Parents of primary school aged children with Down Syndrome (DS) from around Ireland took part in a study which explored their child’s experiences in mainstream primary schools.
Ninety-nine parents completed an online questionnaire and nine parents took part in a face-to-face interview.
The findings suggest that there are many schools attempting to successfully include children with DS in all aspects of school life. Children with DS are mainly happy attending school and are generally well-supported.
The findings also suggest some challenges have been encountered by the parents and their children, particularly regarding staff knowledge about DS. Inconsistencies in communication and Individual Education Plan (IEP) development and implementation were also reported.
As a parent of a child with Down Syndrome (DS), the inclusion of this group of children in mainstream schools was an area of great personal interest.
The aim of this research study, carried out in academic year 2017/18, was to explore parents’ experiences of the inclusion of their children with DS in mainstream Irish primary schools. A questionnaire was completed by 99 respondents from an online forum explicitly for parents of children with DS, and nine parents living in counties Dublin, Meath, Kildare and Cork participated in one-to-one interviews. The four areas of inclusion, communication, support, and parental involvement were researched and the findings from each are explored below.
Parents described their reasons for choosing a mainstream school, highlighting that their children learn by modelling the behaviour and language of their typically developing peers. By sending them to their local school, often where the child’s siblings attend, parents spoke of the importance of their child being known and recognised in the local community as they grow up. The findings also indicated that the majority of children with DS were happy and felt a sense of belonging in their school. Additionally, it was evident that many schools are employing a variety of strategies to promote the inclusion of this group of children: raising awareness of DS by celebrating World Down Syndrome Day; working with outside agencies such as Occupational Therapists and Speech and Language Therapists; introducing buddy systems in the yard, and including them in the school community as a whole.
Some parents believed that their child’s experience in school, either positive or negative, depended on individual teachers and Special Needs Assistants (SNAs). While a large number of parents reported positive experiences, some less positive examples were also highlighted, for example a lack of understanding of DS from school staff, and social interaction and communication with their typically developing peers becoming more difficult as the child with DS gets older. Some parents believe a move to special education in the future will provide a more suitable environment for their child both academically and socially.
Figure 2: The extent to which schools promote the inclusion of children with Down Syndrome
A variety of personnel are responsible for communicating with parents and informing them of their child’s progress: the class teacher, the resource teacher, or the SNA were all involved, with some schools often reliant on the SNA to give the most regular feedback. Communication journals, email exchanges, informal chats, and the ClassDojo App are the most common methods of communication, in addition to the more formal parent-teacher meetings and Individual Education Plan (IEP) meetings. The majority of parents reported that they have been involved in their child’s IEP, however the personnel involved in the IEP development varies from school to school, and no parent reported the involvement of their child in this process.
Figure 3: Parents’ level of involvement in their child’s IEP
The involvement of the SNA in the IEP process was also a finding that varied from school to school, and some parents expressed their surprise that the SNA was not involved in the process despite being the person who spent the most time with their child. Several parents mentioned that their child had language and communication difficulties, and the photos or messages received from school provided opportunities for them to talk to their child. Although the majority of parents are satisfied with the frequency of communication, some would like a more consistent approach from the school in order to hear more about what happens during their child’s school day.
Parents stated that while in-class support frequently takes place in schools, the main method of support from the resource teachers is to withdraw the children from the classroom. This is either for small group work or for one-to-one tuition, and the majority of parents reported that their child is receiving the allocated time of 2.5 hours per week of additional support. The majority of parents reported that their child is well supported in school by the SNA, and that in many cases the SNAs are going beyond their remit to provide academic support to the children with DS.
Figure 4: How well the class teacher supports the child
Although the parents in general reported that they were satisfied with the level of support their child is receiving in school from the class teachers and the resource teachers, there were concerns about the lack of training and knowledge about DS from all personnel involved with the children.
Figure 5: How well the SNA supports the child
There are a number of courses and a variety of resources available for teachers regarding supporting children with DS in mainstream schools, however some parents reported that not all teachers are making use of these.
Figure 6: How well children are supported by the Special Education Team
Every parent who participated in the interviews believed that while the school staff valued their knowledge about DS, some suggested that the schools were often over-reliant on parental input to provide information and strategies about how to best support their child in school.
Although a greater proportion of schools provide a variety of opportunities for parents to become involved, only a few schools have activities for parental participation in the classroom. The majority of parents reported that there were opportunities to help out with activities such as school tours, charity fundraisers, school fayres, and extra-curricular clubs.
Figure 7: Parents’ level of satisfaction of opportunities for their involvement in their child’s school
Only a small number of parents described opportunities for the parents to go into the classroom and be involved in activities which included Maths games and reading. A few parents mentioned that they would like more opportunities to go into the classroom to see what the children are doing, particularly because of the infrequency of communication from the school, as well as their child’s language difficulties. Parents were quite satisfied with the opportunities provided by the school, and some mentioned they would like to be more involved but family or work circumstances prevented them from doing so. Several parents emphasised the importance of being involved with their child’s education both in and out of school, with some highlighting that their involvement and their relationship with the school staff contributed to their child having a positive experience.
The findings of this research project suggest that on the whole, mainstream schools are attempting to provide an environment which includes children with DS in all aspects of school life. However, the lack of knowledge and training for school staff about DS is a concern shared by many parents. Additionally, there are inconsistencies in IEP development and implementation, as well as irregularities in the communication between school staff and parents. These are core components of a child’s educational experience and as such, are barriers to the full and successful inclusion of this group of children.