Save up to 30% off selected See and Learn Language and Reading kits
For a limited time, save on See and Learn Language and Reading kits ordered from DSE's US and UK online stores.
Find out more: US Store | UK Store

Education for individuals with Down syndrome - An overview

Sue Buckley and Gillian Bird

This module reviews the development of educational provision for children with Down syndrome. It details the research examining the outcomes from special and inclusive schools, and the factors relating to these outcomes. These studies indicate that appropriate education provided in inclusive settings offers the best opportunities for children with Down syndrome. Inclusion in mainstream classrooms produces significant gains for expressive language skills and academic achievements, particularly in literacy. The implication for parents is that they should seek inclusive education placements for their children from preschool years. However, the benefits require successful inclusion from committed educators. Some of the key issues that are relevant to successful inclusion are discussed.

Buckley SJ, Bird G. Education for individuals with Down syndrome - An overview. Down Syndrome Issues and Information. 2000.



Why is education important for all children? What are the aims or goals of education? The experience of education in schools provides two main opportunities for children; the opportunity to acquire skills for adult life and work and the opportunity to learn the social values of the culture. Together, these experiences equip children to become successful adults in both their personal and public lives in the community. The social learning opportunities provided by schools are as important as the academic learning. The school can pass on the values of the culture and the school community can demonstrate the values that we would all like to experience in action in our adult communities.

What are the goals of education for children with Down syndrome? They are the same as for all other children; which is to equip children with Down syndrome to lead independent adult lives in the community. Most will need some degree of support from friends, family and services, but education will make a significant difference to the level of independence achieved in work, social and leisure life.

Do we know the best way to educate children with Down syndrome? Do we have any evidence for the comparative benefits of special education in segregated special education schools or classrooms compared with inclusive education within a mainstream classroom? Do we know what the special educational needs of children and teenagers with Down syndrome are? If we do know what specific additional learning needs they have, are we developing support in educational settings and teaching programmes to effectively meet their needs?

The collection of objective evidence is beginning to provide answers to these questions. There now is some comparative data on the social and educational outcomes from different types of school placement. Most of this has been collected in the United Kingdom and the findings are reviewed in this module. An increasingly sophisticated understanding of the specific effects of Down syndrome on cognitive development is emerging. This information has implications for the educational support that individuals require from infancy through their school years.

See also:

This research into the specific developmental and learning needs of children with Down syndrome is set out in detail elsewhere in this series, but the implications of these for planning education are briefly discussed in the concluding section of this module.

There are a number of education projects in different parts of the world at the present time, where expert teams are supporting inclusive educational placements for children with Down syndrome, providing training and publishing practical guidelines for schools and classroom teachers such as The Prep Programme in Calgary, Canada[1] and the Down Syndrome Society of South Australia Programme based in Adelaide, Australia.[2,3] In both these programmes, teams of experts are working to demonstrate how to achieve effective, successful inclusion from independent projects committed to the welfare of children with Down syndrome. Published data on developmental and educational outcomes for representative groups of children is, however, sparse and this type of data is needed to convince educators and parents that inclusion in education is benefiting children with Down syndrome.

Do we know the best way to educate children with Down syndrome?

  • We have some understanding of the effects of Down syndrome on development and these have implications for education.
  • Expert teams are helping to develop successful inclusion in some countries.
  • Early pioneers have demonstrated lasting benefits from early intervention programmes and academic expectations in school.
  • Research into educational outcomes from different types of schools is limited.

There have also been some progressive teams providing documented early intervention programmes from the 1970s, notably in Seattle in the USA,[4,5] in Minnesota, USA[6-8] and in Sydney, Australia.[9-12] These pioneers in the education of children with Down syndrome demonstrated that many of the children could achieve more than had been expected and they have followed the children through their educational careers, reporting lasting benefits from the early intervention programmes and subsequent achievements in school. However, the Australian reports are based on fairly small numbers of individuals and they have often had changes of school placement, so while the data shows benefits of mainstream education,[9,13] there is a need for larger controlled comparisons. The Minnesota team have reported data across large longitudinal and cross-sectional samples of children with Down syndrome, showing that many are acquiring academic skills in reading and number, and benefiting from an educational curriculum but their data does not allow comparison between special and mainstream school outcomes.[8]

Since most of the published comparative studies have been conducted in the UK, the next section describes the development of education for children with Down syndrome in the UK in order to enable readers to relate the findings of the studies to their own education system. In the authors' experience, teachers find this historical background helpful for understanding the literature on the development of children with Down syndrome and the way in which educational provision is evolving in most countries.

The education of children with Down syndrome

Until comparatively recently, children with Down syndrome were considered 'ineducable'. In the United Kingdom, for example, the diagnosis of Down syndrome led to the child being identified as ''unfit to benefit from education in school'' until 1971. Similarly, in most other countries, the majority of children with Down syndrome have only gained access to education within the last 30 years. In many developing countries the majority of children with Down syndrome still do not have access to education in schools.

The reader should note that this means that much research on the development of individuals with Down syndrome published before 1980 is based on the study of individuals who received little or no education and were usually excluded from community activities as well. It also means that most adults with Down syndrome who are over 25 years old in the United Kingdom received at best limited education at school or none at all. Social isolation and educational deprivation will have a negative effect on any child's development, including a child with Down syndrome. The pre-1980 studies are therefore of questionable value as it is not possible to separate out the effects of Down syndrome on development from the effects of social and educational deprivation. Better understanding of the levels of cognitive or social development which children with Down syndrome are able to achieve will only be obtained when they are fully included in the social world of childhood in their communities and have access to optimal health, therapy and education services.