This school year marks the 5th year in a row the DSC is offering The Learning Program, a curriculum specially designed by the Down Syndrome Foundation of Orange County for individuals with Down syndrome. Although there is a fee to participate, scholarships are offered, and the program is heavily subsidized by our generous donors. Providing this program has been a priority for the DSC because our families have found so much value in it, and beneficial educational programming is a pillar of our organization. We spoke with Cassie Borges who teaches the parent class and Sara Behrens, lead teacher in the childrens’ class – to understand more about this incredible program.
What is the Learning Program?
Cassie: The Learning Program offers multi-disciplinary, evidence-based support to families and children with Down syndrome. The materials and teachings give families confidence needed to support their children in and out of the classroom. The program also provides a community support system allowing families to share their experiences and learn about local options that they may be unaware of.
Sara: The Learning Program is an opportunity for families of children with Down syndrome to come together once a month to learn! During the 90-minute class period, the children participate in math, literacy, speech and fine motor activities while the adults learn a variety of ways to support their student’s learning.
Who can participate?
Cassie: Primarily I see families and children with Down syndrome participate in the program. The materials and parent coaching, however, could greatly benefit anyone working with students with Down syndrome and their families such as special educators, physical or occupational therapists, behavioral therapists, counselors, etc.
Sara: This year we have a wide range of learners, from pre-schoolers to seniors in high school!
What can a parent or caregiver expect from class each month?
Cassie: Prior to class parents receive an email with a link to the materials online and any pertinent information for class. Parents are welcomed into the classroom each month and given printed materials to take home that include worksheets. If there is time before or after class parents are encouraged to mingle and meet other families. The beginning of class is reserved for introductions as well as “Wins & Wants”. “Wins & Wants” is a time for each family to share something that went well for them or their child the previous month as well as ask questions to the community and share a time of frustration, concern, or talk about what they want to learn from the class. The remainder of class is a time for informal lecture with a PowerPoint where the teacher instructs and encourages participation, questions, as well as suggestions from the class. My main goal as instructor is to not just give the information to families but create a community that can support each other.
What happens in the childrens’ class?
Sara: The student class consists of a mix of large group circle times, free choice periods, and small group stations. Three small group stations conducted in each session focus on math and literacy, speech activities with a speech language pathologist, and fine motor activities with an occupational therapist. Each month has a unique focus and theme! And with the variety of ages this year, we work to make the instruction age appropriate and of interest for each learner.
How are families benefiting from the LP?
Cassie: Families benefit from the LP with physical materials and instruction that can be used to guide their child’s progress in and out of school. I have already heard parents comment on the use they are getting from these materials and noticing a difference in their child’s successes. The LP also provides a safe place for parents and families to meet and talk about their triumphs and tribulations, with the instructor available to give input when necessary. Families also benefit by talking to those in their community. Sometimes families feel like sharing and sometimes families just listen, but they are all there for the same goal; to help their children!
Sara: In addition to enhancing the learning experience of the students, lasting friendships are made during the Learning Program. It’s always great to watch the students interact and share experiences during free choice periods.
Do you have a favorite moment from your LP experience?
Cassie: My favorite moments of the class are when parents share their “wins and wants”. This is a time for all of the families to truly connect and help one another. In this discussion there have been tears sharing medical diagnoses or frustrations with the school systems, as well as, cheers sharing successes such as the student stopping at the front door when a stop sign was used rather than eloping — or hearing a mother speak warmly about sharing a book with her child who had never before been interested in books.
Sara: My favorite moment from this year was definitely listening to the conversations about Halloween costumes. Students who otherwise may not interact were sharing ideas and stories, drawing pictures and telling each other stories from past experiences. Watching the friendships form was unforgettable.
For more information about The Learning Program, visit our website or contact our Learning Program Coordinator, Alison Burchett, directly. Enrollment begins in June each summer, so watch for details in the spring about enrolling yourself and your student for next year!