Dear Ted

12th March 2004 at 00:00
A child with Down's syndrome has just joined our reception class. I have doubts whether it will work for her - or her classmates. Am I wrong to worry?

Ted Wragg, emeritus professor of education at Exeter University, answers your professional problems, big or small, every week. Ask him for independent advice - or offer some of your own

Ted says

I have seen the "mainstreaming" or "inclusion" of children with special needs in other countries, as well as in Britain, and it is remarkable how variable the practice can be. Whether it is successful for a particular child depends on several factors.

Try to find out as much as you can about Down's syndrome, as there is a great deal of popular misconception about it. You must also learn about the girl's family, as parents, siblings and relatives will have an important part to play in her education.

The hardest part may be making sure that you get the help you are going to need. It is essential that you have specialist advice from someone used to working with children who have Down's syndrome; not every infant school special needs co-ordinator has such direct experience, so you may require external help. Any additional helpers, classroom assistants or volunteer parents must be well briefed.

The children in your class can also help. It is a tricky balance for five-year-olds to be friendly without being patronising. Even adults can struggle with this. Some children may be cruel to a child who looks different, or even, if they themselves are newcomers to school, a little afraid of her. Watch out for any sign of teasing or bullying, and be quick to smile at children who are kind and friendly, without making a meal of it.

If things seem to be going badly, insist that help and additional resources be made available. Self-belief is important, not only for a child, but for a teacher as well. Give her a flying start in school and you will have done something that few other professionals would be able to match.

You say

Give her a chance to shine

The most important thing is that you approach this child not as a syndrome, but as a unique individual with weaknesses to confront and strengths to develop. Recent research has shown that generations of Down's syndrome children have been held back by low teacher expectations. Many function well in mainstream schools; some go on to further and higher education.

Get some first-hand advice - your local education authority adviser can put you in touch with other schools that have similar inclusion initiatives - and ask for any training and support you need. You may have to take a creative approach to delivering the curriculum, for example, through music and drama, and you will need to work with the pupil's support workers to set individual targets. There may be medical needs to prepare for.

It is vital that you prepare the other children to work with a disabled peer - for example through exploring the concept of "difference". Also ensure that you allow this child to participate as fully as possible in class duties.

Work closely with your special needs co-ordinator to assess what support and strategies you need, and work with your head to ensure all members of the school team are as clued-in as you. Finally, fully involve this child's parents or carers.

Tina Russell-Cruise, Macclesfield

Cherish the rewards

As the mother of a girl with Down's syndrome who went to a mainstream primary school, and as a teacher myself, I say to you: look forward to this new experience and tap into all the help and advice that is available. Make your teaching a real partnership with the child's parents and don't be afraid of asking their advice on any issues.

Children with Down's syndrome can make progress across the curriculum, and every small step will be so incredibly rewarding for you, your child's parents and, of course, the little girl herself.

Caroline Miller, email

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