Primary Characteristics of Students with Intellectual Disabilities (page 2)

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 24, 2013

Cognitive Performance

Students with mild intellectual disabilities are characterized by general delays in cognitive development that influence the acquisition of language and academic skills. Moreover, while these students can learn much information that is part of the general education curriculum, they learn more slowly than do typical students. Deficits in specific cognitive skill areas also contribute to this delay. Three of the most important cognitive skill deficits exhibited by students with mild intellectual disabilities are related to attention, memory, and generalization.

Attention  Students with mild intellectual disabilities have difficulty with different types of attention, including orienting to a task, selective attention, and sustaining attention to a task (Wenar & Kerig, 2006). Orienting to a task requires a student to look in the direction of the task (e.g., a teacher demonstrating how to solve a math problem on an overhead projector in the front of the room). Selective attention requires that the student attend to relevant aspects of the task and not to unimportant task components (e.g., attending to one type of math problem on a page and completing the appropriate operation). Finally, sustained attention requires that the student continue to attend to a task for a period of time.

The attentional difficulties of students with mild intellectual disabilities have several implications for how they may be more effectively taught (Beirne-Smith et al., 2006, p. 277). For example, teachers should

  1. present initial stimuli that vary in only a few dimensions,
  2. direct the individual's attention to these critical dimensions,
  3. initially remove extraneous stimuli that may distract the individual from attending
  4. increase the difficulty of the task over time, and
  5. teach the student decision-making rules for discriminating relevant from irrelevant stimuli.

Memory  Students with mild intellectual disabilities also have difficulty remembering information (i.e., short-term memory). For example, these students may have difficulty remembering math facts or spelling words; or if they remember this information one day, they may forget it the next. To some degree, memory problems are influenced by attentional difficulties. That is, students will have difficulty remembering information if they do not orient to the information, select the information that needs to be remembered, and maintain attention to the important material for a period of time.

However, distinct from attentional problems, students with mild intellectual disabilities have difficulty generating and using strategies that help facilitate short-term memory. For example, when students attempt to remember information, many use a rehearsal strategy (repeating information over and over) to facilitate learning (Kirk, Gallagher, Anastasiow, & Coleman, 2006). Teaching approaches to addressing short-term memory deficits include focusing on meaningful content during instruction and instructing students about strategies that they might use to facilitate remembering information (e.g., rehearsal, clustering information, using mnemonic devices) (Smith, Polloway, Patton, & Dowdy, 2004).

Generalization  A final area in which many students with mild intellectual disabilities have difficulty relates to the generalization of information to other material or settings (Wenar & Kerig, 2006). For example, a student may learn operations for addition and subtraction but may then have difficulty generalizing this information to a division problem. Similarly, a student may learn a new word when reading material in one subject area but may have difficulty reading the same word in other reading material. Students with mild intellectual disabilities also have difficulty generalizing material learned in one setting to another (e.g., from school to the community). Teaching strategies that may be used to address difficulties with generalization include teaching material in relevant contexts, reinforcing students for generalizing information across material or settings, reminding students to apply information they have learned in one setting to another, and teaching information in multiple settings (Smith et al., 2004).

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