10 Things Teachers Should Know About Fragile X Syndrome: Strengths, Challenges, and How They Learn

By Laurie Yankowitz, EdD

Brother and sister walking to schoolThere’s really only one thing every teacher needs to know about Fragile X syndrome:

Students with Fragile X syndrome are prone to hyperarousal and anxiety. It’s how their nervous systems are wired.

The most effective way to help your student get the most from their time at school is to minimize the likelihood of hyperarousal and anxiety, which can maximize their focus and cooperation.

10 Rules of Behavior Management

1. Don’t force eye contact.

Eye contact will come naturally as the student becomes more comfortable with you.

2. Expect inconsistency.

Engagement and performance are likely to vary. To avoid frustration, it’s best to try and accept that there will be inconsistency. Otherwise, your student will pick up on frustrated energy, which can add to their anxiety.

3. Students with Fragile X syndrome are simultaneous — not sequential — learners.

They are good sight word learners, but have a terrible time with phonetics. They’re motivated by the end result, but impatient with the process. Use backward rather than forward chaining, e.g., checklists to show progress toward an end result.

4. Allow and encourage frequent breaks.

Accommodate attention deficits by keeping tasks brief. Keep up a good pace — power breaks are short breaks.

5. Verbal expression is cognitively taxing.

Provide some non-verbal alternatives for students to show what they know, such as following directions and pointing to visual representations.

6. Think and be “indirect.”

There are times when students with Fragile X syndrome enjoy attention, but most often they prefer to avoid the limelight.

  • Give compliments in the third person about the student to others within earshot.
  • Use incidental learning.
  • Include the student in a small group while directing instruction to a peer.
  • Avoid direct, open-ended questioning. Use prompts like “The President of the United States is ______” rather than “Who is the President of the United States?”

7. Prepare for transitions.

  • Give 10 and 5 minute prompts.
  • Allow them to be at the head or back of a line.
  • Use social stories about routine transitions.
  • Provide a purposeful errand so the focus is on the outcome (e.g., delivering an envelope) rather than moving from one place to another.

8. Embed sensory integration strategies into their day.

Because hyperarousal and anxiety undermine their ability to focus, work with an occupational therapist knowledgeable in sensory integration to learn which supplemental instruction techniques are the most calming for your student. Then integrate associated activities into their day to sustain a calm, regulated nervous system. Examples:

  • Heavy work, like rearranging desks, cleaning windows, or moving stacks of books.
  • Vestibular input, like going for a walk, doing wall push-ups, swinging, or using a skateboard.

9. Notice (and resolve) environmental triggers.

Students with Fragile X syndrome often have sensory sensitivities to sound, light, textures, taste, and smell that provoke hyperarousal. Make adjustments as needed, such as dimming lights or allowing use of muting headphones as much as possible.

10. Recognize Fragile X syndrome’s strengths.

Common strengths associated with Fragile X syndrome are good visual memory, a sense of humor, the desire to be helpful, an empathic nature, and a gift for mimicry. Take advantage of their strengths by using visual cues, make learning fun, provide opportunities for them to be of assistance, encourage them to provide emotional support to their peers, and use modeling as a primary teaching technique, e.g., embedding academics into useful and practical tasks such as taking attendance (counting) or ordering from a menu (reading).


Laurie Yankowitz headshot

Laurie Yankowitz, EdD
Laurie is the owner of Yankowitz Consulting, DD Services. She has more than 30 years experience working with families of individuals with developmental disabilities.