Day 2


Symposium: Mathematical Development and Learning in Students with Down Syndrome

Katie Gilligan-Lee (1), Erica Ranzato (2), Karen McGuigan (3), Jo van Herwegen (2)

  1. University of Surrey, Guilford
  2. UCL, Institute of Education, London
  3. Maths for Life (

Organizer: Katie Gilligan-Lee


It is well recognized that mathematical proficiency is highly related to personal success, with research showing that early mathematics skills are a predictor of adult wealth and socio-economic status (Richie & Bates, 2013). Understanding number also has significant implications for independent living, including the use of money, telling the time, and understanding timetables.

However, mathematics is a particular area of difficulty for people with Down Syndrome, compared to both typical development and to other domains, e.g., literacy. Given its importance, in this symposium, we address the questions of how mathematical skills develop in young people with Down Syndrome, and how best can we support students in achieving their mathematical potential.

Speaker 1: Katie Gilligan-Lee will speak about cognitive predictors of mathematical achievement. More specifically she will speak from a researcher's perspective about spatial skills and the role that they may play in helping students with Down Syndrome to achieve their mathematical potential.

Speaker 2: Erica Ranzato will highlight the perspective of the teacher in teaching mathematics to students with Down Syndrome including teachers views about students learning profiles, their expectations, and personal experiences of the teaching tools they typically use.

Speaker 3: From her perspective as a mother and educational consultant, Karen McGuigan will speak about some of the gaps in foundational knowledge that are common in students with Down Syndrome. She will speak about the importance of parental understanding of individual student's strengths and weaknesses as a key building block to enhancing mathematics skills.

Speaker 4: Jo van Herwegen will lead a discussion on the challenges of supporting mathematical development in students with Down Syndrome, using a combined approach that encompasses researchers, teachers, and parents.

Exploring relative strengths in Down's Syndrome: Spatial thinking and its role in mathematics

Katie A. Gilligan-Lee, Emily K. Farran, Su Morris; University of Surrey

Background: There is a convincing evidence that mathematics outcomes can be improved through training spatial abilities in typically developing (TD) children (Hawes, Gilligan-Lee & Mix, 2022). However, at present, a lack of information (theory) on spatial-mathematics associations, and mathematical development more generally, in people with Down syndrome (DS) hinders the translation of these interventions to DS groups, where they could prove beneficial.

Research questions: There are three research questions. First, what is the profile of strengths and weaknesses in mathematics in DS relative to typical development? Second, does mathematics development (mathematical reasoning, arithmetic, and geometry) differ between people with DS and typical development? Third, does spatial ability predict attainment on different mathematics measures in DS groups?

Methods: Participants include 36 participants with DS (58% male; 10-35 years) and 131 typically developing children (53% male; 4-11 years). Participants completed verbal and non-verbal IQ measures, spatial tasks assessing different sub-domains of spatial thinking (mental rotation, mental transformation, mental folding, scaling, perspective taking and exploration), and mathematics tasks assessing mathematical reasoning, arithmetic, and geometry.

Results: For all three mathematics measures, developmental trajectories revealed similar developmental onset and similar rates of development for DS and mental-age matched TD groups. After controlling for verbal skills, spatial skills explained between 5.8% and 18.1% of the variation in mathematical performance across different mathematics tasks, and the pattern of space-mathematics relations was similar for DS and mental-age matched TD groups.

Conclusion: The results show that mathematical development in DS groups appears to mirror that of mental-age matched TDs. However, what is unknown is why this development appears to hit a ceiling. Strong spatial-mathematical relations were observed for the DS group, similar to those seen for TD participants. This is the vital theoretical knowledge needed to support the use of spatial intervention for improving mathematics for individuals with DS.


  • Participants with Down Syndrome (N=36) and typical development (N-131) completed mathematics tasks, and tasks assessing different sub-domains of spatial thinking.
  • There is a slower but not atypical pattern of spatial development in Down Syndrome, which indicated potential for improving spatial skills through intervention.
  • While mathematical development in Down Syndrome mirrors that of mental age matched typically developing children, this development appears to hit a ceiling in Down Syndrome.
  • Strong associations were reported between spatial and mathematics performance for those with Down Syndrome
  • These findings on spatial development and spatial-mathematical relations will be used to create spatial interventions for Down Syndrome groups.

Teaching mathematics to students with Down syndrome

Erica Ranzato and Dr Jo Van Herwegen

Department of Psychology and Human Development, Institute of Education, IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society, London

Background: Mathematical abilities are a particular area of difficulty for students with Down syndrome (DS) and this has an effect on their quality of life and their level of independence (Brigstocke et al., 2008; Onnivello et al., 2019). The learning of students with DS can be enhanced with good teaching and tailored support (Faragher, 2020). Moreover, it has been reported that those teaching approaches that leverage on the student's relative strengths seem to be useful to support mathematical skills (Buckley, 2007).

