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An Intellectual Disabilities Resource Guide for Teachers and Parents

written by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch • edited by: Linda M. Rhinehart Neas • updated: 5/18/2015

Special education services can help students with intellectual disabilities succeed in the classroom and learn important life skills. The articles in this guide to teaching students with intellectual disabilities can help you find the resources you are looking for.

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    The Most Common Developmental Delay

    In the United States, about 6.5 million people have an intellectual disability, with more than 545,000 children between the ages of 6 Developmental Delay and 21 receiving special education services, according to the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities. As an intellectual disability is the most common type of developmental delay, special education teachers will most likely have a student in their classroom at some point with the condition.

    Other terms may be used instead of intellectual disability, though it is the preferred term as other terminology has a negative connotation. Though certain diagnostic tools, such as the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders," still use the term mental retardation, the work group for the fifth edition of the manual has recommended making the change to the term intellectual disability.

    Students with intellectual disabilities may require special services to succeed academically. For example, they may receive special education services or classroom adaptations to help them learn. Bright Hub Education has several articles on intellectual disabilities, which can help parents and teachers understand what an intellectual disability is as well as what educational resources can help students succeed.

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    Defining an Intellectual Disability

    With a diagnosis of an intellectual disability, the child has meet certain criteria, including sub-average intellectual functioning, impairments in adaptive functioning, and an onset of symptoms before the age of 18. The severity of the intellectual disability ranges from mild to profound, which differ based on the child’s intellectual quotient, or IQ. For example, a child with a profound intellectual disability has an IQ below 20 or 25, while a child with a mild intellectual disability has an IQ of 50-55 up to 70. These articles provide in-depth information on the criteria for an intellectual disability and the different types of intellectual disabilities.

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    The Different Causes

    Several different conditions can cause an intellectual disability. It may result from a genetic condition or a problem during the pregnancy, such as maternal consumption of alcohol. Some children may develop an intellectual disability after birth due to damage to the brain. Bright Hub has several articles on these causes, such as Down’s syndrome and fetal alcohol syndrome, which include teaching tips and accommodations specifically for students with these disorders.

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    Educational Services

    Children with intellectual disabilities may qualify for special educational services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. Students who qualify for IDEA receive an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, in which a specialized education plan is made for the child based on her educational needs. For parents, this process may be confusing or overwhelming. These Bright Hub articles on IDEA explain how special education services can benefit students with intellectual disabilities and how the process works.

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    Teaching Tips for Special Education Teachers

    When teaching students with intellectual disabilities, special education teachers can use different adaptations to help them succeed. This may include using hands-on learning and providing rewards and positive feedback in the classroom. These articles go over different techniques and strategies teachers can use, as well as resources for specific issues, such as cognitive behavioral therapy for test anxiety.

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    Life Skills and Modified Lesson Plans

    With an intellectual disability, children have difficulties with adaptive skills. For example, they may have trouble with home living, social skills and personal needs. The "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" requires that to receive a diagnosis of an intellectual disability, the child must have impairments in adaptive skills in two different areas. Lesson plans on adaptive skills can help students work on these skills, thus improving their functioning at school and home. Special education teachers can also use modified lesson plans to teach students about nutrition and cooking. These life skill lesson plans can also be used with older students.

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    Providing the Best Education Possible

    With the right accommodations and dedicated teachers, students with intellectual disabilities can thrive in the classroom. These modified lesson plans are just a few examples of adapted lessons that teachers can do to help students learn and succeed. Parents of children with intellectual disabilities can become involved in their children's education by learning about special education services through IDEA and communicating with teachers about their children's progress.


  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Intellectual Disability
  • American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision. American Psychiatric Publishing, 2000. (Fifth Edition terminology effective 10/1/2015)
  • National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities: Intellectual Disability