The Exceptional Child

Mentally Handicapped

Produced for the Educational Television and Radio Center by Syracuse University, 1969

Statement and Disclaimer from Thomas Neuville, Associate Professor, Department of Special Education, Millersville University

Hello there young fellow. What’s on your mind?

Those are a dime.

Now it costs only a dime.

Can’t you count?

You’re old enough to count to ten aren’t you?

Come on brainchild; give me a nickel and five pennies.

This boy is mentally handicapped. He looks like any average boy. But certain situations are confusing and sometimes painfully unrewarding to him. Because of his mental limitations and his inability to cope with experiences like that in the candy store.


A child with differences. It is our hope that through these programs, we might better understand this child and help him.

Had the clerk in the candy store been more patient and understanding, this unhappy scene might not have happened. Unfortunately, situations like the one we have seen in the candy store are the usual experience for the child who is mentally handicapped. Because he looks like any other child, he’s expected to act like any other child even though his mental equipment and emotional development will not allow it. The result more often than not is a frustrating and completely unrewarding contact with the world.

I’m Ed Jones, your host on these programs and today we’re going to try to understand the dynamic and complex problems that confront the mentally handicapped child; a child who may appear different only because he’s not accepted by others of his own age, or who does not seem to function in life’s situations as well as he’s expected to. In school he may be referred to as dumb by his classmates. He may often be misunderstood, even by his own parents. Making his quest for satisfactory relationships in life very difficult and lonely.

But what does the term mentally handicapped mean? To answer this and to help us achieve a deeper and more constructive understanding of the problems of the mentally handicapped child. We have with us today Dr, G, Orville Johnson. Professor of Special Education at Syracuse University. Co-author of the book Educating the Retarded Child and co-editor of The Education of Exceptional Children and Youth, and a man who has worked twenty years with the children who are mentally handicapped.

These two boys are engaged in a co-operative activity that not only is fun but has some worthwhile, educational implications. It provides them with opportunities to practice some of the skills that they have learned in terms of figuring the costs of the project as well as reading the directions in order that they can perform the activities required properly.

In concerning ourselves with the problems of mentally handicapped children, we must answer a number of questions. Who are these children? What are their problems in terms of adjustment in community situations? And what can be done to help them solve these problems more effectively? To answer these questions we must have a better understanding of the growth and development of mentally handicapped children; the problems they face within the community, the problems they face in school where special programs are not provided, and what can be done in terms of school situations in providing special programs that will enable them to adjust more effectively to the community and life.

Mentally handicapped children are educable, that is they can learn a sufficient amount of the basic academic skills; that they can learn to use them as useful, useable tools in making a living and adjusting to society adults. They can learn to make their own way independently. With special education they can learn to earn their own living by performing semi-skilled and un-skilled jobs. The developmental rate of mentally handicapped children is essentially normal.

They grow physically, socially, and emotionally much as does a normal child. Possibly learning to walk and talk at a slightly later age. But because a child learns to walk and talk late doesn’t necessarily mean that he is mentally handicapped. Therefore, these very small deviations cannot be used for diagnostic purposes.

Their major deviation is in terms of intellectual development and this does not become apparent usually until they start school. It becomes quite apparent in kindergarten and first grade. In kindergarten they have difficulty learning the kinds of activities that most kindergarten children participate in, such as, learning to differentiate between size, shape, form and things of this type. They have also difficulty in making social, co-operative adjustments. In first grade, the deviation becomes even greater. Most children learn to read at about six or seven years of age.

Mentally handicapped children cannot learn to read until they are nine, ten, or eleven years of age. Thus, all of the children in first grade are reading long before the mentally handicapped child has attained the ability to learn this skill. The same is true in the other kinds of experiences that are found in most first grade classes.

Mentally handicapped children have many frustrations in school environments that are not designed for them. Thus, the frustrating experience of the child in the candy store was not an unusual one, but was unfortunately much too common.

