Individuals with Down syndrome often have difficulty with math skills that can affect their daily living. It is suggested that numerical skills in individuals with Down syndrome are delayed by two years compared to their abilities in literacy (Buckley, 2007). This could in part be due to the more extensive research and development of interventions in literacy, while, until recently, fewer studies and less attention have been focused on numeracy skills in individuals with Down syndrome. Difficulties with math skills are linked to language deficits in the area of listening comprehension, receptive vocabulary and grammatical comprehension (Fuchs et al., 2014). Attention span, phonological awareness and motor skills are also aspects to consider in the early learning of mathematical skills in children and adolescents with Down syndrome (Onivello et. al., 2019).

In her 2017 paper, Rhonda Faragher proposes a hypothesis of a co-morbidity of developmental dyscalculia and Down syndrome, with implications for how we approach teaching mathematics to learners with Down syndrome. Among other considerations, Fargher suggests that individuals with Down syndrome have difficulty visualizing a ‘mental number line’ and stresses the importance of treating a calculator as a prosthetic device for learners with Down syndrome due to their difficulty with calculations. Faragher also advocates for students with Down syndrome to learn grade-level mathematics with the necessary adaptations and modifications within the classroom setting (Faragher, 2019).

In our one-to-one sessions and small group classes for young adults with Down syndrome, DSRF has found that learners benefit from focused attention in certain areas of numeracy and, in general, a balanced approach to learning math skills, where multiple skills are developed simultaneously within a smaller set of numbers. Beginning with pre-literacy and numeracy skills such as matching and sorting, we work with a small set of numbers (1-3), and within that set of numbers, explore various concepts including number recognition, one-to-one correspondence, numerical order, cardinality, subitizing, counting, more and less, and simple addition and subtraction. As learners become more proficient with these skills, we expand the set of numbers. DSRF teachers incorporate the individual student’s needs and interests and work to develop the skills that are most useful and necessary in everyday life using the concept of a spiral curriculum in which the learner is exposed to continuous repetition of the same fundamental ideas, moving from concrete to pictorial to abstract. Activities are structured, or scaffolded, based on the student’s existing knowledge.

Some of the concepts that we have observed to be more difficult for our learners with Down syndrome include understanding of one-to-one correspondence, the cardinality principle (the last number counted represents the quantity in the set) and identifying more and less. Understanding relationships between numbers, which can be attributed to the lack of a mental number line noted above, also proves to be challenging, so the use of visuals such as number lines, number paths and concrete number lines is beneficial. Performing calculations requires the coordination of many different skills and places demands on working memory and attention. Students can be taught how to use a calculator early, with the caveat that they must also understand when and why it should be used. That is, they must have conceptual understanding so that they know when to apply certain skills and use the calculator to perform the calculation.

Using manipulatives, pairing auditory information with visual and providing variety and abundance of rehearsal and review benefits learners with Down syndrome in acquiring skills in numeracy. Providing opportunities for learners to practice skills in various contexts and use the numeracy skills they are building in meaningful ways is important for generalization. Understanding how difficulties with expressive language and articulation, short-term working memory and attention interact with learning and designing the learning task to accommodate for these difficulties can set students up for success and motivate them to persist with learning.

DSRF Resources

Building your Math Kit

Early Math Activities

Money Math Activities

Other Resources

Down Syndrome Education International – Teaching Numeracy

Down Syndrome Education International – A ‘positive’ approach to supporting a pupil with Down syndrome during ‘dedicated numeracy time?’

Educating Learners with Down Syndrome: Research, Theory and Practice with Children and Adolescents Edited by Rhonda Faragher and Barbara Clarke

Teaching Math to People with Down Syndrome and Other Hands-On Learners, Books 1 and 2 by DeAnna Horstmeier

More Language Arts, Math and Science for Students with Severe Disabilities. Edited by Dianna Browder and Fred Spooner

Online Math Manipulatives

Math Learning Centre  


Toy Theatre


Faragher, R. (2019). The new ‘functional mathematics’ for learners with down syndrome : Numeracy for a digital world. International Journal of Disability, Development, and Education, 66(2), 206-217.

Faragher, R. (2017). Hypothesis of developmental dyscalculia and Down syndrome: implications for mathematics education in A. Downton, S. Livy, & J. Hall (Eds.), 40 years on: we are still learning! Proceedings of the 40th Annual Conference of the Mathematics Education Research Group of Australasia (pp. 245–252). Melbourne: MERGA.

Faragher, R., & Clarke, B. (2014). Mathematics profile of the learner with Down syndrome. In R. Faragher & B. Clarke (Eds.), Educating learners with Down syndrome. Research, theory, and practice with children and adolescents (pp. 119–145). London: Routledge.

Fuchs, L. S., Geary, D. C., Fuchs, D., Compton, D. L., & Hamlett, C. L. (2014). Sources of individual differences in emerging competence with numeration understanding versus multidigit calculation skill. Journal of Educational Psychology, 106(2), 482-498.

Onnivello, Sara, Lanfranchi, Silvia, Zorzi, Marco (2019). Mathematical abilities in Down syndrome in Hodapp, R.M. (Ed). State of the art of research on down syndrome. Elsevier Science & Technology.