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Down Syndrome Full Inclusion

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Down Syndrome Full Inclusion 

Children with Down syndrome placed in regular classrooms are supposed to get special education services so they can participate successfully, both academically and socially.

Those special education services are the behind-the-scenes reality in the documentary film Educating Peter, which won an Academy Award in 1993. Filmgoers see a moving story about a child with Down syndrome who learns to work and play with his new classmates.

What filmgoers do not see is that the class was relatively small with 19 students and Peter’s teacher was intensively prepared for Peter’s arrival, as were the parents of Peter’s classmates. Moreover, a full-time special education aide was with Peter, and an Inclusion Specialist worked with Peter daily and was available to help Peter’s teacher and classmates.

This kind of comprehensive help is expensive, but necessary for inclusion success.  Many states and school districts are putting children with Down syndrome into regular classrooms as a cost-cutting measure; such expenditures are the exception rather than the rule.

In those situations, the responsibility for children with Down syndrome, who may need special education, falls to general education teachers and paraprofessionals.  They are largely on their own when it comes to figuring out how to help the child with Down syndrome fit in, and how to tailor lessons to his or her requirements.

Full inclusionists say this ad hoc approach to inclusion must change and all the supports for children with Down syndrome in special education settings must follow them into regular classrooms. This is the ideal, but given the reason most states and school districts are adopting full inclusion – to save money – it is no more likely to happen for children with Down syndrome than for children with any other learning disability.

Fear of no resources is one reason that many parents of children with Down syndrome oppose full inclusion. They fear their children will lose the range of services now available in a segregated non-learning environment and end up marginalized and traumatized in a general education classroom.

Children with Down syndrome are especially good candidates for full inclusion.  They usually have minimal negative behaviors, are not aggressive, are friendly, and provide the perfect opportunity for typical children to learn acceptance and tolerance of other children with a learning disability.  Children with Down syndrome, when introduced in an appropriate manner to a general education classroom, are a significant and positive addition to the general education classroom.  Children with Down syndrome typically bring additional resources to the classroom and provide a positive learning experience for the typical children.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA) requires school districts to provide all the necessary services for children with Down syndrome to be fully included in a general education classroom at no cost to parents.

The catch is that the IDEA requires parents to enforce their children’s rights.  (For other civil rights acts, there are federal agencies to enforce designated rights.)  If you want your child fully included in general education classes, you must hire advocates or legal professionals to enforce your child’s rights.

Where to Get Help

The Special Education Law Firm (attorney Jennifer Guze Campbell) provides parents with incomes under $80,000 per year a full year of complete special education legal support for a flat rate of approximately $2,400 (click here to review).

Danielle Alvarado is a special needs consultant (Nonattorney Advocate) who, for a flat rate of approximately $600, will provide three months of special education school advocacy on behalf of a special needs child (click here to review) to get a school district on track.

There is a multitude of other special education attorneys and advocates that charge by the hour to provide legal representation and advocacy services (click here to review those attorneys and advocates).

School districts do not like assertive special education advocates and school districts really hate special education attorneys who do not take ‘no’ for an answer.  For many parents, the choice is to have either a happy school district or appropriate full inclusion for their child with Down syndrome.

Children with Down syndrome and their parents are protected by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 from retaliation, interference, and discrimination.  It is most unusual for a school district or their personnel to retaliate against a child with Down syndrome or their parents in any material way.  It is relatively easy to gain relief for somewhat minor issues, such as a teacher not speaking to a parent of a child with Down syndrome or any failure to communicate to parents by school district staff.

How to Make It Work

A nationwide survey indicates that the majority of children with Down syndrome mainstreamed in schools are supported by a learning support assistant for between 20 and 27 hours a week. Of the children in the survey sample, 58% at elementary and 61% at secondary levels were largely unsupported at lunch time, at break times and during assembly. A further 25% at elementary and 18% at secondary levels took part in lessons such as physical education, drama and music without support. However, only 2-3% were unsupported in more academic lessons.

Survey data confirm the view expressed by many parents that the level of support offered by a school district has more to do with local policy or the anxieties of schools than with the needs of the individual child.

Far too many school districts operate a blanket policy that results in all children with Down syndrome being offered a standard package of support. Consequently, those with lesser needs are frequently over-supported and are, as a direct consequence, less likely to become independent learners.  Alternatively, school districts transfer those who need more support to a more specialized setting, against parental wishes.

What is surprising is that the picture of support at elementary and at secondary levels is so similar. Responses from parents suggest that most children with Down syndrome can now find a place in a general education classroom, as long as the families are persistent and enforce their children’s rights. On the other hand, in many school districts, only the most able youngsters are gaining a general education classroom placement.

Several parents in the survey have already accepted the inevitability of special schooling at middle school, despite successful mainstream experience at elementary school.

Nevertheless, where less academically able students have transferred to the secondary sector, they appear to be doing just as well as those with more advanced levels of performance. What seems clear is that cognitive ability, whether measured by I.Q. tests or attainment, is a remarkably poor predictor of successful mainstream placement.


Data show quite clearly that successful inclusive education for many children with Down syndrome is a reality both at elementary and at secondary levels. Yet for others, mainstream placement appears to be offering little in terms of skilled teaching or peer group interaction. While adequate levels of resourcing are clearly important, greater attention needs to be focused on the way in which support is used.

The key factors for successful inclusion appear to be:

  1. A positive attitude of the school’s teachers, full inclusion personnel, and therapists, as a whole, to the child with Down syndrome.
  2. A flexible approach to the use of support staff.
  3. Ownership by the class teacher of the child’s learning program.
  4. Good communication between the school and the parents.
  5. Support for the child’s classroom from special education services personnel.

If these are in place, there is no reason why the majority of children with Down syndrome could not attend their local school and benefit both socially and academically from an inclusive placement both at elementary and at secondary levels.

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