Unless they have instruction or training, mentally handicapped children usually have the same play interests as younger, normal children. Because they don’t understand the games and the rules of the games, they’re unable to play effectively with children of their own age. The children will not accept them. Often, neighborhood parents and playground directors feel the same way. They may forbid the mentally handicapped child to play with children with whom he can compete and tell him to seek friends of his own age group. This adds to the sense of frustration.

But frustrating experiences are not confined to the playground and to the community. The school may require him to take part in a situation to which he cannot adjust. The instruction level of most classrooms is designed for children of average ability. When mentally handicapped children find themselves in this situation they tend to react in one of two ways. They may withdraw from it and busy themselves with some unrelated occupation or they become aggressive and disrupt the class.

Schools can do very little directly to effect the environment of the community and the effect this environment has on the mentally handicapped child. But they can do a great deal within the school itself to promote the mentally handicapped total, child’s total growth and development. This growth can be promoted most effectively within a special class program.

Within this program, the frustrations that the mentally handicapped child encounters within the regular classroom can be reduced or completely eliminated. In addition, it can be provided with the kind of curriculum that meets his particular needs in terms of his particular characteristics. The teacher does not attempt to increase his intelligence, but to teach him to use his intelligence as effectively as possible, and to improve his social relationships with the other children of the school and of the total environment in which he’s living.

The regular class cannot do these things since there are few personal, satisfying experiences that the mentally handicapped child can have within a regular classroom program. He has no peer relationships. It is difficult if at all possible to provide him with the differentiated kind of educational experiences that he needs. The objectives of a program for the mentally handicapped can only be achieved within a special class. The initial emphasis of the programs is in terms of personal adjustment; when a person is well adjusted as an individual then the kinds of social experiences that will aid him in developing the abilities to work and play effectively with others can be introduced and he can benefit from them.

After he becomes personally and socially well adjusted he can then make use of the vocational experiences that in the future will enable him to become an independent, contributing member of the economy in which he’s growing up.

The special classes for the mentally handicapped should be housed in regular public schools with normal children. The children are a part of rather than separate from the total community of the school. Locating the class in this way provides the teacher with opportunities to include experiences for the children that could be taught in no other way: such as taking responsibility for delivering messages to the principal or another teacher, learning how to behave in larger group situations during auditorium programs, learning to adjust to normal children in out of class situations, finding one’s way around a fairly complex environment, in this case, a large elementary school. And generally learning to meet and live with others.

The teacher of a primary class of mentally handicapped children must keep certain objectives in mind. She must help her children to achieve mental and physical health. They must learn to develop socially and must develop speech and language. They must learn to discriminate between sizes, shapes, colors, and other concepts. Memory must be developed as well as motor and physical abilities. Special classes are smaller than regular classes. The teachers are specially trained and much work is done with the individual child; or much more than is possible in regular classes.

To accomplish your objectives, the teacher provides the child with many varied learning experiences. Puzzles, for the development of color, size and shape discrimination. Games, to teach better understanding of things related to the natural activities of the children. Science displays and science experiments to help the child toward a better understanding of the world around him.

While the teacher plans a great deal of class work around the individual child’s needs and characteristics, much can be carried out in groups where the experiences will be of value to all. Only by working and playing with other children can a child learn co-operation, to take turns, and to contribute to the accomplishment of a common goal. Fairy tales may be used in developing a number of skills and concepts.

The material is familiar to the children. Here, the story of The Three Bears provides experiences in discriminating sizes, identifying quantities, taking turns, and it also requires the child to express himself in various ways; orally and through acting out the story and following directions. But although the special class is designed specifically for mentally handicapped children, it is impossible to integrate every child into the group immediately upon his being placed there.

Children who have been in regular classes for a number of years may require several months to adjust to the special class. The teacher must first help them shake off the effect of the frustration, the isolation, and the rejection they’ve experienced in the past. And some children have not had an opportunity to work and play with other children. And as a result, don’t know how; they must be taught.

Sometimes, the child’s behavior is very erratic and unpredictable. He’s easily distracted from what he’s doing and unable to attend to a specific activity for any length of time perhaps because of his brain injury.

