Strategies for supporting learning in Down Syndrome

Working Memory Profile of individuals with DS

Case Study 1

David is a ten-year-old boy who is diagnosed with Down syndrome. David’s class is learning about different species in different environments.  His teacher has asked him to identify an animal that lives in a cold climate.  David is able to point to the correct answer, however when his teacher asks him to respond verbally he is not able to formulate the correct response.

            A fun and exciting time in class for David is story time.  The students are required to re-tell stories they have read to their classmates.  David has a good understanding and comprehension of the stories he has read as shown in his writing.  Frustrations arise when he is asked to repeat and verbalize those same stories.  Although he has not forgotten the content his inability to verbalize effectively causes him distress.   

Though he tries hard to keep up with his class, he often fails to complete the instructions that the teacher gives them. David shows his good results when his teacher repeats the instructions slowly and gives him extra time to complete the tasks.

The working memory profile of a child with DS can be very varied, but research has established some patterns that can guide the way we teach and support their learning. One common pattern is a verbal working memory deficit – children with DS experience greater difficulty in remembering verbal information. Do they have difficulty in encoding information (getting information in) or with recalling information (getting information out)? One view is that it is linked to how they encode information. David’s struggle in carrying out the teacher’s instructions may be linked to his difficulty in encoding the information when he first heard it.

Children with DS can also experience difficulty in recalling information. Their errors are unique in that they don’t usually forget words when they are talking, however they incorrectly repeat words. This is evidenced in David’s response during story time – while children with general learning difficulties would have forgotten the story, David would kept repeating words when retelling the story. What are the implications of this in the classroom? Verbal memory is an important skill that we use to learn new words, as well as the complexity of language and conversation. Deficits in this area are linked to poor language acquisition and communication.

 Sometimes recall deficits stem from speech rate – slower speech rate is linked with worse verbal memory. The longer it takes a child with learning difficulties to repeat or rehearse some information, the more likely they are to forget it. However, children with DS have normal speech rate – research has established that it is not typically slower than their peers.

Where does their difficulty lie then? It may be in how they are asked to recall information – when they can point to an answer their perform much better than when they have to provide a verbal response. Consider David when he was learning about animals in cold climates – he was able to answer accurately when he could avoid using language and could point instead.

Full article is published in: Special Children Magazine: Issue 230 May - Jun 2016

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