Children with intellectual disabilities struggle in learning both academic and daily living skills, as well as appropriate social behavior. They require a great deal of support to achieve what their age level peers will accomplish with ease. They also struggle with communication, and may be delayed in learning to talk, sit-up, and walk. However, although their development is delayed, they can learn both academic and daily living skills, but at a much slower pace. Children with intellectual disabilities, depending on the level of severity, will achieve many of the typical developmental milestones, but not at the typical pace.



Intellectual disability (formerly known as mental retardation) is a disability that causes significant limitations in both intellect and adaptive behavior, which is practical daily living skills. According to the federal definition in Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (2004), this disability originates before the age of 18 and includes:

  • Intellectual functioning=mental capacity, intelligence, learning, reasoning, problem solving; typically measured by an intelligence test resulting in an IQ of 70 (sometimes 75 depending on the State you live in) or below
  • Adaptive behavior=collection of conceptual (literacy, mathematics, self-direction), social, and practical skills that are learned and performed by people in their everyday lives. 

The most common causes of intellectual disability are Down Syndrome, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and Fragile X Syndrome. Approximately a third of the causes are due to genetic factors, a third to external trauma or toxins, and a third of the causes remain unknown. 


American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities,                      Definition of Intellectual Disability

United States Department of Education, IDEA (2004),


Characteristics Checklist

Usually, the more severe the intellectual disability, the earlier the signs will be noticed, often before parents leave the hospital with their newborn. However, it is virtually impossible to determine how young children will be affected later in life regarding their independent functioning, so negative predictions by professionals should not be taken as facts.

Children with an intellectual disability may:

  • sit up, crawl, or walk later than other children
  • learn to talk later, or have trouble speaking
  • find it hard to remember things and learn at a slower rate
  • have trouble understanding social rules/norms; what’s appropriate and what’s not
  • have trouble seeing the results of their actions causing impulsivity
  • have trouble solving problems, even very simple ones without assistance
  • may have multiple medical conditions


Intellectual disabilities occur at different levels of severity which are determined by assessment of both intellectual functioning and adaptive behavior, as well as observations. in multiple environments. Levels of severity are usually referred to as mild, moderate, severe, or profound.


Developmental Disability (DD) is a broad term that includes intellectual disability but also other disabilities that are apparent during childhood; is severe and chronic; and can be cognitive, physical or both. Some developmental disabilities are largely physical issues.  Intellectual disability encompasses the cognitive part of this definition related to thought processes, however intellectual and other developmental disabilities often co-occur. Developmental delay is defined is some states as children between 3 and 5 years of age, while in other states it is 3-9 years of age. After the cutoff age, children are usually re-evaluated to determine a more specific eligibility ruling. Therefore, it is possible for a child to be considered developmentally delayed at age 4, but at 8 or 9 years old receive an autism eligibility ruling since diagnosing young children is such a complex task.

American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities,


  1. Use task analysis by breaking down complex or multi-step tasks into smaller sub-tasks.
  2. Implement active student response by requiring verbal responses or sign language throughout a lesson to enhance attention and memory. 
  3. Transfer stimulus control by gradually and systematically withdrawing verbal and physical prompts that are used to keep the student on task.
  4. Give frequent praise & rewards for completed sub-tasks, each small part of the task.
  5. Practice generalization, using learned skills across settings such as making change in a store, reading a menu, ordering in a restaurant, or following directions walking across a church or school campus.
  6. Ensure maintenance of skills by practicing frequently to retain them over time.
  7. Self-determination is assisting the student in identifying their own goals and creating a plan to reach them. Teach and encourage decision making beginning with small daily decisions and work toward making more significant decisions.
  8. Academic curriculum should include modifications of basic skills of reading, writing, and math.
  9. Use Assistive technology such as audio books, iPads, and cell phones.
  10. Functional curriculum should focus on practical daily living skills such as self-care, hygiene, cooking, communicating, using money, and many other skills your child will need to gain greater independence.
  11. Access needed therapies such as speech, occupational, or physical therapy.

These children need continuous repetition and practice to learn new material and hold on to what they have already learned. It’s important to model new skills by showing them how, having them watch siblings, and then practicing the skill for themselves. Choosing programs, materials, and curriculum that use all the modalities, especially visual and kinesthetic, will assist in learning retention rate. Incorporating music, songs, and dance will also greatly strengthen retention of learned material.


An Intellectual disability (ID) differs from a learning disability in that children with ID have limited intellectual functioning compared to their peers in learning, reasoning, problem solving, and managing basic daily living skills. Whereas children with learning disabilities (LD) may have above average IQ, but struggle with learning in one of more academic areas such as reading or math. Their daily living skills are not significantly impaired. Adaptive behavior and IQ set these two conditions apart. Children with ID need to focus on practical skills that will help them to become more independent and self-directed.


American Association for Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD) provides up to date research and policies through webinars, published papers, videos, and other supports for educators.

National Down Syndrome Society

National Association for Down Syndrome provides a wealth of resources for teaching academic and adaptive skills at all age levels.

National Challenged Homeschoolers Association Network (NATTHAN) is a support group that provides guidance, resources, book reviews and blogs from parents that have gone before you.

Best Buddies International provides venues for socializing and making friends, preventing people with intellectual disabilities from being isolated and lonely.

Special Olympics promotes healthy lifestyles  through sports, and leisure activities.

Wieser Educational: Special Materials for Special Needs,

Life-Skills Inventory: Independent-Living Skills Assessment Tool  Life Skills

OT Tool Box, created by occupational therapist, provides specific strategies and guidance on teaching functional skills, Tool Box


Depending on the level of severity, some children will be able to use a multisensory, structured literacy approach (phonics based) for reading but may work 2-3 grade levels below their peers; other children with moderate to severe disabilities may not be able to learn reading using phonics, but instead will need a program that teaches through memory of functional sight words. However, all children with intellectual disabilities will benefit from a multisensory approach to learning.

Attainment Company: Serving Individuals with Disabilities (call for an individualized program),

Career & Life skills Math programs, Weiser Educational,

Touch Math

Math It

Edmark Reading,

Scardy Cat Reading System, by Joyce Herzog,