Meeting Learning Challenges: Working With Children Labeled With Mental Retardation

Each child who is labeled "mentally retarded" has his or her own unique profile of strengths and weaknesses. The biggest challenge is to avoid assuming that potential is limited.

  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2

I've just learned that next fall, I will have a child in my kindergarten who has Down's syndrome. I know that means she's mentally retarded. Can you give me some suggestions about how to meet this child's needs?


When we hear the term "mental retardation," we often think of a child who is not capable of interacting with others or of behaving in a purposeful way. I find that these assumptions are unwarranted. Each child who comes to my practice for evaluation with the label of mental retardation has her own unique profile of strengths and vulnerabilities.

What to Look For

Some children, for example, are stronger in verbal and language skills but weaker in motor and visual-spatial skills. Others have the opposite capabilities. Some children may be oversensitive to touch and sound, while others are under — reactive to these same sensations. With so many different patterns, I find that each child can only be understood in light of his unique strengths and vulnerabilities.

We need to look at the child's developmental progression, beginning with his ability to:

  • focus
  • engage a care giver with warmth and trust
  • act purposefully
  • interact with others in order to solve problems or reach goals (for example, taking an adult by the hand and walking her to an area to find a toy or gesturing for help)
  • use ideas and be involved in pretend play ( perhaps talking for a doll or having the doll feed another doll)
  • use ideas logically (answering the question, "Why do you want to go outside?" with a logical statement, "I want to play.")

When a child has reached the stage where he is able to be that logical, we may consider moving to even higher levels of complexity, such as the ability to compare two foods or two friends and say why he likes one better than the other.

Each child, then, needs to be observed carefully and described in great detail, according to the things she can and cannot do, and according to the way she processes information.

Tailor Programs to Needs

Since every child is unique and special, every child is entitled to a program tailored to her unique profile. A child with Down's syndrome is no exception. Some children with Down's syndrome will be highly verbal, interactive, creative, and pretty good at abstracting information. Others may have a hard time speaking and may barely be able to indicate preferences or wishes with a word or a gesture. Some children will be aimless and self absorbed, while others (often the majority) will be wane, trusting, and engaged, and enjoy relating to others. Therefore, regardless of the reason that a child may have received a label of mental retardation, it is essential to discover her unique strengths and needs and then work with these.

Make Observations

Most early childhood teachers are strong believers in the concept of developmentally appropriate practice, as recommended by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. The challenge we're considering here is to create developmentally appropriate expectations for children with special needs. So the teacher works to form her own objective impression of the child in each of the areas of development that I've mentioned. It's wise to make at least a mental note about what the child is able to do. Observe whether the child can follow directions, how he responds to auditory stimuli-whether he reacts to sound by holding his ears or craves a lot of sensory input — and whether he can find things that are hidden (visual-spatial functioning).

Then the teacher can compare her informal observations with those of other experts who have seen the child, along with the parents' reports of how the child does in those same categories at home. If there are discrepancies, keep in mind that the highest functioning level observed is your starting point.

Take Advantage of Abilities

Begin your work with the child wherever he is in his ability to relate to others, to use ideas creatively, and to use ideas logically, and build from there. Take advantage of the child's best method of processing information:

  • If he is strongest in visual-spatial thinking (good at finding things and has a good sense of direction), use a lot of visual images, such as pictures, and be very animated in your gestures in order to help him negotiate the classroom and enable him to learn.
  • If the child performs best verbally, use that strength as you work with his less developed skills and abilities. Or he may be one of many children with cognitive and processing problems who do best when we offer them multisensory support-visual, auditory, and movement, all at the same time.


Never Underestimate Potential

Perhaps the biggest challenge in working with children who already have the label of mental retardation is to avoid assuming that their potential is limited. Unfortunately, the label often conveys to teachers and parents the mistaken idea that this child can't learn certain things. The fact is, the only way to know what a child can and can't learn is to involve that child in an active, exciting learning process. A dynamic approach often enables a child to move much further up the developmental ladder than was expected. We should offer each and every child an optimal program, one adapted to each child's profile that allows her the opportunity to climb the developmental ladder.

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  • Subjects:
    Early Learning, Communication and Language Development, Special Education, Learning and Cognitive Development, Developmental Problems and Disorders, Mainstreaming, New Teacher Resources, Teacher Tips and Strategies

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