Transition into
Elementary School

A Note on Behaviour

There are several stereotypes about students with Down syndrome, such as the notion that they are routinely sweet and good-natured.   Some teachers are surprised, then, when students with Down syndrome exhibit negative behaviour. Teachers and Educational Assistants have reported that students with Down syndrome can be stubborn, contrary and rude, and they are often deliberately disobedient. Students with Down syndrome also run away more than other students.

Why might this be?

There are several contributing factors:


Some children with Down syndrome prefer attention and emotion, even if it is negative, over an absence of attention and emotion, so they engage in negative behaviour just for the pleasure of the ensuing exchanges.


Other children with Down syndrome need time to process what is being asked of them or something that has just happened; when they aren’t given sufficient processing time, they can be angry or rude.


Sometimes students with Down syndrome shut down if they are subjected to a barrage of language, i.e., “Time for Math, Zion. Get your Math book out. No – not that one – your Math book. Come on – you love Math; Math is your favourite, isn’t it? Let’s go – Math book in three. Three, two… come on – Math is going to be fun today. I need you to have your Math book on your desk. Make a good choice!”


Students with Down syndrome consistently demonstrate an impulse to avoid extending themselves to do difficult things. In order to avoid tasks that strike them as difficult, they overuse their considerable social skills. Sometimes they accomplish this by being distractingly cute (there are examples in the literature of babies with Down syndrome, only months old, blowing bubbles and successfully distracting scientific researchers from the experimental tasks they were conducting!). On other occasions, a student with Down syndrome will use their social skills in a negative way and say or do something rude or difficult that succeeds in getting them away from the task they hoped to avoid. Running away to avoid a challenging task or to have the fun and distraction of being chased is a common strategy.

What can be done to minimize negative behaviour?

  • Give attention and emotion to the student with Down syndrome when they are doing what you ask. Keep your reaction and feedback to a minimum when they are knowingly causing difficulties. Flood them with positivity when they get back on track and join the target activity.
  • Allow processing time. When the student is processing the demands of a task, avoid overwhelming them with language. Where possible, be silent until the student has had time to think through their feelings about a particular situation. It may feel awkward to wait ten seconds or more for a response but wait time can be a key factor in lessening difficult behaviour.
  • In rare circumstances, in response to a student’s negative behaviour, the teacher may have to acknowledge that the behaviour is a form of communication: perhaps a classroom task is actually beyond the student’s abilities. In that circumstance, it is appropriate for the teacher to adjust their demands. Alternately, the student may be communicating boredom and may require more varied activities than they currently are being offered.
  • Otherwise, the best way to reduce negative behaviours is to set firm expectations and insist that the student with Down syndrome stay on track. This requires the teacher to be aware when the student is trying to avoid a daunting task, to calmly restate the expectation and to redirect the student as necessary.

Communication Resources

At its 2019 Educators Conference, the Down Syndrome Research Foundation recommended the following resources on communication:

Kumin, L. (2001). Classroom language skills for children with Down syndrome: a guide for parents and teachers (1st ed.). Bethesda, MD: Woodbine House.

Kumin, L. (2012). Early communication skills for children with Down syndrome: a guide for parents and professionals (3rd ed.). Bethesda, MD: Woodbine House.

Kumin, L. (2008). Helping children with Down syndrome communicate better: speech and language skills for ages 6-14 (1st ed.). Bethesda, MD: Woodbine House.

Pepper, J., Weitzman, E., & Manolson, H. A. (2004). It takes two to talk: a practical guide for parents of children with language delays (Fourth edition.) Toronto, Ontario: Hanen Centre.  (Website of Laura Mize, SLT)