMMUNI-CATION SKILLS IN CHILDREN WITH DOWN SYNDROME (Libby Kumin); STRAIGHT TALK, A PARENTS GUIDE TO CHILDHOOD MISPRONUNCI-ATIONS (Marisa Lapish); READY, SET, GO: TALK TO ME (DeAnna Horstmeier); LOVE AND LEARNING Tapes (Joe and Susan Kotlinski).

There are other books specifically to help homeschoolers, recommended by Gregg Harris and others. June Oberlander has written SLOW AND STEADY, GET ME READY, for birth through five. Jean Soyke has written EARLY EDUCATION AT HOME: A Curriculum Guide for Parents of Pre-Schoolers and Kindergartners. Another highly recommended book is WHEN SLOW IS FAST ENOUGH, EDUCATING THE DELAYED PRESCHOOL CHILD, by Joan Goodman. This is written for parents by a professional who does not advocate early childhood for the child with special needs. It is very thorough and presents an excellent defence for not enrolling a child in early childhood special education. NATHHAN also recommends Philip McInnis' A GUIDE TO READINESS AND READING.

Pre-school education is not just pre-academic learning. I spent some time reading Montessori books and incorporating some of those ideas into my goals: how to pour without spilling, sorting marshmallows, raisins, and nuts, sweeping, making the beds, and much more. I did not use the sandpaper letters because I found little yellow plastic letters with raised arrows for tactile stimulation. Use what will work for you AND your child.

Also study the books on Down syndrome you can find (from your public library as well as Interlibrary loan), and pay particular attention to the pre-school information given. Be aware, however, that many authors expect you to be using public early childhood education. The presumption is that the professionals know best.

Do not believe that all you read will unequivocally apply to your child. There are some educators who say children with Down syndrome should learn to sight read (which was initially developed for children who are deaf) and they cannot read phonetically. A good phonics program, used slowly and carefully, should be appropriate for your child. I agree with Philip McInnis.... that if a child can hear the language and has no physical problem with his mouth or facial muscles, he should be able to read phonetically. Sarah has learned to read phonetically, and also has many sight words in her vocabulary. Again, she is an auditory \visual learner. However, in fairness to those children who cannot learn to read phonetically, a new book is available, titled TEACHING READING TO CHILDREN WITH DOWN SYNDROME, by Patricia Oelwein, a well-known and established educator of children with Down syndrome.

Your child will probably learn the typically normal skills that most children learn, but in a much longer time, with much more effort (and with that might come frustration). Please relax. It is unfair for us to think we can catch our child up with others. Many caring family members and teachers may expect this. And you will also from time to time. Concentrate on your child's character, his or her relationship with Christ, your family, and friends. Help your child learn manners and obedience. Work on social and self-help skills, prepositions (up and down, right and left, under, above, etc.) Work on pedaling the tricycle, pumping the swing, washing hands, eating with utensils and without messes.

Do not let your goals sheets or IEP force you into meeting unrealistic goals in unrealistic time frames. Take good notes as you teach and delight in the progress! If your child is unable to manage a concept or skill, take note and try again in three to six months. Remind your child of your love and commitment to him, of the goals you have for him, and pray with him as you go through the day, thanking God for his abilities and talents.

In summary, we say, "Now you must do your homework!" Learn about the way your child learns, read all you can about child development and study those assessments lists. Make realistic goals you think your child can accomplish in a given time frame based on where your child is developing according to those lists. Take advantage of the material written by homeschoolers for the pre-school child and adapt those methods and skills for your child based on how he or she learns. Thank the Lord for the privilege of homeschooling and the progress your child makes! "For we (and your children) are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we (they) should walk in them." Ephesians 2:10