By Professor Sue Buckley
As we continue to release new See and Learn teaching programs as apps and kits – most recently with the release of the first step in See and Learn Numbers, I wanted to share some of the reasons why we are developing these resources and what we hope they will offer children with Down syndrome.
For many years, we have drawn on a growing body of research investigating the learning difficulties experienced by children with Down syndrome to inform better education. We published a book and a video based on some of our earliest research in 1986. Ever since then, we have worked to bring evidence-based advice to parents and to teachers through our services, publications and our training.
Practical support for parents and professionals
Parents and educators regularly tell us that learning about the children’s needs through books, films and training events is helpful, but that they do not always have the time or the confidence to follow the advice and make their own teaching materials. This feedback is what led us to start to develop the See and Learn programs – to make it easier for parents and educators to support their children’s learning in key areas of early development.
Building on the available evidence – and practical experience
There is a shameful lack of research evaluating developmental and educational interventions for children with Down syndrome. In fact, our study of a reading and language intervention was the first randomized controlled trial to evaluate a teaching program with children with Down syndrome.
We regularly submit grant applications together with leading academic partners in the UK and USA. Over the past 5 years, we have sought funds to evaluate speech interventions, memory training and its potential benefits for language and learning, a reading comprehension intervention, and the effects of shared book reading on language. Funding is scarce and none of our recent applications have been successful.
Meanwhile, parents, therapists and educators need to help children today and we therefore have to do our best based on what current research tells us about the learning needs of children with Down syndrome and about typical developmental pathways and learning – together with what we have learned from many years of practical experience of working directly with children, their families, therapists and educators.
Supporting individual progress through developmental steps and milestones
Children learn by building on what they already know and can do. The See and Learn teaching programs are designed to help them do just that. They teach in small developmental steps in the order children learn in each area of development.
Children with Down syndrome are all different and learn at different rates. Our teaching programs provide parents and teachers with clear instructions on how to record progress and how to choose the right activity at the right level of difficulty for each individual child.
Importantly, we identify key steps in the learning pathway which demonstrate the child has reached an important milestone and is ready to move forward and build on it – for example, understanding cardinality and being ready to move to simple calculations in See and Learn Numbers, saying 50+ words and being ready to join words together in See and Learn Language and Reading, and being able to join particular consonants and vowels and therefore ready to practice whole words in See and Learn Speech.
Helping children to learn how to learn
See and Learn programs recommend short, daily, planned and structured teaching sessions and expect children to sit still, pay attention and learn. Our experience has shown us it is important to start teaching sessions early at home to give children the skills they need to learn and need for success in preschool and school. In short teaching sessions, children not only increase their attention span, they learn to interact with a partner, to point, to take turns, to imitate, to follow directions, to respond to questions, and to initiate interactions in ways that support success, encourage problem solving, persistence and feelings of competence.
The See and Learn teaching programs are more than just teaching activities and games. They are explicitly designed to enable parents and educators to teach children with Down syndrome in methodical, developmental steps. Just like the printed kits, the apps are also designed to help an adult work with and teach a child. (Please don’t buy our apps if you are hoping to sit your child in front a screen to teach themselves! Learning to speak clearly builds on both the visual and auditory cues provided through human interaction, teaching counting and cardinality will take much prompting and modelling at first, as will learning vocabulary and early reading.)
Mastering the activities in a See and Learn kit or app may take a child many months. Indeed, some See and Learn steps cover stages of learning we expect to take children several years to complete from preschool and into primary school (for example See and Learn First Counting, See and Learn Saying Later Words, See and Learn First Sentences).
Supporting parents at home and teachers and assistants at school
See and Learn kits are designed to help parents teach their children and they are also ideal for use in school. They do not assume prior knowledge or training – they come with full information on how children learn, how to teach and how to use record forms to chart children’s progress allowing teaching assistants to use them very effectively in the classroom on a daily basis under teacher support. The principles of the See and Learn teaching approaches should increase the skills and confidence of anyone using them and give ideas for using these principles in other areas of teaching as well as ideas for extending and generalizing the content of the programs.
Future data collection
We have also designed our apps to be ready to support future data collection – both to provide timely and meaningful information to parents and educators about individual children’s progress, and to gather large-scale data sets on the expected rates of progress of children with Down syndrome in these areas of learning (which we do not have and cannot get funding to collect in the traditional way). We believe this will be valuable for parents and professionals, and also immensely important for researchers. While the apps are already designed to support this, we now need to build the infrastructure to collect the data from the apps and present useful progress and milestone information back to parents and teachers. We are actively seeking funds to start this next phase of work.
Helping us fund new research and development
Over the last two years we have devoted a considerable amount of staff time to developing new See and Learn teaching programs and apps to support speech, language and reading, numbers and (soon) memory development. We have invested heavily in developing new app editions that run on a variety of tablets and computers, and that in the future will support more extensive progress tracking and research data collection.
Only some of these costs have been funded by grants and donations and we therefore have to recover the rest from what we charge for the See and Learn kits and apps. Once we have recovered these development costs, we plan to use the proceeds from the sales of the kits and apps to fund continuing development and to support new scientific research.
It is unfortunate that so few donors are interested in supporting educational research to improve learning outcomes for children with Down syndrome – learning outcomes that are so critical for their future quality of life, such as clearer speech, basic numeracy, a larger vocabulary, better memory skills, and the reading skills necessary to access a broader education. We therefore see no option but to increasingly fund future research from fees for our products and services.
We have invested heavily in developing app editions of new and existing See and Learn programs. Much of that investment in programming will now support a wider range of future resources, including more for older children.
We also believe that apps are beneficial for the children (visual, enticing, interactive) and that apps, together with ebooks and other electronic resources and services, offer the best opportunity for scaling up better support for children with Down syndrome around the world. To achieve this, we will be investing in translations and adaptations of apps, kits and new ebooks to ensure that families and educators everywhere can access the latest research, information and guidance to better support early development and education for children with Down syndrome.
Keep in touch
I think that I have made clear why I am excited about what we can do to better support early intervention and education for children with Down syndrome around the world. I am equally excited about the opportunities that new technologies offer us to improve our understanding of the children’s particular needs and of how we can best help them. Our new See and Learn resources are just the beginning.
Please keep in touch. As we continue to develop these resources and services, we need your feedback. Let us know what we are getting right and what we are not getting right, and what we can do better.
To find out more about See and Learn, visit the See and Learn web site. We offer regular webinars that you can attend and where you can ask questions. We also have a See and Learn Facebook group, and you can contact us via email@example.com or leave your comments on this blog.