Intellectual disability, formerly labeled “mental retardation,” is defined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) as “significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning, existing concurrently [at the same time] with deficits in adaptive behavior and manifested during the developmental period, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.” There are two key components within this definition: a student’s IQ and his or her capability to function independently, usually referred to as adaptive behavior.
You may find that your state still uses the term “mental retardation.” In 2012, the federal government enacted legislation changing the term mental retardation to intellectual disabilities in all federal law. Despite being encouraged to quickly replace all references to mental retardation and its derivatives, some state offices have still not made the changes to the less offensive term in their legislation and documents.
An IQ below 70 to 75 indicates an intellectual disability, according to the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (called NICHCY). The deficits in “adaptive behavior” cited by IDEA prove trickier to evaluate. Factors considered include the ability to comprehend and participate in a conversation, to understand and follow social norms and to perform activities such as getting dressed and using the restroom. NICHCY explains that the causes of intellectual disabilities vary from pregnancy issues and complications at birth to genetic conditions (such as Down syndrome and fragile X syndrome) and health problems early in life, including diseases like measles and contact with poisonous substances such as lead and mercury.
A number of traits can point to an intellectual disability. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) lists the following among early indicators:
- Delay in reaching developmental milestones such as sitting up and talking
- Difficulty remembering things
- Trouble comprehending accepted social behaviors and/or understanding the consequences to actions
- Poor problem-solving skills
Time to take a deep breath. Parents, you may experience doubt about your child’s educational path and long-term future. Teachers, you can certainly see that educating students with intellectual disabilities involves numerous challenges. Still, NICHCY emphasizes, “They will learn, but it will take them longer.”
Obviously, an intellectual disability creates many educational challenges that must be overcome. These include:
- Trouble understanding new concepts
- Inappropriate behavior
- Limited vocabulary
- Difficulty accomplishing complex tasks
Tips for Teachers and Parents
Educating individuals with intellectual disabilities requires awareness and much patience. Awareness involves a conscious effort to choose activities and words wisely. For instance, if a student demonstrates artistic talent, encourage him or her by providing assignments geared towards this skill set. Parents can help by suggesting related activities that their children can pursue as hobbies. In addition, carefully picking your words will reduce potential problems caused by students’ limited vocabularies.
Patience is an integral component in addressing the aforementioned educational challenges. You will likely need to go over lessons or correct a student’s inappropriate behavior multiple times. One way to make repetition more effective is to accompany verbal instruction with additional cues; for example, show pictures to reiterate spoken directions.
To combat difficulty in completing complex tasks, NICHCY advises dividing these tasks into small steps. The organization also recommends giving immediate feedback to help a child learn when he or she is performing a step correctly.
One final tip does not necessarily correspond to any particular academic obstacle, but rather addresses educational focus as a whole, at least at high school level. Analyze the student’s skill set to decide how to proceed with transitioning into adulthood. For instance, does a student have the capabilities that will enable that student to live on his or her own? If so, later years in school should focus on enhancing the skills that will allow him or her to live independently.