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The Mentally Retarded Child

Needs School Services

THE PROVISION of school services for severely retarded pupils is one

aspect of a program for the education and training of all mentally retarded children.

About three-quarters of a million school-age children in the United States are mentally retarded with respect to their learning abilities. Most of them are capable of making considerable progress in the basic educational skills; a much smaller number have competence only for personal and social improvement; only a very small percentage require permanent custodial care.

Some of these children—perhaps not more than 15 percent-are receiving instruction in public and private institutional schools or the special schools and classes of more than 730 local school districts. 1 The vast majority of mentally retarded children are enrolled in the elementary and secondary schools of many districts where they are receiving little or no special assistance. No one knows how many are not in any school at all.

Most mentally retarded boys and girls, with the proper help, may become valuable assets in their own homes and local communities. The less severely retarded have proved their competence for citizenship and productive employment; 2 many of the more severely retarded may be helped to contribute to family life and to participate in useful activity under sheltered conditions. However, neither the less severely retarded nor the more seriously afflicted children can realize their full potentials unless there are provided the necessary opportunities for growth and development during their early years. The mentally retarded who are not benefited by appropriate school services represent too frequently unrealized resources for which society pays in terms of support and the maintenance of institutions sor permanent care.

In the United States the maintenance of school services has been recogrized historically as a function of the local community, and for many years educators have talked about serving the educational needs of all the children of their communities. Unfortunately, and in too many instances, mentally retarded children have not been provided opportunities for education and training in their local communities, or this responsibility has been given to State institutional schools.

1 Office of Education, Federal Security Agency. Statistics of Special Schools and Classes for Exreptional Children, 1947-48. Washington, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1950. (Biennial Survey of Education in the United States, 1946-48, Chapter 5.) p. 7

· Baller, Warren R. A Study of the Behavior Records of Adults Who, When They Were in School, Were Judged To Be Dull in Mental Ability. Journal of Genetic Psychology, December 1939, p. 365–379 McIntosh, w. J. Follou-l'p Study of One Thousand Non-Academic Boys. Journal of Exceptional (hildren, March 1949, p. 166-170, 191; Tizard, J., and O'Connor, V. The Employability of High-Grade Mental Delectives. American Journal of Mental Deficiency, July 1950, p. 141-157.

In the past few years considerable emphasis has been placed upon the role of the family and the local community in dealing with the problems of those who deviate from accepted norms of behavior. While it must be recognized that, in some instances, the severely mentally retarded child presents problems that can be dealt with only through long-time supervision, the care and training of the vast majority of mentally retarded children must be the privilege and responsibility of the home and local community.

It is probable that much of the responsibility for the education and training of retarded children has been given to State institutions on the assumption that merely being somewhat different constitutes a hazard for the afflicted individual, his family, and other citizens. However, we have learned that persons with severe physical handicaps may make valuable social and occupational contributions and that most moderately mentally retarded persons can be trained for effective citizenship. But, as yet, we are only vaguely aware that some of the children whom we have assigned to institutional schools because of more obvious degrees of mental retardation may also be trained to live an acceptable life in their families and local communities.

From time to time questions have been raised relative to how far the public schools should go in extending school services to severely handicapped children, for special educational programs are both costly and difficult to maintain. Nevertheless, it has been pointed out that neglected human resources are also costly to society in terms of the resulting dependencies and losses of valuable contributions in services and personal worth. In view of this, many educators of handicapped children subscribe to the thesis that school services should be made available to every child who possesses potentials for contributions to family and social living.


Courtesy, Berwyn, Il., Public Schools Severely retarded children can work in groups.

