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A Detailed Guide for Teaching Children with Down Syndrome

Applied behavioral analysis (ABA) is a well-known approach to improving behavior by changing environmental triggers and consequences. You can foster workplace productivity by promising a bonus. And you can help a child learn something new by offering praise and encouragement.

ABA is also the theory behind Off to a Good Start: A Behaviorally Based Model for Teaching Children with Down Syndrome, by Professors Emily A. Jones (Queens College, The Graduate Center) and Long Island University’s Kathleen Feeley. The two-volume manual is designed for use by families and caregivers as well as trained professionals. It draws on Jones’ and Feeley’s 20 years of experience working with children with Down syndrome.

The first volume explains the ABA approach, offers stories about real families whose children have Down syndrome, and provides advice on getting appropriate services from schools and other providers. The first book also describes the Down syndrome “behavioral phenotype,” meaning the characteristics associated with Down syndrome, so that families know what to expect as they teach their children new skills. For example, children with Down syndrome tend to have weak muscle tone and may resist activities like reaching for a toy. They’re also exceptionally social, and may smile or flirt with caregivers to avoid a challenging task.

The second volume provides detailed instructions on teaching everything from motor skills and communication to potty training, shoe-tying, letters, and numbers. The authors break each task down into small steps, with charts for tracking progress. Professionals who already have a background in working with children with special needs may want to jump right into the second book.

Jones says it can take some time to learn how to implement the strategies outlined in Off to a Good Start. But she urges parents and even skeptics to “try it. Just try it for one skill and see what happens. And make sure you monitor how your child’s behavior changes.”