Research Questions:

  • What are the current teaching practices, supporting strategies and resources used in primary mainstream schools to support mathematical abilities of students with DS?
  • What are the targets and the expectations of teaching staff supporting students with DS, in relation to their mathematical abilities?
  • What is the level of confidence of teaching staff supporting students with DS?

Research Project: This ongoing research project is organized in two phases. During the first phase, teaching staff supporting students with DS is asked to complete an online survey on their experience on supporting number skills of the students they are working with. Then, a series of 3 online workshops will be delivered with n = 8 participants to reflect on their experiences. During Session 1, participants will share their experiences and their views about the learning profiles of their students, their expectations and their personal experience in teaching maths and the tools they usually use. In Session 2, participants will co-produce learning resources and activities and will co-develop tailored learning targets to support the maths skills of their students. In Session 3, participants will be asked to discuss their experience on using the co-created resources.

Preliminary findings from the first stage will be presented.


  • Mathematical abilities are a particular area of difficulty for students with Down syndrome and this has an effect on their quality of life and their level of independence (Brigstocke et al., 2008; Onnivello et al., 2019)
  • The learning of students with Down syndrome can be enhanced with good teaching and tailored support (Faragher, 2020) but the current literature does not tell us what the good practices / learning resources are when it comes to supporting mathematical skills of learners with Down syndrome
  • We are excited to start a new research project investigating the current teaching practices, strategies, and resources to support mathematical abilities of primary school students with Down syndrome at school and at home. This project will require participants to complete a short online survey -
  • The second phase of the study will involve a series of focus groups where teaching staff and parents will be involved in the design of maths interventions and in the co-production of learning resources.

Supporting mathematical abilities in Down Syndrome poster

Fundamental mathematical gaps for students with Down Syndrome

Karen McGuigan

Founder and Author of the Maths For Life program

Background: Maths is key for independent living, and it is more than just adding and subtracting and memorizing times-tables. Maths should be part of everyday life. However, there is very little information on mathematical performance, beyond arithmetic skills, in young people with Down Syndrome. This information is a key starting point in helping to develop students' maths skills.

Research Question: What are the mathematical strengths and weaknesses of students with Down Syndrome?

Methods: Participants are 90 students with Down Syndrome aged 4 to 23 years old across both mainstream and specialist settings. These students each completed a baseline assessment prior to taking part in the Maths for Life program, an intervention specifically designed for individuals with Down Syndrome. The baseline assessments were developed for Down's Syndrome Oxford Group, that can be used to give a clear indication of a mathematical starting point for each student, i.e., student's current mathematical attainment and key gaps in mathematical learning. The assessment was administered by a supervising adult who recorded the outcome of each question and the level of help provided using the Hierarchy of Independence scale.

Results: Key areas of strength and consistent 'gaps' in fundamental mathematical knowledge have been identified. These include understanding of difference, ability to see more and less, the acceptance of the conservation of number, counting backwards, ability to order numbers, subtraction, the understanding of mathematical language; and the knowledge of time passing are all key gaps.

Conclusions: The attainment of a new mathematical skill is acquired by building on a solid understanding of prior fundamentals. Here we highlight clear gaps in mathematical understanding in students with Down Syndrome. By focusing education strategies on teaching the 'gaps' more effectively, we hope that students with Down Syndrome will be able to advance their mathematical attainment and achieve more.


  • Mathematical attainment is measured as a combination of the understanding of a mathematical concept and the ability to apply it independently.
  • Mathematical attainment is built up from solid foundations across a breadth of topics; deficits in any topic will limit progress at a higher level.
  • The Maths For Life program has analyzed the mathematical attainment of 100 students with Down syndrome and identified overall strengths and weaknesses by topic.
  • By developing a differentiated program to address the weaknesses, and encouraging the concept of basic maths done independently, the Maths For Life program aims to improve the mathematical outcomes for all students with Down syndrome.

Improving mathematical outcomes in individuals with Down syndrome

Dr Jo Van Herwegen

Department of Psychology and Human Development, Institute of Education, IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society, London

It has been well reported that many individuals with Down Syndrome (DS) struggle with numbers and are delayed in their mathematical abilities. Recently there have been a few studies that have examined the development of mathematical abilities in individual with DS to obtain a better understanding of what abilities relate to mathematical development in DS and how this could be translated into classroom practices. In this discussion, I will review some of this recent evidence, including the newer studies discussed in this symposium, and highlight some of the difficulties related to translating this research into best classroom practice as well as discuss best evidence-base practice and exciting developments that may help individuals with DS to develop mathematical abilities in the future. Finally, I will explore what this all means in terms of how researchers, educators, parents and individuals with DS work together and how current gaps in evidence and practice can be filled in the future.