By: Jeff Sabo

Down Syndrome (DS) is a relatively common genetic disorder that is diagnosed in about 1 in 1000 children world-wide (1). That means that music teachers may encounter students with Down Syndrome at some point in their career. Research suggests that music can have many benefits for people with DS. It can enhance their motor skills, verbal communication, as well as their social and emotional development (2; 3). As we know, it’s also lots of fun! Because DS students often have different traits than neurotypical individuals, research has shown they can benefit from an adapted approach to music learning. Here, we’ll use the knowledge gathered in studies to give you some practical, evidence-based strategies for teaching music to DS students.

Similar Attributes, but Diverse Individuals:

DS used to be considered a uniform diagnosis, meaning that all people with DS were thought to be mostly alike (4). We now know that while many people with DS share common attributes, they are actually quite diverse (4). That means that as teachers, we really need to tailor our approach to the needs of each student with a DS diagnosis. Here are some important aspects of DS that you can look for when assessing your student’s abilities and crafting a lesson plan for them:

  • Communication: Many people with DS struggle with verbal communication (5). Language development can be delayed, but people with DS are often better at understanding spoken language than producing it (1). Many people with DS are very good at communicating through gestures though, especially at a young age (1; 4). 
  • Sensory challenges: Challenges with vision and/or hearing are also common among people with DS. For example, they may struggle with recognizing objects that are far away (6) or processing the sound components of words (7).
  • Motor skills: People with DS can have difficulty with fine movements, balance, and muscle tone (4). That being said, many of them are often quite good at imitating the movements of others (1). They can also move accurately in response to musical beats of different styles (8).
  • Cognition: People with DS often understand pictures better than words (9) and have good narrative skills (10). They can also learn well through observation (7). However, DS can be associated with many cognitive challenges, including those related to general intelligence, reaction time, memory, attention, planning, working towards goals, thinking flexibly, and inhibiting behaviour (1; 4). 

Again, it’s important to know that all the abilities we’ve listed vary widely for different individuals with DS, so teachers should not assume that a student has certain limitations simply because they have a DS diagnosis (11). Still, these are areas that you can assess and adjust your teaching plan accordingly.

Adapting your Music Teaching for DS Students:

Based on these general attributes, researchers have suggested some key strategies for teaching students with DS that we can apply in music learning:

  • Strengths based approach: Students with DS learn best when teachers set achievable goals and use flexible, stepwise methods adapted to their abilities. This makes lessons fun and helps motivate DS students to keep learning and making music (12). One study described the use of “errorless learning”, where the teacher structures activities to create mostly successful outcomes (12). You can do this by adjusting the difficulty of material, and also by using multimodal scaffolding techniques (12; 13), which we’ll discuss in more detail below. Incorporating play is also a great way to help students with DS feel at ease and build trust (9). 
  • Visual supports: Many studies have shown that people with DS learn better when teachers use visual supports, which can support their cognitive abilities (9; 11). In music learning, visual supports can include color-coding or pictures to help with music reading, conceptual learning, or instrument geography (12). You can use visuals to create stories or make connections between sounds and symbols (9; 12; 14). For example, one study showed that visuals can help DS students with rhythmic accuracy (15). They can also help students with DS better understand the lesson structure or how to do a particular activity (12). If your student has visual challenges, be sure to use large, bold visual materials that are easy to take in (12).
  • Adaptive instruments: We mentioned above that motor skills can be challenging for people with DS, which can create challenges when learning a musical instrument (12). For some students, physical adaptations that make the instrument easier to manage may be helpful (13). You can also look for others or invent your own way to fit the instrument to your student’s needs! However, some DS students may prefer to learn on standard instruments rather than adding adaptations (13). In that case you can just adjust the technical difficulty accordingly and try exercises to help with hand strength and dexterity (12; 13).
  • Adapting communication: When teaching students with DS, it’s important to communicate using small chunks of information that the student can easily understand. Non-verbal communication can also be really helpful. For example, when it comes to instrumental technique, imitation is a great instructional tool for students with DS (12). You can model sequences of notes and use hand over hand support to guide their movements as needed (12). You can also develop gestures that make learning easy for your student (5). For students with low verbal abilities, pay attention to their gestures and behaviours so you can better understand what they are trying to communicate with you (12).
  • Pacing learning material: Researchers have noted the importance of spiral learning for students with DS (14). In lessons, it’s important to give enough time on each activity for the student to take in new skills and concepts (11), but once the student gets the basics you can move on and come back to them later. Spiral learning can be particularly useful for students with DS who may have difficulty with memory and struggle to get all the complexities of a topic in the first pass. There is some evidence that when DS students recall what they’ve already covered, it can lead to better learning and retention (9; 16), so you can use games and remedial activities to spiral back to anything you want to reinforce. 

When teaching students with DS, it’s important to challenge our own assumptions and not be afraid to go beyond traditional music teaching methods (12). The ideas here can be a good starting point, and as you try things out you’ll find many other ways to make music lessons fun and interesting for your students!

Happy Teaching!



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