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Intellectual Disorders - Strategies

Most students classified as intellectually impaired are not described by clearly identifiable syndromes, but many times, their impairments have known etiologies. Further, many students are not diagnosed as mentally disabled until well into their preschool or early elementary school years. Early identification of marker characteristics that predispose children to mental impairment allows for environmental intervention to reduce or prevent eventual developmental delay. For some children, the primary factors that produce mental impairment can be found in their environments. For still other children, the interaction of organismically-based influences and environmental variables also result in mental impairment or seriously delayed development. These variables, organismic and environmental, that contribute to mental impairment and delay are termed "risk factors" in development. Research to identify and to help control (intervene, mitigate, and prevent) risk factors and the adverse outcomes of mental impairment are the aims of this theme.

Intellectual impairment means significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning which exists concurrently with deficits in adaptive behavior and manifested during the developmental period that adversely affects a student's educational performance (34 CFR, Ch. III, Sec. 300.7).

According to the above definition, three IQ criteria must be met before an individual should be classified as mentally retarded:

    1. subaverage intellectual ability (IQ 70 or lower)
    2. problems in adaptive functioning
    3. manifested before the age of 18

Mental Impairment is one of the most frequently occurring disabilities that occurs in the inclusive classroom. In the US, some 13.3% of all students in special education are classified as being mentally impaired. For example, in West Virginia, there are 15.4% who are mildly impaired, 4.8% moderately impaired, 0.7% severely impaired, and 0.5% profoundly impaired. Total percent of mentally disabled in West Virginia is 21.4%. In terms of IQ range, four groups are classified (by IQ) as:

  • Students who are mildly impaired have an IQ range of 51-70 and are in many ways quite similar to their peers who are not impaired.
  • Students who have moderate impairments have an IQ range of 36-50 and are more obviously developmentally delayed. Students who are moderately impaired can learn to take care of their personal needs and perform hands-on vocational tasks.
  • Students who are severely impaired have an IQ range of 21-35 and are more dependent on others for basic needs. Students who are severely impaired can learn basic self-care and can contribute partially to self-support usually under supervision.
  • Students who are profoundly impaired have an IQ range below 20 and may be largely dependent on others for their care.

General Strategies

  • Bring to the student's attention to a science role model with a similar disability to that of the student. Point out that this individual got ahead by a combination of effort and by asking for help when needed.
  • Preparation for experience in the learning environment best occurs when all students of different backgrounds and abilities learn and socialize together in classrooms and other school settings. In these instances where all have a chance to achieve and receive instruction designed to develop and enhance successful living within the school and general community.
  • Keep up-to-date on the student's accomplishments in therapy.
  • Never assess a student's capabilities solely on the basis of their IQ or other standardized test scores (especially at the limits of the IQ definition).
  • Each student with an impairment needs to be in an age/achievement appropriate learning environment with peers who are not impaired.
  • After some time in the learning environment, which includes a mentally impaired student, the teacher, as an observer, should record the behavior that varies from the "norm" and which may indicate the need for referral for counseling and/or psychological intervention including drug therapy, if necessary.
  • Develop a protocol for the student to tell you when he/she anticipates a need for assistance.
  • When it appears that a student needs help, ask if you can help. Accept a "No Thank You" graciously.
  • Encourage classmates to accept the student with a mental impairment.
  • Be aware that a student with an impairment may frequently be treated with therapeutic medications that affect performance and speed.
  • Acknowledge that high, but realistic, expectations should be maintained to encourage full realization of social and educational potential.
  • Personal interactions with mentally impaired students:
    • Speak directly to the student with an impairment as you would any other student.
    • Involvement with other children: The teacher should, where possible, get to know the non-impaired students, engaging them and providing them a connecting link between these students and the students with impairments. The teacher shouldn't be seen as the person who relates only to the student with an impairment.
    • Modeling for others: The teacher should be aware that his or her interactions with the impaired student will serve as a model for interactions with students who are impaired. This may be particularly important in assisting others in areas such as communicating with the student with an impairment about behavior that does not appear appropriate in science teaching/learning activities.
    • Backing off: Often, interactions occur without the involvement of a teacher. At times, in fact, the presence of an adult may inhibit interactions, and it may be necessary to "Back off" and let things happen on their own.
    • Interactions in the context of school activities: It is important to observe the interactions of the student with others in the learning environment. For instance, what types of interactions occur, and at what times? Some activities are more conducive to getting students together than others. The teacher should note and promote opportunities for interactions, even if that means revising plans for teaching skills to allow for spontaneous interactions and play. Remember that not all interactions are verbal. Cheering together, sitting together and watching an event or doing an activity, or working as a team field or laboratory to build something are all examples of nonverbal/verbal interactions.
  • Learning strategies, such as mnemonics, provide quite good ways to access information, It can be an essential component in learning for many students with disabilities (a mnemonic is defined as a word, sentence, picture, device, or technique for improving or strengthening memory).

Teacher Presentation

  • Use a large amount of concrete materials to:

    • Proceed in small sequential steps and review each frequently
    • Provide prompt and consistent feedback.
  • Stress the mentally impaired student's successes.
  • Agreements such as: attentive listening, mutual respect, the right to pass, and appreciation, should be enforced.


  • Depending on the degree of impairment, provide opportunities to practice skills in both normal environments versus contrived experimental situations.
  • Consider alternate activities/exercises that can be utilized with less difficulty for the student, but has the same or similar learning objectives.
  • Provide opportunities to practice field skills in natural environments.

Field Experiences

  • Depending on the degree of impairment, provide opportunities to practice skills in both environments.
  • Consider alternate activities/exercises that can be utilized with less difficulty for the student, but has the same or similar learning objectives.


  • At the appropriate level of communication, review and discuss with the student the steps involved in a research activity. Think about which step(s) may be difficult for the specific functional limitations of the student and jointly devise accommodations for that student.
  • Provide opportunities to practice skills in both normal environments versus contrived situations or natural environments, as appropriate.


  • Encourage students to use relaxation and other stress reducing techniques during exams.
  • Allow more time for the examination.