Dear Primary Teacher,
Thank you for your work with and kindness to Katie and Liz. We thought it might be helpful for you to have some understanding of them, with general tips on working with the girls, as well as our expectations of them.
Katie and Liz are really no different from other children. They want to belong, to be included, and to have friends. They want to be good at something, to participate, and to be heard. They just need a little more support, modification, or time to respond to the material and help with communication when they don’t know how to express themselves. Our goals for the girls at church are that they (1) develop their own testimonies that Jesus is their personal Savior, (2) learn the gospel basics and continue to develop a personal relationship with God, (3) get to know the scriptures, (4) be an integral part of the class and participate in meaningful ways, and (5) develop genuine friendships with the children their age.
Katie and Liz (and many people with Down syndrome) are very social people. They love interacting with others and find those interactions rewarding, though they often don’t understand personal boundaries. The girls are pretty intuitive with people and can manipulate people to get what they want. This, of course, is not malicious—just something they are good at. Please don’t be afraid to be firm with them (tell them that it’s not appropriate to hug everybody, grab people’s clothing, and sit on laps or that they need to turn around and pay attention). It can be helpful to have a classmate assigned to be their friend for the day and keep them with the group (like a peer tutor). Often they will respond better to prompts from a peer than from an adult.
One of the biggest challenges we have right now with Katie and Liz is goofy or funny behavior (saying unintelligible things on purpose, talking in a funny voice, invading personal space, and so forth). This is a result of not knowing how to appropriately respond to a situation. Others encourage this inappropriate behavior by laughing or allowing it, probably because the situation is awkward and they don’t know what to do or they think the girls are cute. What is cute now will not be cute when the girls are 15 or 25 or 35 . . . so we are working hard to eliminate these behaviors now. Kids with disabilities need to learn how to behave appropriately now so that they can be appropriate in adulthood. We ask that you not respond when the girls are being goofy or weird. Responding in any way (eye contact, words, touch) will only encourage the behavior. Please just ignore the girl who is doing it, and give your attention to someone else. They often copy each other’s goofy behavior, so separating them and giving them good role models could help with this. As they love attention, our hope is that they will be rewarded with it through appropriate, typical behavior.
They have a high need for sensory input and will sometimes act out or misbehave if they are understimulated or if the lesson is over their heads. They try to fill this need by waving something (sometimes their sleeve or part of their clothes). We have labeled this behavior “flapping” and talk to the girls about how it’s not appropriate. If you see it happening, please prompt the girls to stop. You can also praise them when they are using “nice hands.” In school they take quick sensory breaks or chew gum for sensory input. Breaking up a lesson with some kind of active song or a quick round of jumping jacks or something active would be helpful. Katie and Liz are visual, not necessarily auditory, learners. If you find that they are not paying attention, try something more visual or kinesthetic. Music is especially helpful, as is acting out stories. They love this. They especially love music with movement.
Lastly, both girls are quite sensitive to what they eat. We try very hard not to give them many refined products (especially sugar), because it impacts their health and behavior so much. Thanks again for your work with Katie and Liz. Please don’t hesitate to call us if you have questions or behavior problems. We realize that you are trying to meet the needs of all the children in your class. We don’t expect our girls to be your primary focus—just want to give you some suggestions that will make working with them as rewarding as it can be. We are anxious to make Primary a positive experience for everyone involved.
Luis and Anna