As one of the most common developmental disabilities found within mainstream schools, most teachers will work with students with an intellectual disability frequently during their careers.

As such a vast, overarching umbrella, there are many different definitions and levels of difficulty for students with ID, making it even more essential to provide excellent strategies and a suitable learning environment for children that need that extra helping hand.

Diagnosed and supported by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, students with ID and their educators are provided with plenty of resources and tools to ensure they receive the education they need, with the accommodations they require to succeed.

Education resources


Understanding students with an intellectual disability?

A broad category that includes various skill levels, severities, and support requirements, an intellectual disability can involve problems with an individual functioning intellectually and/or adaptively.

Examples of difficulties around intellectual functioning can include problem-solving, the ability to communicate effectively, or the capacity to learn. Adaptive functioning and behavior may include specific challenges such as hygiene, routines, or even day-to-day social skills. Some of the most common causes of ID are:

  • Genetic conditions – most commonly caused by abnormal genes inherited from the parent or due to errors in the combination of genes during development. IDs under this category may include Down syndrome and PKU or Fragile X Syndrome.
  • Gestational problems – a result of the baby not developing properly inside the mother. There are many causes for ID due to problems during pregnancy. Drinking during pregnancy or contracting a serious infection can cause this.
  • Birth problems – in prolonged or difficult births, where the baby may not be getting enough oxygen, the child’s chance of an ID is greatly increased.
  • Health issues – various diseases and health concerns can lead to intellectual disabilities, such as measles or whooping cough. Malnutrition, poisoning, or lack of access to prompt medical care can also result in ID due to ill health.

Intellectual disability is not classified as a disease or a mental health problem. Over 425,000 children in the US have a form of intellectual disability and require special education or other accommodations within mainstream schools to succeed and learn effectively. While there is no cure for ID, there is plenty of evidence that with extra time and patience, children and individuals with this disability can accomplish and achieve many things, both in life and academically.

Students with an intellectual disability in the classroom

For children with an intellectual disability, certain aspects of development and learning can be stressful, difficult, or otherwise inaccessible. These challenges are especially obvious in the classroom, with many students with ID struggling with learning effectively. These characteristics can lead to impaired understanding and difficulty understanding concepts or ‘keeping up’ with other students.

For many ID children, the following difficulties may apply:

  • Difficulty in developing social and communication skills
  • Increased time needed for cognitive processing of tasks or new learning materials
  • Difficulty in understanding new or different information
  • Difficulty understanding or comprehending concepts that are abstract
  • Difficulty processing information sequentially

Because ID is a blanket term – similar to autism spectrum disorder in the classroom – children with this disability can require higher support and resources or none. With intellectual disabilities understood more than ever before when it comes to the needs and support of individuals with this disability, there is ample information for teachers and parents to provide insight into what an intellectual disability is.

For students with an intellectual disability, this is often not the only reason they struggle to work in a mainstream school environment. Between 40-60% of students with ID are also on the spectrum, leading to further difficulties in effective communication and learning.

Teaching students with an intellectual disability

When offering students with ID a fulfilling, suitable, and productive learning environment, it’s important to consider the accommodations and requirements the child may need to perform as well in a mainstream education setting as other students. As such, employing practical strategies can be the perfect place to start.

These strategies are more versatile than simply applying to ID; there is also a great deal of crossover with the challenges faced by students with other learning difficulties, such as ADHD or autism spectrum disorder. As such, developing the insight and techniques needed to support students with ID can benefit a range of children.

Here are just a few of the teaching methods that educators can employ to support students with an intellectual disabilities:

Using small steps

For students with an intellectual disability, breaking down each learning task into small, easy-to-digest steps can be invaluable. Teachers can modify their existing curriculum by introducing each learning task as a series of short, individual actions instead of looking at the bigger picture.

This step-wise approach is the basis of many different learning models for all kinds of students, with each step and level of investment varying according to the specific requirements of the individual student.

Modify teaching to be more hands-on

Students with ID are known to struggle with abstract concepts individually, making some traditional teaching styles incompatible with their specific challenges. Opting to go more hands-on with teaching can provide a more kinesthetic approach for students.

An example of this would be teaching gravity by demonstrating how it functions in the real world by dropping an object to illustrate the force.

Think visual

The visual world and what is directly in front of the child are important factors in teaching a student with ID. They tend to do best in environments where visual aids or support is provided, whether to learn specific subjects or map their completed progress. Using charts with ID students has proven to be highly effective, especially with direct, immediate feedback.

For more insight into these teaching methods and why they are suitable for students with ID, this article on AAC offers further information and guidance.

Five ways to incorporate intellectual disability strategies into your classroom

While there are many general strategies and suggestions surrounding ID in the classroom, implementing those opportunities, and including them in your curriculum, is a different challenge altogether. But in mainstream schools, it’s essential to balance offering support to your students and providing a well-rounded teaching experience.

These five methods offer simple, effective ways to incorporate elements of ID-suitable guidelines into any classroom with minimal disruption and excellent results:

1. Use baby steps

Start by breaking each lesson down into its simplest, most vital components. These steps can be provided to ID students alongside teaching a wider class to ensure they can keep up and develop the same understanding as their peers. To reduce frustration and encourage participation, this method is highly effective.

2. Incorporate more physical learning experiences

Whether using physical items to support learning in sciences or maths or simply offering a direct way for students to connect their learning to the real world, this method can be invaluable for all your students to help them develop their knowledge more well-rounded way.

3. Start a feedback book or chart

Students with ID can greatly benefit from immediate and consistent feedback. Using a feedback book or chart can create a record of that feedback, allowing the student to look back and see their development in black and white.

4. Encourage music in the classroom

Music can be a vital part of learning and development for any student, but for those with ID, it can be an especially powerful motivator. Music alongside concepts or lessons can help them retain information and offer greater engagement in the subject.

5. Provide visual stimulus

Whether it’s simply drawing the concept, you’re describing on a whiteboard or providing students with video or photographic content to study. ID students find it easier to focus when visually involved in the learning process.

With an intellectual disability such a common difficulty for many students, it’s vital to ensure that they receive the same level of care and attention when it comes to their education as any other student. At the same time, teachers, educators, and parents must work together to ensure they provide the best environment for every student.

How we can help you with students with an intellectual disability

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