Our #Education21 campaign highlights how educational research has helped us to better understand the needs of young people with Down syndrome and how it is improving outcomes for many thousands of children today. Find out more...

#7. Social strengths offer advantages, but not always

Educational research has identified relative strengths in early social development among children with Down syndrome. These can be advantageous for learning. However, they can also be used to avoid difficult tasks.

What educational research has shown

A number of developmental researchers have identified that children with Down syndrome have a strength in early social development, particularly being interested in, relating to and interacting with people.[1] This is a positive early strength as much important learning about the world and language learning is social - accomplished through interaction and play with adults and other children.

However, several researchers have noted that children with Down syndrome can also use their good social interactive skills to their disadvantage. Jennifer Wishart first drew attention to the way in which children with Down syndrome may use social games to distract from a learning task (for example, by clapping or blowing raspberries) from young ages.[2]

Debbie Fidler and colleagues have argued that this social strength, combined with a tendency to be less persistent in learning tasks, leads to a particular personality/motivational style over time which is not helpful for learning but might be changed if addressed in interventions.[3]

Emily Jones, Kathleen Feeley and colleagues have argued that this personality/motivational style can increase the likelihood of children developing challenging behaviors. They have also shown how to take account of this information in planning to successfully engage children with Down syndrome in learning activities at home and in school and avoid or reduce behavior problems.[4, 5]

How this is helping

Educational research is informing how parents and practitioners can build on the children's interest in social interaction from the earliest stages when babies make eye contact, enjoy face-to-face games and learn about communication and emotional cues - and how to continue to make full use of social learning in the preschool and school years.

Understanding the children's social interactive strengths and the ways that they may use them to avoid requests or gain inappropriate attention is helping parents and teachers avoid or change challenging behaviors.

Unanswered questions

Future research is needed to:


  1. Fidler DJ, Hepburn S, Rogers S. Early learning and adaptive behavior in toddlers with Down syndrome: Evidence for an emerging behavioral phenotype? Down Syndrome Research and Practice. 2006;9(3);37-44. https://library.down-syndrome.org/reports/297/
  2. Wishart JG. Learning the hard way: Avoidance strategies in young children with Down syndrome. Down Syndrome Research and Practice. 1993;1(2);47-55. https://library.down-syndrome.org/reviews/10/
  3. Fidler DJ. The emergence of a syndrome-specific personality profile in young children with Down syndrome. Down Syndrome Research and Practice. 2006;10(2);53-60. https://library.down-syndrome.org/reprints/305/
  4. Feeley KM, Jones EA. Preventing challenging behaviors in children with Down syndrome: Attention to early developing repertoires. Down Syndrome Research and Practice. 2008;12(1);11-14. https://library.down-syndrome.org/reviews/2076/
  5. Jones, E., Neil, N. & Feeley. (2014) Enhancing learning for children with Down syndrome. Chapter in R. Faragher and B. Clarke (Eds.), Educating Learners with Down Syndrome. ( pp 83-116) Routledge Education.