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Accessing the curriculum - Strategies for differentiation for pupils with Down syndrome


Teaching styles and classroom management

Good classroom management strategies are essential for those working with any pupil with individual educational needs who wish to achieve effective differentiation.

Different teaching approaches and pupil learning styles both need to be considered. Teachers will need to look at their classroom practice and the whole learning environment of the class, so that activities, materials and pupil groupings are all taken in account. For example, ability is less important than how pupils learn most effectively. Differentiation must not be restricted according to ability, which can often result in less attention being paid to teaching and individual learning styles.

Pupils with special educational needs are often the ones who are the most vulnerable to mismatched learning situations making them more susceptible to failure and avoidance behaviours.

Some pupils with Down syndrome may find some classroom practices difficult to cope with for long periods of time, for example, whole class teaching, learning through listening, and follow up work based on the completion of unmodified text activities or worksheets.

Many teachers will be familiar with modifications such as providing visual reinforcement, using simplified worksheets or giving exercises involving 'cloze' methods. However, it is important not to become restricted by such techniques: fitting pupils with special educational needs into one main mode of classroom delivery is narrowing. In particular, differentiation borders on discrimination where pupils are constantly withdrawn from mainstream activities physically or follow completely different subject matter. In addition, working in one way, with few other opportunities to work in different types of settings will not meet all the needs of pupils or develop the flexibility to interact with a range of different people and in a range of situations.

Individual teaching

At certain times, children may benefit from a short intense one to one session with an adult. In addition, short focused sessions of well managed individual teaching, can enable the pupil to develop skills in order for them to be included more fully into group and whole class situations later.

Advantages and disadvantages of short sessions of individual teaching


  • Can be good for the introduction of new skills
  • Can be valuable for the teacher to assess the point at which to begin teaching a particular skill or concept
  • Can be valuable to decide on an effective match between the teaching and learning ability of that pupil
  • Useful for establishing what the child can achieve independently, without help, and then what the child can achieve when given help
  • The pace of the learning can vary to suit the child
  • Can be of particular benefit for learning to transfer a familiar skill to another situation


  • Withdrawal and too much one to one teaching promote social exclusion
  • It segregates pupils from their peers and highlights differences
  • It can create over-dependency on an adult
  • A tendency for this approach to be relied on more and more to the exclusion of other approaches
  • It does not enable pupils to learn from peers
  • Individual sessions cut down the amount of time a pupil can engage in social and co-operative learning
  • Pupils may miss out on class teacher intervention, as much of the one to one teaching is achieved through a learning support assistant

Pairs and partners

Working in pairs can provide the initial steps towards working in a group. This is especially so for younger pupils who have not yet practised this skill.

How pairs are organised will depend on the nature of the task and the needs and abilities of the pupils. Some pupils with Down syndrome within the pair may need to be supported by a support assistant initially. If this is not the case, care must be taken that the more able pupil does not dominate the situation and the activity is planned in such a way that both pupils are able to contribute.

Peer tutoring can avoid this over dominance on the part of one pupil if careful training of the peer tutor is given. Peer tutoring can be between different ability and different aged pupils.

The pupil with Down syndrome can be the tutor as well as the tutee. Pupils with Down syndrome can have better reading skills than other pupils within the class or school. Thus the pupil could be a tutor for a pupil whose reading skills need help and support. Peer tutoring is an ideal way for any pupil to gain in self-esteem. Research has consistently shown that peer tutoring benefits the tutor as much as it benefits the tutee.

Advantages and disadvantages of peer tutoring


  • A readily available source of support
  • Both tutee and tutor can gain from this partnership
  • Acting as tutor is a useful way of promoting self-esteem for pupils with special educational needs
  • Pupils with Down syndrome are often keen to work with another pupil
  • Tutoring provides good opportunities to consolidate the tutor's own learning


  • Involves careful time and planning to prepare the tutor initially
  • Involves time to record and monitor the situation over time
  • Needs a good understanding of relationships between pupils in order for the partnership to work

Group teaching

Many children with Down syndrome are highly motivated by their peers - they are often keen to do the same as their peers, using them as role models.

In addition, research has shown that pupils not only prefer to work in groups but that cooperative group work is beneficial as it fosters learning.[4] This was confirmed by Riding and Read,[5] who found that pupils with special educational needs prefer working in small groups to whole class or individual teaching. Croll and Moses[6] found that pupils with special educational needs whose overall concentration spans were below average, had a significant rise in their concentration, when working in a group with the teacher rather than in individual or class work.

It is important, therefore to teach pupils with Down syndrome in cooperative groups (with support as necessary within that group) and to keep one to one teaching to a minimum. Being included in group work can also increase pupils' independent learning skills.

Advantages and disadvantages of group teaching


  • Group work is a very effective way of promoting inclusion
  • Many children with Down syndrome prefer to work with their peers as their motivation is enhanced
  • Group work is an effective way of increasing independent learning skills and reducing the need for one-to-one support
  • Many pupils with Down syndrome learn from their peers and take their cue from them
  • Helps develop communication and social skills
  • Working in a group with the teacher can result in a rise in concentration
  • Provides good real life opportunities for pupils to learn to work with others over time and through actual experience – an important life skill


  • The setting up and management of group work makes heavy demands on class teachers
  • Needs considerable thought and preparation
  • Teachers need training about co-operative learning
  • May not be most effective when introducing new skills and concepts
  • Less chance to focus on the precise needs of the child in terms of repetition and reinforcement

Mixed ability and single ability grouping

One of the big questions that arise when considering group work is how to plan the composition of the groups. There are many different ways of organising groups but for any group to work effectively, the needs of individual pupils, the lesson content, learning opportunities and outcomes, group size and dynamics must all be considered. Having four pupils in a group has been considered to work best,[7] although younger pupils may need initially to work in pairs.