Mental Retardation Includes Varying

Degrees of Personal Efficiency

While only a relatively small percentage of all mentally retarded boys and girls have access to school programs geared to their specific needs and interests, the responsibility of the local school district for maintaining special classes for the mentally handicapped has been recognized in many States by legislative action. These services frequently are encouraged by the allocation of State funds to local school districts to meet the added costs of special education services. 3 During the 1947-48 school year when statistics on special education programs were last compiled by the Office of Education, nearly 90,000 mentally retarded children were enrolled in the special schools and classes of 730 local school systems. These data were not broken down to identify the degrees of retardation represented in the total enrollment, although it is probable that all except a small percentage of the pupils fell within the limitations of borderline or moderately severe mental retardation. Those children for whom special classes are most frequently provided are capable of achieving a limited to a moderate degree of proficiency in the basic learning skills; they are frequently referred to as "educable mentally retarded pupils." This description has been written into the school legislation of a number of States. 4

Considerable attention recently has been focused upon those children who fall somewhat below the limitations of the so-called "educable” group. In general, these are children who will never achieve a useful knowledge of academic skills, but who may be expected to develop personal efficiencies and social adjustments that will enable them to become economically or occupationally useful in their own homes or under sheltered circumstances. These children are often referred to as being "trainable.”

During the past half century much attention has been given in psy. chological and educational literature to the education of retarded children. A variety of terms have been employed to describe the mentally retarded pupils for whom special services have been developed; none of them seems

: On the basis of data received by the Office of Education, at least 31 States provide for the distribution of funds to local school districts for educational services to mentally retarded children, Reimbursement may be on the bases of excess costs, per unit subsidy, or other formulas.

• The school laws of the State of Illinois, for example, authorize the local public schools to provide special education for physically handicapped, socially maladjusted, and educable mentally handicapped children.

to differentiate adequately between the children who have competence for social and economic independence-the educable mentally retarded-and those who may function in a border zone between independent living and permanent care. Terms such as "mentally deficient,” "feeble-minded," "retarded,” "backward,” and “slow-learning” are often used more or less indiscriminately and sometimes interchangeably. A number of authorities have advocated the use of more objective and realistic descriptive terms, 5 and the adoption of scientifically sound and commonly accepted terminology is greatly needed in this field of specialization. It is not within the province of this bulletin to attempt a standardization of the descriptive terms applying to mental deficiency. However, it is important that there should be an understanding of the terminology used in the bulletin.

The Encyclopedia of Educational Research associates retardation with the less severe degrees of mental deficiency.

From an educational standpoint, those children who appear to be permanently incapable of profiting to any considerable extent from the regular curriculum of the schools and who are regarded as trainable rather than educable and hence permanently socially inadequate and vocationally incompetent have most frequently been classified as mentally defective, mentally deficient or feeble-minded in contrast to those who are rated as merely backward, retarded (italics added), or dull normal and who are potentially capable of achieving social and economic independence. 6

The definition differentiates between two classifications of mentally handicapped persons on a basis of performance potential—the capacity or lack of capacity for social and economic independence. Nevertheless, both classifications represent degrees of mental retardation. As is the case in any scheme for classifying human behavior, it is unlikely that a sharp line of demarcation exists between the two groups. It is rather to be expected that between those children who are completely socially inadequate and those who possess potentials for social and economic independence there exists a certain proportion of children who may be expected to achieve some degree of social adjustment and economic usefulness under modified conditions. Since many public schools have already accepted responsibility for those retarded children who may become socially and economically independent, it is the in-between or borderland group about which considerable concern is now being expressed.

In this bulletin those retarded children who are capable of developing competence for social and economic independence will be referred to as being moderately retarded; those who can achieve a limited degree of personal-social adjustment and competence for economic usefulness under sheltered conditions will be called "severely retarded children.” It must

* For instance, see Doll, Edgar A. Feeblemindedness vs Intellectual Retardation. American Journal of Mental Deficiency, January 1947, p. 456-459; and Sarason, Seymour B. Psychological Problems in Mental Deficiency. New York, Harper and Bros., 1949.

• Encyclopedia of Educational Research. (Rev. Ed.) New York, The MacMillan Co., 1950, p. 726.

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