Since the objectives of a program for mentally handicapped children are to aid each child to become personally more effective and better able to adjust in out of school situations, many of the activities are taken from real life situations.

These little girls are learning about physical neatness and personal grooming. And at the same time, they’re engaged in a co-operative social experience. In this way the activities of the class have greater meaning for the children and help them in making better home and social adjustments.

Children should have fun in school and enjoy the educational experiences that are provided them within the classroom. From psychological studies we know that learning takes place most effectively when the learner is enjoying the learning activity. This makes it imperative that the teacher selects learning activities very carefully, which the children will both enjoy and will also provide them with valuable, educational experiences. School is not just a game however, nor is it a series of activities designed for the entertainment of children. But much can be taught through games and activities of this type. Neither are all learning experiences provided through the informal kinds of activities. It is necessary to specifically teach specific skills when the occasion arises.

The method of instruction most commonly used in primary classes for mentally handicapped children is called The Unit of Experience. The unit is selected upon the basis of its being an actual experience in living, related to the child’s immediate interests and environment and which will help him is his daily living. Young mentally handicapped children are often transported to school in taxicabs. Hence, an experience unit is a natural outgrowth of this experience.

The unit of experience is a vehicle where by experiences of normal, everyday co-operative living, social relationships, courtesy, safety, laws, regulations, may be learned and practiced. It’s a method that provides for experiences in community living within the classroom and makes the experience and knowledge learned within the classroom meaningful in the children’s out of school life.

Because the experience unit is a real living experience for the children, it has many and varied values in relating social, academic and other skills into a meaningful context.

The pre-academic and academic skills taught are learned in terms of their use and application to real life situations. They become tools that aid the child to understand his problems better and consequently solve them with greater ease. Skills are not a value within themselves; but only in so far as they aid the child in learning about things and how to do things.

Short stories are written concerning the experiences of the children during their trips to and from school and about their activities within the classroom that are related to the experience unit. In this way they’re introduced to reading and learn their initial vocabulary in a meaningful way. The stories written and read concern their own life experiences.

At this stage the initial concept of what reading is, initial reading skills and vocabulary are developed. The children tell the stories to the teacher with the teacher’s guidance and selective questions, who then writes in on the blackboard and later transfers it to large sheets of cardboard. The children then read their own stories. Later, more formal academic instruction may be used incorporating commercially prepared materials.

When mentally handicapped children are ten years or so of age and have developed a sufficient amount of social maturity to be able to work effectively with other children and are at the reading readiness or beginning reading stage, they are usually promoted to the elementary class. The elementary class is designed for children who are ten to thirteen or so years of age and who are performing academically from the readiness through about the third grade level. The objectives of the elementary program are to develop skills in the academic areas and teach the children to life effectively in their community.

In the curriculum concerned with the development of the academic skills, the skills are taught not only as skills but also how to apply them in needful situations. For example, reading, writing, and spelling are taught as communication skills so that the children can perform such activities as reading letters and writing communications to other children.

Reading is taught to about the third or fourth grade level eventually; this being about the maximum at which mentally handicapped children can achieve. There is a great deal of difference however between a completely liberate person and a person who can perform even at the third or fourth grade level.

A person of fourteen or fifteen years of age with third or fourth grade reading ability, can read the newspaper and acquire various kinds of information that he needs; telephone numbers, addresses, geographical information, and things of this type. In arithmetic he can also learn to perform at about the same leve,l thus being able to tell time, make change, and use the normal mathematical computations that are required in normal, daily living.

For areas of living, those experiences concerned with the individual’s personal, social and physical environment and his relationships to them must be emphasized also. He must learn to better understand his total physical environment including his home, his neighborhood as well as the events that happen around him in order to realize their effect upon him and to learn such things as finding his way about the community. He must also learn to work and play with other children in school situations.