Much grouping in schools is still based on ability. Secondary schools in particular tend to group pupils with similar learning needs together and this practice has also developed in primary schools during the literacy and numeracy hours (England and Wales). In addition, pupils can work as a small group in a learning support room. This can be advantageous for learning in well-organised, focused working groups, to accelerate learning of specific skills.

Working in streamed classes can sometimes have advantages, as the differentiation, work books and resources may already be at a suitable level for the pupil with Down syndrome. The pupil may access the teacher's verbal presentations as well as his or her peers without support and work more easily in groups within the class.

However, ability grouping can also deny pupils the opportunities to learn from other pupils with a wider range of ability and from different situations. In addition, it sometimes results, paradoxically, in differentiation techniques not focusing on pupils' individual learning styles.

Grouping children with diverse individual needs together in loosely formed 'lower ability groups', without adequately supporting the behavioural, learning or skill needs of those individuals, can be to the detriment of pupils with Down syndrome, who often take their cue from peers with whom they are working. Many of these individuals have varied and complex needs and grouping them together can be without purpose other than to exclude them from other groups or to share the classroom support available for them.

Children with Down syndrome are helped by learning in appropriately planned groups, and their assistant can effectively support them and others in the group. However, using support intended for the child with Down syndrome for several children with complex educational needs is bad practice and is unlikely to lead to educational gains for any pupil in the group.

Mixed ability groups can help learning for pupils with special educational needs by increasing the resources they can draw on at the same time as increasing their self-esteem. However, managing groups of differing abilities can be challenging and time and thought must be given to their planning.


One way of arranging differentiated group work is described as 'Jigsawing' by Rose.[8] This involves a group activity being broken down into small interdependent parts which can be achieved by individual or small subgroups of pupils who all need to work together cooperatively to achieve the end result, like the pieces of a jigsaw fitting together. Not all pupils need to stay on task for the same length of time. This allows the pupil with Down syndrome, whose concentration span may be less than that of their peers, to be given a short task within the group activity, which can be completed within a certain length of time. This enables the pupil to finish and move on to a change of activity while feeling that he or she has contributed to the success of the group.

Planning for a 'Jigsaw' activity means that the teacher has to identify the parts of an activity that will be most suited to individual needs and abilities. Teachers should try to develop an atmosphere where pupils share in each others development of knowledge and skills, where group activities allow pupils to divide up tasks and pool what they have learned, where pupils learn how to compile a joint report from the different contributions of the group and share responsibilities for helping each other.

Advantages and disadvantages of 'Jigsawing'


  • Encourages pupils to work collaboratively and to develop their social and communication skills
  • Ensures that all pupils within the group participate at an appropriate level
  • Ensures that each pupil's individual needs are addressed
  • Not all pupils need to stay on task for the same length of time


  • Needs preparation and planning
  • Because the groups are dependent on each other, not all will work at the same pace
  • It is necessary to prepare some work beforehand so that pupils are not waiting too long for the earlier parts of the process to be completed

Points to consider when planning groups

  • Size of group
  • Learning styles, behavioural tendencies, friendships, individual characteristics and needs
  • Co-operative mixed ability groups for pupils to work best for all the pupils in the group
  • Be clear about the intended outcome of the activity for each pupil, before deciding the type of activity to be used and the structure of the group itself
  • Pupils need to be prepared for their contribution to the group
  • Group tasks should have a common goal
  • Tasks and roles need to be allocated within the group
  • Groups may need some facilitating initially

Whole class teaching

It is important that pupils with Down syndrome join in whole class activities as much as possible in order not to be segregated, not to feel different and to encourage their independent and collaborative learning skills.

Some activities lend themselves better than others to whole class work and pupils are able to follow the example set by their peers. In some whole class activities the class teacher may have to adjust their teaching slightly to accommodate the needs of the child with Down syndrome. Asking pupils' with Down syndrome specific questions tailored to their ability is quite easy if the teacher has the willingness to do so and is very important to ensure that each pupil feels part of the class. The same principle applies where whole class teaching is used for drill or rote learning. Most pupils can learn through whole class teaching, if it reinforces knowledge and skills which have been learned in small group or individual sessions beforehand.

The national literacy and numeracy strategies in England and Wales

The national literacy and numeracy strategies introduced daily structured teaching of one hour into primary schools in England and Wales for focused numeracy and literacy teaching. Initially, these produced concerns from teachers about pupils' abilities to participate with their age peers. In practice, the structured teaching required by the strategies can be differentiated in much the same way as any other part of the curriculum. It has been the first author's experience that pupils' skills have increased, most noticeably in numeracy, following the introduction of these strategies.

See also:

Some schools have chosen to move pupils into different year groupings so that they could learn with peers at a closer ability level, requiring less preparation or skill in differentiation. The authors have worked with schools with pupils across the whole ability range who are successfully included in age-appropriate literacy and numeracy hours, with differentiated presentation, activities and methods of responding. The planning required for the whole class make it easier to differentiate, as each part of the hour has a specific focus. Long term outcomes must always be considered when making changes to age related groupings: friendships, transfer to secondary school with the support of peers and the development of age appropriate behaviour. Guidance is provided for teachers on the implementation of the literacy and numeracy hour strategies in DfEE publications[9] and specific recommendations for children with Down syndrome for teaching literacy are included in the reading and writing module in this series.