6 Ways to Support Children with Down Syndrome in the Montessori Classroom
The Montessori environment and materials are helpful for any child, but neurodivergent students may uniquely benefit from a learning environment that naturally addresses some of their challenges. The minimalist design that is common in a Montessori classroom not only adds visual appeal, but also encourages simplicity over stimulation, helping a child with Down syndrome feel less of the anxiety and frustration that may come from attempting to absorb too many stimuli at one time. Montessori materials isolate a single skill and are self-correcting, making it easier for children to focus and remain on task. However, despite the inherent benefits of a Montessori environment, additional support from the guide may be necessary to help neurodivergent students experience the greatest level of success.
What is Down Syndrome?
Down syndrome is a condition in which a person has an extra chromosome. Typically, children are born with 46 chromosomes; children with Down syndrome have an extra copy of one of those chromosomes, chromosome 21. This extra chromosome alters the development of the child’s body and brain, causing both mental and physical challenges. People with Down syndrome usually have an IQ in the mildly-to-moderately low range and common physical features including a flattened face, almond-shaped eyes, a short neck, and poor muscle tone.
How can down syndrome impact a child’s functioning in the classroom?
Down syndrome can affect learning abilities in different ways. The mild to moderate intellectual impairment can cause delays in speech and motor skills. Small muscle activities including handwriting will likely be affected. Most students with Down syndrome will have short term or working memory difficulties making it more challenging for them to access, understand, and process information at the speed of other children. Students with Down syndrome may also need help with care of self activities including dressing and grooming. These students may have behavior issues, may need visual and auditory accommodations, and may need extra time and assistance with class work.
6 ways to support children with Down syndrome in the classroom
- Provide opportunities for students to serve as social skills role models
Students with Down syndrome generally have good social skills. As is commonplace in a Montessori setting, using this strength to allow students to become role models for their peers in regards to socialization can provide a boost of confidence and an opportunity for them to truly shine.
- Allow self-pacing
The Montessori Method encourages following the child and allowing them to set the pace for their learning. Applying this principle gives children with Down syndrome the freedom to take the time they may need to get acclimated to a project and will eliminate the frustration that is likely to arise from the feeling of being rushed. Additionally, if they are feeling as though it is difficult to concentrate on a particular work, children with Down syndrome should be allotted the freedom to move on to another work for a period of time and come back to the first when they feel they are better able to focus. Giving students with Down syndrome enough time to process language and respond is also beneficial in ensuring they comprehend information.
- Place a strong emphasis on visual learning
In all possible situations, providing visual aids (such as demonstrations, pictures, and illustrations) can assist students with Down syndrome in understanding and processing information.
- Provide individual motivation
Although intrinsic motivation is encouraged in the Montessori environment, taking the time to foster a sense of motivation for students with Down syndrome is crucial to helping them remain engaged with their learning.
- Ensure proper supports are put in place within the prepared environment
For students with Down syndrome, providing the appropriate supports within the prepared environment will be crucial to their success in the classroom. The guide should ensure the child has a choice of work spaces with the appropriate table height and foot support to prevent muscle fatigue. Providing something for a child to lean against to ensure their back is supported will also be important when students with Down syndrome are working on the floor.
- Be warm, encouraging, and positive
Although Montessori guides should always exhibit these qualities as the prepared adult, it is imperative that these feelings are made clear to students with Down syndrome who may be feeling discouraged and frustrated. Acknowledging and validating the child’s feelings, encouraging them, and providing praise in the form of specific observations can motivate these students and allow them to reach their full potential.
About the Author
Heather White, EdS, is a Montessori in-home teacher and nanny, a Montessori educational consultant for the Andrew’s Institute, a Montessori educator for adult learners, and a volunteer moderator for the Montessori at Home 0 – 3 Facebook page. Formerly, she was a Montessori teacher, Lower Elementary coordinator, and associate head of school. She also has experience as a School Psychologist intern. She is AMS credentialed (Early Childhood, Elementary I). Contact her at email@example.com.