Mental Retardation (page 3)

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Intellectual and Cognitive Functioning

Individuals with mental retardation exhibit deficits in intellectual functioning. In addition, these individuals usually function substantially below their age peers in related areas, including metacognitive abilities, memory, attention, thinking, and problem-solving abilities. Like students with learning disabilities, individuals with mental retardation often have difficulty generalizing learned information to novel situations (Mastropieri, Scruggs, & Carter, 1997).

Social and Adaptive Behavior

By most definitions, individuals with mild mental retardation have less well-developed adaptive behavior than their peer counterparts, including such behavior as using the telephone or dressing appropriately. They may appear socially immature, exhibit inappropriate social behavior, or have difficulty making and maintaining friendships. Some individuals may become easily frustrated when they experience difficulty and then may act inappropriately, drawing negative attention to themselves. On the other hand, some individuals with mental retardation have particularly amiable dispositions and are well liked by others (Drew & Hardman, 2004).

Some individuals with mental retardation tend to have an external “locus of control,” meaning they see their lives as being controlled and influenced by factors outside of themselves (e.g., fate, chance, other people; Ezell & Klein, 2003). This external locus of control may hinder their development of self-reliance. A related problem is “outerdirectness”; that is, looking to external cues or modeling behavior of others rather than relying on their own judgments (Zigler, Bennett-Gates, Hodapp, & Henrich, 2002).


Both receptive and expressive language are problem areas for individuals with mental retardation. There is usually a direct relationship with severity of retardation and all aspects of language development (Vicari, Caselli, Gagliardi, Tonucci, & Volterra, 2002). Communication skills are typically less well-developed and can result in misunderstandings of directions (Cascella, 2004). Students may exhibit difficulties with comprehension of abstract vocabulary and concepts (Vicari et al., 2002).

Academic Skills

Individuals with mental retardation may have difficulty learning basic skills of reading, writing, and mathematics (Young, Moni, Jobling, & van Kraayenoord, 2004). The rate of learning new information may be very slow, and students may require repetition and concrete, meaningful examples on all learning activities.

Classroom Adaptations for Students with Mental Retardation


Careful preparation can greatly enhance the successful inclusion of students with mental retardation. First, have an open, accepting classroom environment so that students feel welcome as genuine class members. Provide students with the same materials—desks, lockers, mailboxes—as the other students. Involve students in daily activities. Meet with them privately and preteach the daily routine. Show them where materials are kept and how things in the class proceed. This will help build their confidence before they come in for the first time in front of the general education peers. More information for preparing classmates is given in the In the Classroom feature.

Monitor Peer Relationships

Although peers can be good friends and strong supporters of students with mental retardation, teachers also should be aware that some students may try to take advantage of students with mental retardation. For example, in one sixth-grade class, several boys bullied a boy with mental retardation and consistently took away part of his lunch. In another example, high school students who had been smoking cigarettes in the girls’ restroom handed their cigarettes to a girl with mental retardation when a teacher entered the restroom. Careful monitoring can decrease the likelihood of either negative situation occurring and increase the likelihood that peer relations will be positive and productive.

Instructional Modifications

Many of the modifications described in the learning disabilities section may also be helpful for students with mental retardation. However, additional modifications probably will be required if the general education experience is to be successful.

  • Prioritize objectives for students with mental retardation in general education classes, and teach directly to these prioritized objectives.
  • Adapt materials to the needs of students, by reducing reading, writing, and language requirements and simplifying work sheets.
  • Adapt instruction by employing clear, organized presentations, providing concrete, meaningful examples and activities, providing frequent reviews, and encouraging independent thinking.
  • Communicate with families to further your understanding and obtain additional information on how students work best. The Diversity in the Classroom feature describes a model of “Person-Centered Planning” for working with Asian American families.
  • Adapt evaluation using individual testing, portfolio assessments, tape or video recordings.
  • Use specialized curriculum when necessary. Some students with mental retardation may require an alternative, more functional curriculum. Such a curriculum may include communication, community living, domestic skills, socialization, self-help, and vocational and leisure skills. Additionally, some students may benefit from a life-skills curriculum, which emphasizes transition to adulthood. This curriculum could include education in home and family, community involvement, employment, emotional-physical health, and personal responsibility and relationships (see Cronin & Patton, 1993).

In the Classroom: Getting Classmates Ready for Students with Disabilities

  • Prepare general education students for the arrival of students with disabilities by asking a special educator to talk about disabilities and explain strengths and limitations of individuals with disabilities.
  • Encourage students to ask questions, and set a model of open acceptance.
  • Tell students about their roles as possible peer tutors and helpers. Provide models of how peers can assist, but make it clear that they should also encourage independent functioning. They should not try to do everything for students with disabilities.
  • Explain that all classmates, even if they are not peer tutors or helpers, can encourage students with disabilities to be active participants and members of the class.
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