When teaching and supporting children and young people with Down Syndrome, at some point it is likely that you will find yourself thinking about how best to manage behaviours that you are finding difficult and which may impact on the child’s learning. It is a common question on Facebook groups for educators.

Why might we see behaviours we find difficult?

With any behaviour, no matter what diagnostic label it is associated with, our first step needs to be understanding why that behaviour might have started, developed, and what might be maintaining it.

Common underlying reasons for behaviour might be

  • To gain attention

It is a natural human response to gain attention from our peer group, and from adults. If you think that the child or young person you work with is attention-seeking, ask yourself why this might be happening.

  • Cumulative demands over the day

For many children with Down Syndrome, keeping up all day with learning demands and with social and physical demands is really hard work! Our learners with Down Syndrome are having to work hard to access the school environment all the time, so it is no surprise that they cannot stay on-task all the time.

  • Not being able to access the work

Work that is not appropriately differentiated (it may be too hard or too easy) is likely to provoke a response.

  • Not having the skills to work independently

Sometimes the supports we have put in place for children and young people have taught them that the only way to stay on task is if they have an adult to manage their attention for them, and make sure we are using appropriate strategies. We need to work, from the start, to build a range of independent learning skills so that our learners have tools to tackle their learning.

  • Not having more suitable ways to communicate

Behaviour often stems from not having the skills to communicate boredom, frustration, anger etc in ways we find more acceptable such as talking. Are we giving children the communication skills they need to express themselves?

  • Unmet sensory-motor or emotional needs

If we have unmet needs for movement, are driven to seek or avoid some stimuli (e.g. noise), or do not feel safe in our relationships, then we may well see these needs being expressed as negative behavioural reponses.

  • Unmet medical needs

Did you know that people with Learning Disability often do not have the same level of medical care as others? It can be assumed that some conditions are associated with their diagnostic label, and they may not be considered or investigated.

Things to avoid in managing behaviour

  • Inconsistent management

In my experience, it is really common that people are bringing lots of different ideas to managing behaviour in children with additional needs. This results in some people having expectations that are too high for a child’s skill level, and some people tolerating behaviour that is not appropriate for the child’s age and skills. These often grow out of our (sometimes unrecognised) attitudes to disability and inclusion. It is essential that everyone have the same expectations, manage behaviour in the same way, and carry out any positive or negative consequences for the child appropriately. We are equipping our learners with skills for life, and so it is important that they learn all the same lessons as others about what behaviours are acceptable, and when consequences will occur

  • Poorly or inconsistently explained expectations for work

Tasks need to be appropriately differentiated, and then staff needs to have consistent expectations for what ‘done’ looks like. It is helpful to have an idea of what the ideal completed task is, then what the minimum acceptable amount and standard of work is, so that we can grade our expectations reasonably on the day.If tasks are not differentiated to the appropriate level, then we are inviting a behavioural response from the child or young person.Remember that instructions for tasks also need appropriate differentiation, as well as the task materials themselves

  • Loads of talking

It is really common when a child refuses to do something for adults to engage in lots of talking to persuade them. If a child does not understand a task, is feeling generally fed up, or having a strong emotional response to a situation, then it is not the time for giving them more processing to do. Many children and young people with Down Syndrome already find language difficult. At times like these, we should do less talking not more.

Even if a child is showing a behaviour ‘just because’, when we do lots of talking to them about it, we may be reinforcing that the behaviour is a great way to avoid the task and have a chat instead.

  • Saying one thing and showing another

It is essential that our non-verbal communication matches what we are saying. Remember that children may not be processing the words you use well, especially during an emotional period, and so may be reliant on your body language to set the tone for the interaction. If we are saying ‘no’, but our body language shows we are uncomfortable with the expectation, then we are not being clear in our communication.

Things to do more of in managing behaviour

  • Take time to establish reasonable, well-informed and consistent behavioural expectations

Before the child starts in your setting or class, have a team conversation about what everyone’s expectations are. If people are uncomfortable with what they are being asked to reinforce, they will not be consistent. This is the opportunity for people to have their say, and for the reasons for the management plan to be explained to everyone. Take advice from everyone who knows the child, including their family, about what reasonable expectations are, and what has worked (or not) in the past.

  • Take time to really understand the child’s learning level and style to differentiate appropriately and make sure tasks are at the right level for the child
  • Use more visuals

Visuals are an essential part of task differentiation and of explaining behavioural expectations to most children with Down Syndrome. Don’t wait for behaviours to emerge, plan in advance and get your visuals ready. Visuals will also be important to reduce the need for verbal processing during behavioural incidents.

  • Give choices not ultimatums

Many behavioural incidents grow from a child wanting to gain some control over a situation. Again, this is an entirely reasonable human response, especially if we are consistently put in situations that stretch us beyond our comfort zone.Think about where you can reasonably offer control to the child – do the things you want to happen need to happen right now? Could a child choose the length of the activity? Again, you need to work these things out in advance and communicate them to the whole team. What things are non-negotiable, and what can we be flexible about? This is not the same as not having expectations, but we need to understand where we can flex and where we cannot.

  • Be proactive not reactive

It is important to think about behaviour management before you need it, and if you haven’t, then there is never a better time to stop and talk as a team (including a child’s family) than now. Behaviour can escalate really quickly if we don’t have frank conversations early. These conversations may feel difficult but it is essential that we have them, as not doing so can cause relationships, trust and placements to break down.

Got top tips for managing behaviour? Come and tell me on my social media!