I’ve been off the grid with my tutoring, consulting and blogging the past few weeks as our family suffered an unimaginable, sudden tragedy…the loss of our six year old grandson, Vincent. Within a week, he went from his usual winter cold to serious issues, strokes and surgeries. He passed away a few days later with his parents at his side. But from the moment he was born and diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome, this boy began teaching his lessons…lessons that I wish I had known when many years ago when I had a student with Down Syndrome in my class. Back then I did not know much, if anything, about how to help and teach these children. While I did have help and support from the wonderful special education staff at my school, I wish I had known more and had done more to establish a relationship and teach her. Now because of Vincent, I know. I would like to share with you some lessons that may help not only teachers, but any caregivers who work with special needs children.
Encourage a love of books with ALL students: As a retired teacher, of course I had hundreds of children’s books in my home and tried to encourage all three of our grandchildren to enjoy being read to as well as reading on their own. But it was Vincent who truly developed a passion for books. At first he would grab a book and bring it a family member to have them read aloud. However, he lost patience with that and began choosing books to either look at on his own or read. He especially loved interactive books and books that made noise! He would “read aloud” the book with a great deal of expression, while turning pages and looking up at his listeners to see their reaction. He obviously had been watching his caregivers and teachers closely as they read aloud and wanted to emulate their enthusiasm.
Vincent’s Lesson: If you have special needs students in your classroom, make sure they have access to many books are given opportunities to hear books read aloud and let them read to other students. Have the students in your class also work with them on the alphabet, phonemic awareness and phonics skills. Help them discover a love of words!
Celebrate the joy of music with your students! Besides books, nothing made Vincent happier than music and dancing. When he was at our house, we turned on the party songs and he would rock out; Such a joy to watch him! But he especially loved singing with microphones. We have our own karaoke setup at our house and during karaoke parties, he would go up to the person singing, grab the second mike and start singing along. His teacher at Turman Elementary in Colorado Springs shared an adorable video of him at school picking up laminated models of coins and singing the money poem/song. Once the song was over, Vincent wasn’t…he kept picking up more coins and singing away!
Vincent’s Lesson: Make sure your students, no matter the if they are special needs or not, are given opportunities to sing, dance and listen to music (and sing into microphones!). There are so many ways to integrate music into lessons and activities!
Love unconditionally: Of course we teachers care about all of our students. However, every teacher knows that there are some children that are much more challenging than others. Life was not always easy with Vincent; he had to be constantly supervised and kept busy and occupied. It’s important to set rules and expectations with special needs students, and have consequences for inappropriate behavior, but every student must know that you care unconditionally for him or her and will help and support them no matter what. I know Vincent felt that from his family, teachers, and friends, and we all felt that from Vincent. Vincent loved everyone…his parents and brother, his dog, all of his grandparents, his cousins, his relatives, his parents’ friends, his teachers and other caregivers, our friends, my family…everyone. Vincent loved life and emulated joy and happiness.
Vincent’s Lesson: Special Needs students need to have teachers who love them unconditionally and share their joy and happiness in life and learning!
Learn from your students: Vincent’s mother began teaching him sign language at an early age to help him communicate with the family and others. When he began schools, she shared this strategy with his teachers and after care staff to help them communicate with him as well. Last year he received an award from the after school program; he had been their first Down Syndrome child in their program and as the Director of the program stated in her comments at his service; he demanded they do more, be more and learn more (sounds like our Vincent!) The award he received was an American Sign Language award to thank him for opening their minds to learning sign language. Here is a LINK to more information on using sign language with Down Syndrome children.
Vincent’s Lesson: The adult teachers are not the only ones who can teach others. Watch for opportunities to learn from your students and have them share their knowledge and skills with others.
Finally, I would like to thank the teachers and staff of Turman Elementary School and the Deerfield Community Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Besides his incredible teachers and para in his SSN classroom at Turman, he had an incredible caregiving staff at Deerfield’s After Care program. They not only took are of him after school every day, but on his off-track time. Their love for Vincent was apparent when so many of them came to the hospital to support Vincent and his family during that last difficult week. They shared so many priceless stories, photos and videos with us! Even more staff from both places attended his service. As teachers, our students and their families are very special to us and that was apparent the past few weeks. Vincent touched so many lives!
For more information on how to support special needs students in your classroom, please check out the following links:
Strategies for learning and teaching Down Syndrome students
Supporting the student with Down Syndrome in your classroom
5 Tips for including students with Down Syndrome in a general education classroom
Down Syndrome resources for educators