Team 21 Tots Advice About Younger Children With Down Syndrome


During my time teaching in Team 21 tots and my experience with my son Joshua, who has Down syndrome, I would like to share some tips I have used along the way and some advice on what has worked for me.


First I try and make everything fun and turn nearly everything that I want to teach into a song. First thing we need is to get their attention, use simple language, speak a little bit slower than your used to, maintain eye contact and remember repetition is the key. Nearly everything can be turned into a game, hide and go seek is a great one for learning colours. Can you find the BLUE car, is it UNDER the table?. Lots of concepts learned here in a fun way, using movement. Sitting at a table learning is great but lots of learning takes place while doing and playing. You will have a great relationship with your laminator as our kids learn best by seeing not hearing. Back everything up with visual images. Pinterest is a fantastic tool to use for this.



When your child is pre-verbal I call this the “naming” phase, where you are literally naming things all day. Say the word for everything, so if you are teaching about animals for instance, you will name and sign the word for cow many many times. If you can think of this three stage strategy for learning it really works


• We name it , sign it & show a picture of it – you can be in this stage for a long time

• Can you show me the cow – picture of a cow, then picture of a cow and a pig – show me the cow?

• What is this? – expect a sign for cow first, then followed by the word cow


I recommend listening to Jolly Phonics in the car as then you know they are hearing it every day. It will come in very useful to know your sounds and songs that go with it as preschool and school will be teaching this. I highly recommend using the See and Learn kit from Downs Ed also. This is a research based tool to increase speech and language. Many schools use it in resource time also. You can just spend five minutes a day no more as over using it will make your child associate it with work.



While out and about make sure you are always talking to your child and showing them things. This is the best way to learn about the world around you. A trip to the supermarket can be great if we show visuals for milk and bread and ask them to help us. Get them involved with packing the bag and help putting things in the trolly. Use everyday tasks as a learning opportunity as our kids are sponges and the more they are spoken directly to the more they learn. I don’t think Joshua has walked the stairs in our house without counting them as this is just something we did since he learned to crawl up them – use every opportunity!


There are fantastic apps on the iPad that enhance learning. The obvious ones are the Lámh (sign language) ones, Cope Foundation Sing Along Songs have more songs using Lámh. If your child loves Peppa Pig, find a Peppa Pig educational app as this will be of interest to them. Also Super Simple Songs on You Tube are catchy easy songs to sing. As soon as you have done the Lámh course make sure the whole family get involved as Lámh is a life saver when our kids want to communicate but are not ready to speak. It eases the frustration. Once speech is mastered signs are naturally dropped. Joshua always reverts back to Lámh if we cannot understand him so it has been invaluable to us. The Hanen It Takes Two to Talk programme is an excellent resource for communication strategies. Ask your early intervention provider if they are doing the course.


I think staying on top of the hearing is so important in the early years as it is such a changeable situation. We all know hearing is vital for speech production so our kids need to be checked as often as possible. I always tried to get them checked every six months and that meant sometimes having to go private as public appointments may not always be that frequent. Joshua had three sets of grommets inserted before age five. This has no doubt helped him with his speech. Keep calling for appointments as fluid in the ears is very prevelant particularly over the winter months when our kids catch so many head colds. Annual flu jabs are also very important.



Prior to starting school if you get a chance to go on the Handwriting Without Tears course I would highly recommend this. I think it was one of the most relevant courses I ever went on. Numicon is a maths course and also very worthwhile.


Behaviour……where do I start? This has been a big one for me as my little darling is incredibly head strong and stubborn. The early years were all about hair pulling….. I did everything I could think of to stop this behaviour, we ignored him and gave all the attention to the poor distraught child. Together with Joshua’s home teacher we got thera-bands (latex resistance bands) that might help if the pulling was from a sensory point of view. We got the dolls that had long hair and practiced gentle hands, we made social stories – you name it. Did any of it work? You know I’m really not sure, I think TIME helped. He just eventually realised it was not the right thing to do. Guess what happened then…. He changed the behaviour to pushing, that stopped too and now he can be known to say the odd bad word when he is annoyed. At the end of the day i think there will always be something I’m working on but just take one thing from this …… this too will pass. Time alone will help stop behaviours that are hard work. They may just change it to a different tactic but as they grow and understand more about cause and effect there is a better chance they will understand more. Hang in there!



Toilet training……. Please don’t start too early. Make sure there is an understanding there in the first place as this will save you a lot of time and heartache. This has taken a long time to master in our house. We are out of nappies a long time but still need reminding to go on a daily basis. If there are any changes in this area make sure nurses are checking for coeliac. One in ten children with Down Syndrome will have this as opposed to one in one hundred in the general population. Joshua was diagnosed at age 6.


Special Olympics have a new programme called the Young Athletes Programme that starts from 4-7 years. It is the foundation steps our kids need to master before choosing a sport. They learn to run, hop, skip, throw, catch, kick etc. These skills help with their coordination, agility and speed. Once they have mastered these skills they are ready to chose a sport. Get in touch with Special Olympics to hear where your nearest class is.




These are just a few thoughts that come to mind that I have found helpful over the years. My last nugget of advice for what it’s worth is …. Our kids will do everything in their time. Forget developmental norms, even in the special needs world as it’s not terribly relevant. They will do it when they are ready so be prepared to wait but enjoy the rewards because they are worth every minute of it.

Best of luck!




by Triona Cussen


Triona runs Triona’s Tots, (formerly Team 21 Tots), a parent and tots class, at The Down Syndrome Centre every Monday (during school term). She is a qualified Montessori teacher and has attended Lámh and Hanen courses. Triona is mum to four boys, Joshua is her youngest son.

You can view a fantastic video about Team 21 Tots and Triona’s experience of being a Mum to Joshua here


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