Awareness of Students with Diverse Learning Needs,
What the Teacher Needs to Know, Volume 1

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Down syndrome is a genetic defect causing limitations in physical and cognitive development. It is the result of a chromosomal error, not of any fault of either parent. One in every 700-800 live births will be affected by Down syndrome. Though the likelihood of having a child with Down syndrome increases to some degree with the age of the mother, three-quarters of all children with the syndrome are born to mothers under 35.

A child with Down syndrome demonstrates a wide variety of characteristics - some of these are inherited family traits and others are specific to the syndrome. A syndrome is a condition distinguished by a cluster of features occurring together. In Down syndrome, certain physical features will probably be apparent, though these are not exclusive to Down syndrome and may appear elsewhere in the unaffected population.

Recent studies show that, though all children with Down syndrome have some degree of intellectual disability, other factors such as environment, misinformation and low expectations have a considerable impact on their learning potential. Generally, progress will be slow and certain complex skills may be difficult; each individual has unique strengths and weaknesses.

Physically, children with Down syndrome have low muscle tone and a generalized looseness of the ligaments. The Canadian Down Syndrome Society recommends that children be assessed by x-ray at age three to four (before kindergarten) and again at age 10-12 to look for instability at the top two neck vertebrae. This instability must be carefully considered during any planning for physical activity to avoid serious injury. There is also a strong susceptibility to hearing and vision difficulties. Fifty per cent of these children will require monitoring in these areas. At least one-third of the children will have heart defects.

Behaviour problems are no more specific to children with Down syndrome than to any other group of students. Any perceived reaction to a request may actually be only a difficulty in transition from one activity to another, going from the known to the unknown. Developmentally, these children will reach different stages at later times than the average child. Chronological age is not an indicator of achievement, but serves only to raise unrealistic expectations.

Remember, this is a person, not a syndrome.

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