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For people with Down syndrome, family members, caregivers and professionals.

Helping a Person with Down Syndrome Make Goals

January 2017 | Shana Sexton, LCSW - Social Worker, Adult Down Syndrome Center

It’s a time of year when many people are thinking about the New Year and making New Year’s Resolutions. Many of us have goals for the year to come. How can you help someone with Down syndrome set goals that they can achieve? Here are 10 ways:

  1. Be realistic.

I am often asked how to stop someone from exhibiting OCD behavior that they have been exhibiting for years. “How can I get this person to stop carrying around a backpack full of things which he’s been doing for 20 years?” Answer: you won’t. That person will probably always want to carry a backpack and setting a goal that they will completely stop this behavior is not realistic. Can the person work on carrying fewer items in their backpack? Yes! Make your goal realistic. You may have to start with something small and work up to a larger goal.

  1. Make the goal specific and measurable.

It’s hard to work on a goal if you don’t know what you are working on! “Don’t carry a lot of stuff around in my backpack” is pretty vague. How much is “a lot of stuff”? Where is this person taking the backpack full of stuff? Try something like “I will only put five items in my backpack each morning before workshop.” This is specific with regard to how many items and when you want the person to do it. You can easily measure and keep track of this goal.

  1. Make the goal positive.

The goal should be about what you want the person to do, not what you don’t want them to do. In the backpack example, rather than “don’t carry 5 word search books in my backpack,” try “only carry one word search book in my backpack.”

  1. Get the person’s input about what they want to work on and how they want to work on it.

If you want someone to get excited about working on a goal, get them involved in setting it! Ask the person, “What do you want to work on this year? What are you not happy about? What could be different?” The goal needs to be meaningful for that person or he or she will not be motivated to work on it. Ask the person what they think would help them achieve this goal. Would staff or a parent reminding them each night to clean out their backpack help them remember? Would having a visual support help, such as a visual of items that can be in the backpack each day? That person may have ideas about how to help themselves that you haven’t considered. Remember that people with Down syndrome are very visual and respond to using pictures. Visual supports are often helpful for them even if they can read.

  1. Think about the “keys to success.”

It’s great to set a goal but it’s important to think about what will help this goal be successful and what some of the obstacles might be. Many times, for someone with Down syndrome, one key is consistency – everyone who works with that person needs to respond the same way for something to improve. This can be a challenge when family members or staff have different approaches to addressing the same issue, and this should be taken into account. Patience can also be key because the behavior change may be slow. Another key might be choosing times to work with the person when they are most likely to be receptive. For instance, the person may be in a better frame of mind to work on organizing their backpack for the next day soon after they get home in the afternoon rather than later in the evening when they may be tired.

  1. Keep track of progress.

Think about a way to keep track of progress and what is going well. A sticker chart or even a star on a calendar is one visual way for someone to see their success. Another great visual way to track success is to put a marble or some other trinket in a small jar each day that the person achieves the goal and reward them when the jar is full. There are also many websites that help manage goals and track success, such as Goal Buddy ( A good simple one is Joe’s Goals ( An interesting option for those who enjoy video games is Mindbloom. You plant a “life tree” that you can nurture by achieving your goals.

  1. Reward success.

Make sure to reinforce success in order to keep it going! This can include verbal praise for working on or achieving a goal that day or rewards that the person is working towards after a longer period of success. We always suggest non-food rewards, like an outing the person particularly likes or time with a family member or favorite staff member.

  1. Don’t focus on failure.

Just because you broke one egg, don’t throw out the whole carton. Remember, behavioral change is a process. Everyone has a bad day sometimes or periods of time when we just feel unmotivated. It can take trial and error to figure out the best way to support the person with a goal or even to come up with a goal that the person can work towards successfully. Initial failure does not mean all hope is lost. As Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

  1. Baby steps.

Change can be very slow for a person with Down syndrome. Don’t expect a huge change overnight. Remember to reinforce actions towards the goal. For instance, the person may not have taken anything out of the backpack that week but perhaps they were willing to look at the visual for what should be in the backpack. Be sure to encourage this even if they did not meet the goal. They are moving in the right direction.

  1. There’s always hope for the future.

How many times have you tried to work on a goal like exercising three times a week or losing weight and not been successful the first time? That doesn’t mean that success won’t come in the future. If people supporting the person with Down syndrome with their goal become discouraged, the person is going to pick up on that and may become discouraged also. There is a Japanese saying “fall seven times, stand up eight.” Keep going and remember that there’s always hope for improvement in the future.

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Please note: The information on this site is for educational purposes only and is not intended to serve as a substitute for a medical, psychiatric, mental health, or behavioral evaluation, diagnosis, or treatment plan by a qualified professional. We recommend you review the educational material with your health providers regarding the specifics of your health care needs.