Children with Down Syndrome and Goal Setting

October 19, 2016

Making plans is a quintessential part of parenting. There are school schedules, after-school activities, lunches to pack, and buses to catch. And of course, for families of children with Down syndrome, each year involves teaming up with educators and other providers to devise an Individualized Education Program (IEP). As a parent, it can often feel like a lot of life is spent organizing and planning!

Our team at Colorado State University has been working with and studying children with Down syndrome and their families since 2001. We know how full each day can feel, and we are often amazed by the dedication of families who participate in research--even after they've fulfilled all of their many other obligations. Our team is committed to supporting positive outcomes for children with Down syndrome through new research-based recommendations and skill-building approaches.

In particular, our research has shown us that the same skills that are essential for parenting-planning and organizing-are actually very important skills for children with Down syndrome as well! We have been studying the thinking skills that are important for planning, called "executive functions." Our work has shown us that these thinking skills are linked to school success and independence in home and community settings for children with Down syndrome as they grow and become adults. Practicing and strengthening these executive function skills could be a key part of early intervention and educational plans for your child with Down syndrome.

What guidance does the latest research offer to strengthen planning skills for children with Down syndrome?

  1. Help your child practice setting goals. As adults, we may not realize it, but to make it through our days, we are constantly setting mini-goals for ourselves. Our morning routine may involve showering, getting dressed, brushing teeth, and eating breakfast-and each morning, as we move through our routines, we unconsciously check off each task as completed. This type of goal-setting may not always come naturally to children with Down syndrome, and working on setting daily goals and reaching them-however small or large-are important steps toward independence. Visual schedules with pictures depicting each goal or activity can be a great resource when it comes to goal setting and goal monitoring.
  2. Help your child practice strategizing to reach goals. In addition to being able to set goals like "I want to complete my math homework after school each day," or "I want to get dressed on my own in the morning," it is equally important to help your child learn how to break down these skills into steps-to develop a plan that will help them complete the goal. Planning behavior is not always easy. It requires certain kinds of active memory skills, the ability to resist distractions that take your attention away from the plan, and the flexibility to try different ideas and then select the best idea to accomplish the task. If planning is a new skill area, practice setting goals that only have one or two steps, such as getting a bowl from the cupboard or pouring breakfast cereal into the bowl. Over time, combine these steps into a multi-step task where your child fixes her own breakfast each morning.
  3. Help your child generalize these planning skills in many different contexts. Sometimes it is easy to learn a skill in one setting or with one specific teacher or social partner. But to help your child become an effective planner, it is important to help them branch out and practice these skills in a range of environments-at home, at school, at the park, at the grocery store. And it will be helpful for many grownups or other supports in your child's environment to help them develop these skills outside of their relationship with you.

Many parents of children with Down syndrome want more information about how best to support the growth and development of their children. A strong team of educators, allied health professionals, and other providers can help your child be all that they can be. In addition, remaining informed about the latest research can make you a very effective advocate for your child. This new research on planning, goal setting, and executive function in Down syndrome is just one example of how research can inform new ways to support the growth and development of your child with Down syndrome.

We are always excited to connect with families for our research studies. For more information about our research on Down syndrome, please contact us at the Colorado State University Developmental Disabilities Lab (970-491-1969) or by email at [email protected].