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November 2011

From the National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER)

NCSER Funds Research on Down Syndrome: Executive Functioning Skills and Reading Instruction

Two new grants awarded by NCSER in 2011 focus on Down syndrome, the most common genetic cause of intellectual disability.

Deborah Fidler and Lisa Daunhauer of Colorado State University are exploring executive functioning skills—cognitive processes that are important for adaptive, goal-directed actions—in young children with Down syndrome. The potential executive functioning deficits in children with Down syndrome may have critical educational implications. In typically developing children, executive functioning skills are associated with early school performance. Drs. Fidler and Daunhauer have begun to follow up on preliminary evidence that there is a particular "executive functioning profile" of strengths and weaknesses in this population. According to Dr. Fidler, "This study aims to move the field of special education forward in important ways. If we can identify how specific thinking skills, like executive functions, vary among individuals with specific disabilities, we can develop new ideas about how to improve outcomes for children with Down syndrome and other disabilities in the classroom and in the broader community."

Dr. Lemons with one of his students.Dr. Lemons with one of his students.

This research will examine whether "cool" executive functioning skills are more impaired in children with Down syndrome than "hot" executive functioning skills. Cool executive functioning skills are those that are primarily cognitive in nature, including working memory (storing information in mind long enough to manipulate it) and planning skills (generating appropriate steps to reach a goal). Hot executive functioning skills are those that incorporate affective or motivational components, such as inhibition (exerting self-control to override automatic or prepotent responses) and set shifting (changing from one set of rules to another). The executive functioning profile of children with Down syndrome will be compared to those of both children with intellectual disability without diagnosis of a specific syndrome and typically developing children. The study also will investigate how executive functioning skills are associated with academic and related skills in each group of children, how executive functioning skills in kindergarten relate to academic skills in second grade, and whether there are group differences in the development of executive functioning skills over time.

Principal investigator (PI) Christopher Lemons of the University of Pittsburgh—along with co-PIs Cynthia Puranik of the University of Pittsburgh, Stephania Al Otaiba of Florida State University, and Deborah Fidler—are developing an early reading intervention to enhance the skills of children with Down syndrome. The team is working to modify current approaches to early reading instruction based upon a set of behavioral characteristics commonly shared among children with Down syndrome. This behavioral phenotype includes difficulties with expressive language, motivation, working memory—one of the components of executive functioning that Drs. Fidler and Daunhauer have been examining—and relative strengths in visual processing.

Dr. Lemons' student practicing vocabulary.Dr. Lemon's student practicing.

"The primary question we are addressing with this project is whether we can take what we know about a specific group of children and use that information to enhance reading instruction for them," explains Dr. Lemons. "If we are successful, a similar approach may be used to improve early reading instruction for other children who share common characteristics, such as children with autism or those with other genetic syndromes."

The intervention incorporates critical components of early reading that have been adapted and modified to take advantage of relative strengths and to more directly target areas of relative weakness. According to Dr. Lemons, "One of the most common questions I get from teachers in the classroom is ‘What aspects of evidence-based instruction are likely to be beneficial for children with intellectual disabilities?' I'm hoping this project will help shed light on the answer to that question."

The reading intervention is intended to be a 16-week supplemental reading curriculum targeting essential early reading skills, including phonological awareness, decoding, sight word reading, fluency, and vocabulary. The tasks will be designed to decrease working memory load, compensate for deficits in verbal short-term memory, and increase motivation. Additionally, the intervention is aimed at incorporating strategies to enhance speech articulation and language into the reading instruction. "I believe," states Dr. Puranik, "that our project provides an excellent platform for pooling expertise from across various disciplines—speech language pathology, general and special education—to address the reading deficits of children with Down syndrome."

The development of this intervention will take place through an iterative process of implementation and revision, followed by a pilot study examining students' reading growth and comparing outcomes for students who receive the intervention to those who receive the instruction typically provided by the school. Normative data will also be collected.