Giving Down Kids a Boost

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Ten years ago, Dana Halle was the parent of a Down Syndrome son and went looking for support and help with his education and development.

Finding none, she took matters into her own hands.

Today, the Down Syndrome Foundation of Orange County that she co-founded provides educational support services for children with Down syndrome. There are several resources, programs and services that the foundation offers that help provide children with a better educational outcome, Halle said.

The core program of the foundation is the Learning Program.

The Learning Program has monthly classes to help connect the research about how children with Down syndrome learn with the parents and teachers who will implement it. Parents are getting schooled on how to provide children with Down syndrome an at-home educational support program.

The program is unique because it focuses on the parents learning how to effectively work with their children and serve as capable advocates for their children in the educational process.

“(The program is) teaching both the child and the parent,” said Dana Halle, co-founder, chief financial officer and director of DSF.

Everything about the program and the foundation is in effort to support independence in the students as they grow into teens and adults.

“(We want to) empower the students to do the best they can and be as independent as they can,” Halle said.

“We help kids get a jump start on their education,” Halle said.

The Learning Program is meant to supplement traditional education and strengthen each child’s educational potential.

“The Learning Program uses current research on best practices and effective teaching strategies to improve the educational potential of children with Down syndrome,” according to the foundation’s website.

The program has become a national model for parents, Halle said, and it is now being incorporated into schools.

“Despite some wonderful teachers, traditional education too often fails children with Down syndrome due to poor educational placement, lack of trained assistants and outdated stereotypes,” according to the foundation’s website.

The program gives parents and teachers access to helpful information, materials and resources.

“We’re trying to really focus on the skills that they are developing and working on that are going to help them,” said teacher Megan Hilbert.

Anything we do here they can bring in and share with their teachers, Hilbert said.

“(The learning process here is) much more visual, a lot of these kids are very visual, that’s how they learn and sometimes school is just verbal,” said Eva Hill, a behavior therapist for the foundation.

Many public schools aren’t equipped to teach children with Down syndrome the way that they learn best, said lead teacher Nicki Presby, who has a 6-year-old daughter with Down syndrome. They are visual learners and need repetition, among other things, Presby said.

“(Sometimes) they get lost in those first and second grade years if they don‘t have the right support,” Presby said. “So the program was created to give parents the knowledge to work at home on the areas and skills that maybe the school wouldn’t be equipped for. And teach them before kindergarten so they go in with these really strong skills.”

The program supports what the students are learning in school and what the parents are learning in Halle‘s presentations, Presby said.

Presby and the other teachers will introduce the concept or learning project to the students during the class and so when they get home the parent can continue the same lesson.

The program is curriculum based, Presby said, which includes literacy, math, fine motor skills and speech.

“(The goal of the program is to) maximize cognition through early exposure,” Halle said. The program is broken up into skill level, loosely based on age groups, starting as young as babies and toddlers.

Halle said through the program she can teach other leaders throughout the country to help implement the program elsewhere. There are about 5,000 members that access the website, Halle said and approximately 500 to 600 students are being impacted with direct use of the program.

All materials online are free and there is curriculum for children in all stages of learning.

The techniques used in the program are based on research and experience, Halle said.

“(The main goal is that) everybody wants to improve the lives of children with Down syndrome,” Halle said.

The program isn’t just for kids with Down syndrome, Hill said, it can help kids with autism or other special needs children, it specifically helps kids who are visual learners.

“When they come here, it’s a chance for them to be successful,” said Hilbert. “And that’s really important.”

The program started as a parent support group, Halle said, and she found they were talking a lot about academic issues. Soon that grew to a monthly group where parents could learn how to best support their child’s education. A childcare feature was soon added to the monthly parent’s meeting and that eventually grew into the student learning aspect of the program.

The parents and students of each level meet once a month, the students in one room with the teachers and the parents in another room with Halle and some lesson plans.

“They’re getting trained on it simultaneously,” Hill said.

When the parent goes home they are equipped with helpful tools to work with their children.

This is a unique program, Presby said, there is nothing like it that offers lessons to both child and parent.

“There’s nothing like this offered (elsewhere),” Presby said.

When Presby had her daughter she did a lot of research, she said, and as a teacher already knew a little about how children with Down syndrome learned.

“When I met Dana (Halle), I realized that there’s a lot more that I can do as a parent to prepare her for school,” Presby said.

The program is in its seventh year and are beginning to see how the program has impacted students from its first year, including Halle’s son. They are excited about learning, Halle said, and doing well.

“The kids are exceeding my expectations,” Halle said.

It is difficult to measure the effectiveness of the program because there are so many different factors, Halle said. But there are assessment tests and teachers observe each child’s progress.

“(Essentially, the program uses) observational methods coupled with assessment,” Halle said. “(We’re) working hard to come up with more formal ways to measure (success).”

It has been very exciting, Halle said, researchers are learning more and more about Down syndrome and education.

“Based on what we know, it is making a difference,” Halle said. “(We’re) very excited about how much we are learning.”

Halle said more and more teachers are joining up with the Learning Program to implement its lessons.

“If I had a wish for the population of students with Down syndrome,” Halle said, “(It would be that the) teachers in general education classes would welcome learning new information and students with Down syndrome into the classroom.”

For more information about the Down Syndrome Foundation of Orange County and the Learning Program, visit www.dsfoc.org or call 949-757-1177.

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