Only in this way will he be able to work and play with other children in the neighborhood and be able to use the various social relationships that he must make in the community. Again, the unit of experience is used at the elementary level in order to promote these skills to the child’s highest achievement level. These units are also selected on the basis of the achievement level of the child and the child’s particular needs and characteristics. Other important factors considered are how much of the academic skills can be included, the application of the academic skill, as well as the use of arts and crafts and the fine arts so that he will have an appreciation and use of these as well.

Thus the emphasis of the elementary program is on personal, social, and academic skills, providing experiences that the child needs so that he will better be able to adjust to the environment in which he is living so that he’ll be able to work and play more effectively with other persons. The unit of experiences has value beyond the development in the academic areas in that it can provide applicational skills that the children can use for recreational activities in the home and in the community.

Following the elementary class, children should be placed in secondary programs. As in the elementary and primary classes, the classes should be housed in regular secondary schools, junior and senior high schools. The junior high school program is an extension of the elementary program where the children are provided with added instruction in the academic area. For those children who have not had the opportunity of being in a special class at the elementary level, remedial instruction may be required.

The junior high school provides an opportunity to broaden the social experiences of the children in coming in contact with a larger number of children and a larger number of teachers so that they can operate more effectively in society in general.

The shops and the various home economics laboratories also provide additional experiences in these areas that cannot be provided in the special class. They also provide opportunities for application of the academic skill and the kinds of situations in which the children will be and actually are using them.

Following the program, the junior high school classes should also be provided in the regular Senior High School for mentally handicapped adolescence. Continued emphasis is placed upon various kinds of social experiences.

A program within the special class, however, takes a rather different turn in that the emphasis is no longer placed upon proficiency in the academic areas but rather, application of the skills learned and inclusion of additional experiences related to the areas of living. They need to move out into the community and learn about what jobs are available, how to apply for these jobs, what is involved in social security, where state employment agencies are located and how they can be used in terms of locating jobs.

Again, the various shops are used for the continued development of skills in the manual areas, but with continuous emphasis throughout upon the non-manual skills involved in social relationships. Finally, experiences on a job or on a number of jobs should be provided so that each child has an opportunity to learn how to work with other individuals and get along with employers.

Thus the emphasis of the total program for the mentally handicapped is in terms of personal, social and economic development. Eventually how to live in society and how to hold a job and be independent. Studies have indicated that mentally handicapped children can develop easily the manual and the academic skills required to operate on a job. But they lose their jobs for non-manual or social reasons. Inability to get along with fellow employees, inability to get along with employers, inability to take responsibility and things of this type.

The purpose of the on the job training at the secondary level is not to teach the children specific jobs but rather how to work on a job. Only with a program of the type described, can we help the individual to operate effectively as an individual and also make a contribution to the society in which he’s living.

Every child has his own pattern of growth. When a child has a specific handicap, such as a mental handicap, his pattern is slower. His mental limitations curtail his ability to function adequately at school, at play, and at home; causing failure and frustration instead of accomplishment and satisfaction. But with understanding parents, special education, more wholesome environment; with a society that will accept him and help him and will recognize the value of the contribution he can make. The mentally handicapped child can leave a fuller, more satisfying and constructive life. However it is up to all of us to do whatever we can in this adjustment. For the mentally handicapped child is as much a part of our society as any other child and our happiness is in part dependent on his.

Today we have seen some of the problems that confront the child who is mentally handicapped but educable. A child who is slow in learning the very things he needs most but who can learn to conduct his own affairs and find a satisfactory degree of fullness and adequacy of life.

Next week we shall try to understand the relationships of the child who is severely mentally retarded. Remembering that a child with a handicap is yet a child, an exceptional child, with a life that may be restricted sometime even distorted but one which can grow and continue to grow toward fulfillment. As we know more about the growth and development of the child with a handicap we will be able to help the exceptional child more in his quest for a happier more secure relationships. With the hope that if he cannot completely eliminate his handicaps he may effectively reduce the restrictions they cause.

A child is born, new life begun. A life, which may be exceptional but need not be without achievement and happiness.

This is National Educational Television.