Teaching mathematics to young people with Down syndrome: A unique perspective

This February, Dr Su Morris and Dr Katie Gilligan-Lee interviewed Jane Butler to hear her insights on teaching mathematics to individuals with Down syndrome. Agnieszka Kapka has summarised the interview in this blog. 

Jane has a very interesting perspective on this topic, as a retired teacher of mathematics with more than 30 years’ experience, and as a grandmother to a 13-year-old with Down syndrome. In her professional career Jane has worked with both children and adults, including individuals with special educational needs. Jane believes that many of the barriers to learning mathematics in people with Down syndrome, and indeed other learning difficulties, are related to the educational system. More specifically, one issue is that the mathematics content that is set for individual children is often related to the child’s age rather than their current knowledge level. Secondly, tasks are not made relevant to children’s everyday life which makes engagement difficult. 

Jane highlighted that when teaching children with Down syndrome, it is important to cover the basic topics first and adjust the questions to an individual if, and when, they are ready to progress. Jane proposes several strategies to keep students interested and engaged in learning: 

(1) using visual, uncluttered presentation of material, for example, using bar charts or pictograms presented on separate pages 

(2) making content relevant to the student’s own experience and things they are familiar with, and interested in, for example, learning the concept of height by comparing the height of the child’s family members 

(3) using repetition, for example doing lots of multiplication using a range of different numbers 

(4) building up knowledge on topics that have been taught previously, and allowing space for recap and revision if needed 

(5) allowing student choice, for example, in relation to the tasks to be completed/order they are completed in 

(6) engaging students in planning, i.e., informing students what will be covered in the next lesson 

(7) following the same structure every lesson 

(8) providing rewards for correct answers which are tailored to the child 

(9) asking for feedback during sessions, for example asking students to use the “thumbs up” emoji to show whether they understand or are enjoying themselves 

(10) finally endeavouring to making maths tasks fun. 

In her classes, Jane puts emphasis on using visuo-spatial techniques to promote learning. For example, using dice to collect data and to create diagrams, using pie charts to teach time, and writing things up on the white board. Jane believes that all children can be helped to enjoy working with numbers and are capable of learning, as long as the tasks are adjusted to them. 

We were really interested to hear Jane’s insights and hope that documenting them here might be useful for others who are teaching maths to young people with Down syndrome.

Written by Agnieszka Kapka