If you’re struggling to teach a special needs child, I want you to hear Sarah and Bella’s story.
Sarah is the mother of 9-year-old Bella, a fourth-grader with Down syndrome. Sarah found that Bella “didn’t understand math because no one at school really sits down to help her.”
She knew Bella needed some extra help, but she wasn’t finding much success.
“[I tried] a tutor and workbooks, but I couldn’t keep a tutor.” On top of that, Sarah also had feelings of teaching inadequacy. “I didn’t have the time or patience that Bella needed from me.”
It takes courage for parents like Sarah to recognize their limitations. If your situation sounds like Sarah’s, I hope these insights can help you feel less alone.
“Between 2018 and 2019, there were 7.1 million students (ages 3-21) who received special education services,” according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
That’s 14 percent of all public school students.
“Among students receiving special education services, 33 percent had specific learning disabilities.” The same data show six percent had an “intellectual disability,” a category in which Down syndrome falls.
“About 95 percent” of special education students “were enrolled in regular schools. Less than 1 percent were homeschooled.”
But now, in light of COVID-19 restrictions, most parents are attempting some version of homeschooling.
If your child was one of the 95 percent who attended in-person schools before COVID hit, then you are likely trying to handle their special needs in a full-time teaching capacity for the first time.
That’s the predicament Sarah found herself in.
When it comes to understanding Down syndrome learners, there are still conflicting studies and uncharted topics that leave scientists continuing to search for definitive answers.
There’s yet to be consensus on why children with Down syndrome struggle with math.
A 2007 article published by the International Journal of Special Education cited a study that “children with Down syndrome’s difficulty in acquiring number strings may be due to deficit in their expressive language, deficit in their auditory short-term memory, and difficulty in using rehearsal strategy and the limitation in their short-term memory span.”
To summarize that hypothesis, it means that Down syndrome learners may experience difficulty in counting because of a deficit in language and memory (we’ll discuss this further).
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t effective tools out there to teach math.
In fact, many researchers agree that visual learning tools are an important part — if not critical — in teaching Down syndrome children.
Remember that reference to language and memory in Down syndrome students?
Marla Folden, a speech-language pathologist at the Down Syndrome Resource Foundation, describes the strengths and weaknesses of Down syndrome students in her video presentation.
She also breaks down why and how visuals work in teaching students with Down syndrome. Her key points are summarized below.
Hearing loss is common in Down syndrome students, which makes auditory information processing harder.
Their speech may be delayed because it requires a degree of coordination and accuracy with the mouth. But, their hand coordination and accuracy is typically better.
Based on their brain functionality, Down syndrome students also need more repetition in their learning process.
This leaves their vision as a key asset in their learning.
Vision issues are more easily corrected with glasses. That makes visual information processing easier and thus one of the strengths of a Down syndrome student.
In light of these facts, visual teaching tools are effective for Down syndrome students because they:
A 2015 New York Times story written by a mom teaching her son with Down syndrome illuminates many of these points.
Here’s just one lesson she learned:
“I learned our son needed more time to respond. I was so quick to jump into his silence I didn’t realize he simply needed time to answer. Once I figured that out I would count in my head 20 seconds, 30 seconds and sometimes 40 seconds. He would come to the correct answer. That time was not dead space but processing time.”
Bella was also likely missing that extra processing time in her traditional classroom. Her workbooks weren’t letting her use her hands to problem-solve. And if the tutor was repeating themselves a lot, that likely led Bella to some feelings of stress and anxiety.
But Elephant Learning changed Bella’s feelings toward math.
Elephant Learning is a math games app that makes students manipulate attractive and familiar animations to solve problems. Age-appropriate objects and animals found in daily life are incorporated to keep kids interested.
Sarah could tell immediately that Elephant Learning was engaging Bella. “She likes the icons the best, especially the little turtle.”
Elephant Learning gave Bella the visual tools she needed to process the game’s information, repeatedly look at the game’s features with plenty of time, and use her hands to manipulate the game’s images.
And, she could use Elephant Learning consistently throughout her week no matter where she was (in bed, at the kitchen table, etc.).
Sarah could immediately see the impact Elephant Learning was having on Bella.
“I help explain what she needs to do, but when she catches on, you cannot believe the smiles.”
Boosting a child’s confidence with math is important. For Bella, it’s even more powerful.
That’s because children with Down syndrome often avoid new learning situations out of a fear of failure. That fear isn’t unique to Down syndrome students, but it does hold a powerful sway on them.
A 2001 study by Jennifer Wishart discusses that fear of failure, and stresses that “we should give children with Down syndrome suitable reinforcement and appropriate support without making the child dependent on others.”
Elephant Learning addresses those fears through positive reinforcement.
First, it assesses your child’s existing math skills through some basic games.
Since these are games, there aren’t obvious cues that a child has gotten something wrong.
The Elephant Learning app stores that data about your child and uses it to structure the gameplay.
It presents them with games they can easily play and introduces more challenging content over an extended period of time.
This approach keeps kids from seeing their failures and simply encourages them to keep playing. Removing that fear-of-failure barrier keeps them motivated.
“Motivation plays a key role in the learning and development of these children, especially when they acquire new skills,” adds Wishart.
Bella has found substantial motivation to learn new skills through the Elephant Learning app.
She plays for 20 minutes a day, five days a week.
When she began playing on the app, her math abilities were equivalent to a five-year-old’s. After six months, she’s learned almost three years’ worth of math — with signs of continual improvement.
For Sarah, “it makes it a little easier to get her to do math,” too.
Making life with a nine-year-old easier is always a happy feat!