I wasn’t supposed to teach the class. In the fall of my last year of college, I was assigned to a local school for microteaching, 40 hours of teaching spread out over eight weeks. I should have noticed something was odd when they sent me to an elementary school (I was on track for secondary education).
My First Time Teaching Students with Disabilities
Once I was led to the classroom, I immediately told the teacher there must have been a mistake. The class was for children with disabilities, which is its own specialized degree. I was so worried about being in an unfamiliar environment that it took a moment to register the hurt on the supervising teacher’s face, but once I explained it, she simply said, “Well, what do you want to do?” I decided to stay for the day and then clear things up with Purdue the next day. I thought I’d be a jerk if I didn’t.
The class was divided into children with varying levels of disability. Those with Down Syndrome were the most independent, and my supervising teacher placed me with them. I will be honest and say I never spent any time socializing with a person with Down Syndrome. In fact, all I knew were the symptoms of Down Syndrome I was taught in class. My knowledge went little past ‘What is Down Syndrome?’
A Change of Heart and Mind
By the end of the day, I discovered that my worries were unfounded. Kids are kids, disability or not. In fact, my first day went so well that I never said anything to Purdue and completed the forty hours with the class. In that time, and with the help of the supervising teacher, I learned a few things about teaching students with Down Syndrome.
Tips for Working with Down Syndrome
- Speech impediments are common, so don’t pretend you understand them when you don’t. The students are encouraged to improve their speech, so if you don’t understand what they say, ask them to repeat themselves slowly and clearly. More often than not, they can. Speaking too fast is often a sign of agitation and your frustration only magnifies that.
- Understand that other students see them differently, but most will be positive. I soon developed an overwhelming protective instinct, and became very sensitive to how fellow students saw “my kids.” I soon learned that I was being oversensitive. Because of classroom inclusion, other students interacted with mine on a regular basis and most were very receptive, incorporating them willingly and being helpful. I relaxed quickly.
- A disability doesn’t mean an inability. Don’t oversimplify. It’s insulting. During a math exercise, I slowly and carefully explained how to do a simple math problem to a student, but the supervising teacher intervened and said, “Sam, you know how to do this. Don’t pretend you don’t.” Kids are kids, and if they can get away with being lazy, they will. Don’t let a bleeding heart make you blind to this.
- Despite our cynical age, physical contact is okay. In our education classes, we were taught that any and all physical contact with kids is done. You don’t touch them, ever. I discovered with these kids that a pat on the back or shoulder for encouragement or redirection is better than the best speech. It’s less distracting and better for reinforcing. Don’t be afraid to encourage students with Down Syndrome with physical contact.
Kids are Kids are Kids, No Matter What
It was the first and last class I ever taught where most students had disabilities, but I learned it’s really no different than typical teaching. You need patience, forethought and organization to help them progress. The last time I checked, that was true for every group of kids under the sun.
And I have to admit, the last day I was with them and I was inundated with hugs, I had tears in my eyes.