Laying Educational Foundations

NOTE: October is National Down Syndrome Awareness Month

Rebecca Newlon

Rebecca Newlon

By Chris and Rebecca Newlon

When Rebecca, my daughter who has Down syndrome, began kindergarten, I never dreamed that the day-to-day hammering out of details with her general education teacher would lay the foundation we would continue to utilize to this day now that Rebecca is a junior in high school.

Back then, we met the teacher before the school year began for introductions and to set some guidelines for the first few days. We needed daily communication from the teacher in order to address any behavior or social or academic issues immediately in order to prevent bad habits from developing. We also included meetings with the teacher every four to six weeks to review progress and make adjustments as needed. It was a constant reevaluation of what worked, what didn’t and what corrections were needed, if any.

The teacher taught Rebecca’s peers to assist her without patronizing, how to include her in activities and how to recognize when to step in or hold back in order to encourage her self-advocacy.

Initially in kindergarten, Rebecca’s fine motor skills were still developing. Instead of requiring printed words during spelling tests, Rebecca used letter blocks or tiles to show her knowledge. Spelling became a favorite subject. Today at 17, if someone doesn’t understand her, Rebecca patiently spells the word out for them to help them understand.

Early on we started pre-teaching subjects to help familiarize her with a topic. Each chapter of social studies or science was condensed into the top 10–20 most important details or concepts they wanted each student to remember. These were the facts she studied from the beginning of the chapter and the items her study guides and quizzes were based on.

Reviewing upcoming chapter highlights and videos prior to class time enabled her to recognize vocabulary words and important points when presented in class. She absorbed more information during class discussions, but the most important details became her strengths.

If essays were required for certain topics, Rebecca used different methods to convey her knowledge, such as poster board presentations and later, PowerPoint presentations. Thinking outside the box and “big picture” concepts became our mantra. Every teacher stated that they ended up using these techniques and modifications with other students years after Rebecca left their classroom.

Chris Newlon

Chris Newlon

Our school district has been remote e-learning since March, and many of the same concepts are still practiced. Rebecca is given her assignments for the upcoming week on the previous Friday in order to preview the videos and lecture highlights. Familiar words and pictures make a bigger impact on her and are easily remembered with repetition.

The study guide information is often incorporated into a study app such as Quizlet. She can use CoWriter, SnapNRead and many other apps on her Chromebook to facilitate her learning. Tests and quizzes are usually more focused and concise and utilize multiple choice, matching or other computer friendly grading methods. We discourage “Jeopardy” style questions, which require a higher level of recalling information and are not necessary to test pure knowledge.

Small group instruction was used in classes prior to the shutdown and continue during the e-learning. When a teacher wants the students to work independently or in small peer groups, Rebecca and an aide work on the in-class assignment. The teachers are working on identifying a few of her peers who could potentially act as peer assistants instead of the aide, as this is the ultimate goal. But like an IEP, online learning is a fluid concept and we are all learning how to make it work best for each student.

Many people criticize the e-learning, but for a quiet, petite student, they’ve been a huge bonus. Rebecca has access to her teachers before and after school for an hour for check-ins, for clarifications on assignments or for a few minutes of social conversation.

Getting logged into class on time is important to Rebecca, so it’s pushing her to use the phone alarms, timers and re-learning how to tell time. Rebecca is often the first to sign in so she is greeted by each teacher and then sees the other students “come to class.” They often greet her, too.

Since each student has to unmute themselves to talk, the classes are quieter. Rebecca loves the calmer environment and is now answering questions on a regular basis.

I don’t know what the rest of the year holds for our district, but I know we’ll incorporate some of the online concepts we are using now in the future.

Rebecca’s thoughts:

“I like learning from home.”

“I like talking with my teachers every day. It is easier to understand them and hear the teacher when I use my computer.”

“I get to work with my tutor every day, too. She helps me with my schoolwork and with my computer if I have problems.”

“I got to see some friends when I went to a Key Club meeting. We wore our masks and stayed apart from each other.”

“I wonder how they will do my baking class if we are still learning from home?”


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Posted by
Information Technology Specialist, U.S. Department of Education

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