Exceptional Children
14. Mental Retardation
1. Introduction
2. Educating Exceptional Children
3. Legal Foundations
4. Merger of Special and General Education
5. Complex Health Care Needs
6. Early Childhood Intervention
7. Parental Involvement
8. Learning Disabilities
9. Behavior Disorders
10. Speech and Language Disorders
11. Deaf or Hard of Hearing Disorders
12. Visual Impairments
13. Physical Disabilities
14. Mental Retardation
15. Severe/Multiple Disabilities
16. Gifted and Talented Students
17. Wrap-Up

Children with Mental Retardation

Module 14       Children with Mental Retardation


Real Life Stories:


Joanna, aged 4 1/2, was interviewed by the director of a preschool when her parents applied to have her enrolled. Joanna smiled a great deal and was interested in the toys in the office. The director, however, was concerned about Joanna's inability to say her own name and address, to communicate basic information about her family, and to express herself verbally. After an evaluation, Joanna was diagnosed as mildly mentally retarded, and she is now enrolled in a special school where she receives individual help in language development and academics. Her teachers feel that she is benefiting from the program and will be ready to enter a mainstream kindergarten.


Michael, now 5, was diagnosed by his pediatrician shortly after his birth as having Down's Syndrome, due to certain physical characteristics such as his round face, flattened nose bridge, abnormally small head, low-set ears, short limbs, and abnormally shaped fingers. Mental retardation is inevitable in children with Down's Syndrome. Michael's parents were helped to locate an appropriate early intervention program that also provides parent education.


Eddie, now in 5th grade, was always considered a little slower than his peers, but he was a likeable child who got along well with family members and friends. When academic work became demanding and he fell behind in 2nd grade, the school conducted an evaluation. He was diagnosed as having moderate mental retardation and was placed in a special education class where the material is appropriate for his cognitive ability and learning pace.


Introduction to Mental Retardation Issues:


There are many misperceptions about people with mental retardation. It was not that long ago with people who were “retarded” were locked up in institutions, castrated or sterilized and generally treated little better than animals. Fortunately most people know better now. In fact, one doesn’t even hear the term “retardation” as much anymore. The politically correct term is more likely to be “developmentally challenged.”  This term refers to the idea that the disability starts at birth or during childhood and is not likely to change. In regard to mental ability, developmentally challenged generally refers to an individual having an intelligence level that is significantly lower than average and that limits their ability to be independently functioning.

IDEA's Definition of "Mental Retardation"

Our nation's special education law, the IDEA, defines mental retardation as . . .

". . . significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning, existing concurrently with deficits in adaptive behavior and manifested during the developmental period, that adversely affects a child's educational performance." [34 Code of Federal Regulations 300.7(c) (6)]

The kind of things that might cause mental retardation includes:


Genetics – an example of abnormal genes inherited from parents is Down’s Syndrome

Problems During Pregnancy – the mother might have measles during pregnancy or is a substance abuser of drugs or alcohol.

Problems at Birth – lack of oxygen such as the birth cord around the neck too long.

Health Problems – early childhood diseases such as measles or whooping cough, lead poisoning or malnutrition.


Determining Levels of Mental Retardation:


         Intellectual functioning, or IQ, is usually measured by a test called an IQ test. The average score is 100. People scoring below 70 are thought to have mental retardation.


The levels of mental retardation are broken down into categories which indicate what the functioning level of the individual might be.  Only about 5% are severely or profoundly mentally retarded and need complete support such as having a care-taker.


IQ Based Levels of Mental Retardation:

  • Mild.                IQ = 69-55
  • Moderate.        IQ = 54-40
  • Severe.             IQ = 39-25
  • Profound          IQ = below 25


Using IQs as a basis of determining level of mental retardation is controversial because many people believe that IQ tests do not equally assess people from all cultures. It is well known that African Americans have often challenged test results that have seemed biased toward middle-class white families. Other difficulties with IQ tests occur if English is not the first language of a student or if the student has other disabilities such as verbal skills which limit communication.  This is why it is important to do a full assessment of each child which looks at the adaptive functioning of the child. That is, can he or she do things appropriately age-related for daily life?


In fact, many mentally retarded people grow up, marry, have children, work full time and live pretty much normal lives. In fact, children with mild mental retardation may just appear “slow” to their families with some delays. Children with mental retardation may:


         sit up, crawl, or walk later than other children;

         learn to talk later, or have trouble speaking,

         find it hard to remember things,

         not understand how to pay for things,

         have trouble understanding social rules,

         have trouble seeing the consequences of their actions,

         have trouble solving problems, and/or

         have trouble thinking logically.


To measure adaptive behavior, professionals look at what a child can do in comparison to other children of his or her age. To diagnose mental retardation, professionals look at the person's mental abilities (IQ) and his or her adaptive skills. Certain skills are important to adaptive behavior. These are:


         daily living skills, such as getting dressed, going to the bathroom, and feeding one's self;

         communication skills, such as understanding what is said and being able to answer;

         social skills with peers, family members, adults, and others.


Education of Mentally Retarded Children:


The focus of education of children with mental retardation is often help with the adaptive skills, which are skills needed to live, work, and play in the community. Teachers and parents can help a child work on these skills at both school and home. Some of these skills include:


         communicating with others;

         taking care of personal needs (dressing, bathing, going to the bathroom);

         health and safety;

         home living (helping to set the table, cleaning the house, or cooking dinner);

         social skills (manners, knowing the rules of conversation, getting along in a group, playing a game);

         reading, writing, and basic math; and

         as they get older, skills that will help them in the workplace.


Supports or changes in the classroom (called adaptations) help most students with mental retardation. Most mentally retarded children are capable of learning new things, both in and out of a formal school setting, but they may learn at a slower pace than other children. Schools are responsible for providing an appropriate education for retarded children. Check below for additional resources:




The American Association on Mentally Retardation:



Declaration on the Rights of Mentally Retarded Persons:



Facts for Families: Children Who are Mentally Retarded:



Textbook chapter on mental retardation:



National Association of Special Education Teachers:


Opinions expressed on this site are fully those of the author. No one else contributed to its content.  Arcadian Resources is a woman-owned, disabled veteran small business serving the youth service industry. For individual counseling or agency consulting services, contact Amy Stevens at amystevens@arcadianresources.com or call 770-509-1034