Prevention corner

A third-grade classroom teacher expresses concern over the use of the term "mildly mentally retarded" by school personnel

By Elaine Clanton Harpine

There seems to be a growing concern over the use of the term “mildly mentally retarded” by school personnel. A third-grade classroom teacher recently sent the following letter, which summarizes many of the concerns being voiced.

Editorial question posed

Dear Prevention Corner:

I have a student in my third grade classroom who has been labeled mildly mentally retarded by the school psychologist. I really do not think this student is mentally retarded. The student is in third grade but cannot read and is failing all subjects. The parent, the school, and the previous teacher have told the student that the reason the student cannot read is that the student is mentally retarded. The school suggests that I give the student coloring pages to keep the student busy. The administration has said that there is nothing else that we can do. Yet, the student has learned very complicated dance routines from music videos and TV shows and can execute and remember these routines from memory.

Finally, the student was selected for a special reading program through the university. The student is beginning to learn to read through this new program, but failure is so engrained in this student that it is hard to even get the student to try.

How can we prevent this from happening to another child?



Dear Frustrated,

I am pleased to hear that you have not given up on this student as it seems many have done. Children are individuals and need to approach learning in their own unique way. I am very happy to hear that the student is finally getting help in reading, and I hope the student’s participation in the special reading program will continue.

Two concerns come forward from your letter: (1) use of the term “mildly mentally retarded” and (2) ongoing reading failure. First, let’s look at the term “mildly mentally retarded.” Mental retardation is typically determined by an IQ measured below 70 with two significant delays. These delays may be taking care of personal needs — feeding and dressing appropriately. Independent living skills are an important consideration: communicating wants and needs and being able to take care of self. Fetal alcohol syndrome and the use of prescription or illegal drugs during pregnancy are believed to be two preventable causes for mental retardation. Prevention during pregnancy would definitely help children in the classroom. Mental retardation is determined through an IQ test. Schools use the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale, Otis-Lennon School Abilities, or other equivalent IQ measure. Tests are typically administered by age. You do not mention if special testing or consideration was used; therefore, I’ll assume your student would most likely have been given a third-grade-level test. If the student cannot read, the student cannot be accurately tested at the third-grade level unless special consideration and adjustments are made — pictures instead of vocabulary words. Your first concern: How was the test administered? You would need to talk with the school psychologist to see what procedures were used.

Once you have assured that the best possible considerations were made in testing, you need to look to the term or label being used. Some schools are using “mildly mentally retarded,” others use “intellectual disability” and still others prefer to use “developmental delay.” Regardless of how the child is described, labels have a tendency to stigmatize and hurt children. As you explain, labels may even cause the child, parent(s) and even teachers to give up. A child should never be told that they are mildly mentally retarded. Children should not be labeled. Labels ostracize and restrict the healthy development of children, especially in the very public arena of the classroom before one’s peers.

Your second concern is reading failure. This is coming to the attention of more and more psychologists as we learn that reading is not just an educational problem but a psychological problem as well. Reading failure affects overall mental wellness and often leads to at-risk behaviors. The Nation’s Report Card states that 40 percent of the nation’s fourth graders cannot read at grade level. This is not a new problem but an ongoing one. Research is showing that children can receive help from intensive phonological awareness training. Yet many schools still use methods that do not include such training. Furthermore, most schools only teach reading using one approach with special adjustments for those who need assistance or who are struggling. As you found with your own student, research is showing that a variety of different approaches should be used in the same classroom. No two students learn in the same way; therefore, the subject of reading should be taught through multiple interventions. We can no longer rely on one method and then say that it is the student or even teacher who has failed. Instead, it is the method and approach that we are using to teach reading that has failed and must be changed.

In response to your last question: How can we prevent this from happening to another student? Prevention must begin before birth. We need to reduce the variables such as alcohol and drugs which harm children during pregnancy and then leave the child struggling to cope throughout their lifetime. Next, we need to start early, before school age, to help children. Early identification of needs and early intervention are the key. In school, we must develop approaches which work for every child, regardless of their learning style and special needs. We must change how we teach children to read because reading affects children throughout their lifetime. If one approach does not work, instead of labeling the child a failure, we need to change the methods that we are using to teach the child. Prevention is essential in the home, in the community, and in the school. We welcome your participation as we explore the needs of group specialists working in school-based settings. We invite psychologists, counselors, prevention programmers, teachers, administrators, and other mental health practitioners working with groups to network together, share ideas and problems, and become more involved. Our next column will give responses to this dialogue. We invite you to send your comments. Do you think the term “mildly mentally retarded” is being overused in the schools? Are testing procedures accurate? Why are so many children not learning to read? Is reading a problem that should concern psychologists? What can we do about reading failure?

Please send comments, questions and group prevention concerns to Elaine Clanton Harpin.