Music & Students with Special Needs (Special Learners in Music) Special Learners in Music
Bartlett - Established 1884 in New York City

Mental Retardation

Students who are mentally retarded exhibit marked weaknesses in reasoning skills as well as in the ability to adapt to everyday life. While mental retardation is a cognitive impairment, the student who is retarded is able to learn, although she learns slowly and struggles with higher-level thinking skills. About 90% of students with mental retardation are considered mildly mentally retarded.

Down Syndrome

Down Syndrome is a leading cause of mental retardation. Down Syndrome is a genetic condition caused by an extra chromosome. Students with Down Syndrome have distinct physical features. While they vary in appearance, common characteristics include a stocky physique, small stature, a short neck, small hands and feet, poor muscle tone, a flat facial profile, and slanting eyes with skin folds at the inner corners.

Students with Down Syndrome are also prone to physical problems. Hearing and vision impairments are common. In addition, about 40% of students with Down Syndrome have heart defects, and 8 to 10 percent have gastrointestinal difficulties. Many of these students also have a decreased resistance to infection, and are thus vulnerable to respiratory difficulties.

Students with Down Syndrome exhibit a wide range of behaviors and abilities, however, most have some degree of mental retardation. Language and motor development are usually slow, and speech articulation may be poor.

Characteristics of students with mild to moderate mental retardation

  • Students with mild to moderate mental retardation think and learn slower than other students. They display particular difficulty with abstract tasks and higher-level reasoning. They may also have difficulty generalizing information to other situations.
  • These students may have concrete vocabularies and simpler sentences than other students their age.
  • These students may not contribute to class discussions because they are afraid of making mistakes and being ridiculed.
  • Students with mild to moderate mental retardation may be unable to read social cues and/or be unable to respond appropriately to social situations.

Teaching strategies for students with mild to moderate mental retardation

  • Effective instruction of students with mild to moderate mental retardation, including those with Down Syndrome, requires a blend of patience, understanding, and a belief that they can learn, coupled with the realization that progress may be slow.
  • Help these students blend in with other students. Make sure they are as involved in class routines as other students.
  • Provide preferential seating for these students. Avoid placing possibly distracting students next to a student with mild to moderate mental retardation.
  • When possible, provide a “buddy” that can help the student. You may need to alternate this responsibility as it can be rather time consuming.
  • If parental permission is given, talk to the class about the student. Explain the student’s abilities and disabilities. Let them know what to expect in class and how they can be respond. Consider asking an older, well-respected student who has been in a class with a student with mild to moderate mental retardation to come talk to the students about her experience.
  • Adapting instruction to students with mild to moderate mental retardation can be time consuming. It will require flexibility, creativity, and advance planning - you will probably also need the assistance of the general classroom or special education teachers.
  • Explain new terms and use consistent terminology. Provide written or pictorial guides to assist the student in learning new terms or skills.
  • When necessary, alter the amount of work expected, or give alternate assignments to students with mild to moderate mental retardation.
  • Make sure you have the student’s full attention and eye contact when giving directions. Use vocabulary that the student will understand. These students may need to repeat directions back to you, or tell you what they are to do “in their own words”.
  • Use concrete materials and hands-on experiences. The ability to touch and “do” will greatly enhance the learning experience for students with mild to moderate mental retardation. Felt notes or raised staff lines will help provide concrete experience with abstract concepts.
  • Present learning tasks in small, sequential steps. Make sure the student has completed the first step before moving to the next step. Continue to monitor the student’s understanding through the class or lesson.
  • Reinforce newly learned skills often. Students with mild to moderate mental retardation require consistent review and practice of skills.

Assessment modification procedures

  • Be sure the student can read the test and understand the terms. If she cannot, have someone read it to her and explain terms she does not know.
  • Allow extra time to complete the test or give only selected questions. Consider giving breaks during the test.
  • If the student has difficulty writing, create a multiple-choice format, or give an oral exam with questions that are appropriate to her ability and with language she understands.
  • In multiple-choice questions, do not use “all of the above” or “none of the above” as choices, and in true-false questions, do not use “always”, “sometimes”, and “never”.
  • If necessary, give the student a set of questions or problems different from those given to her classmates.
  • Have the student demonstrate understanding through an alternate format. This may be a performance rather than written test, or an oral or physical demonstration in response to questions.
  • When assigning grades, use the IEP goals as markers.
  • Reinforce classroom routines and procedures with visual cues. A written or pictorial description of the class schedule can help the student prepare for activities and/or rehearsals.
  • Prepare the student for a change of routine or an unfamiliar situation. If you expect to alter your rehearsal or classroom routine, give the student with mild to moderate mental retardation advance notice. Let them know what they will be seeing or doing so they feel more prepared and in control.
  • Model respectful behavior toward the student. Foster a climate of support by treating the student with mild to moderate mental retardation in a kind and friendly way. Interact informally with her the way you interact with other students in the class.
  • Try to bolster the student’s confidence and self-esteem. Students with mild to moderate mental retardation sometimes learn to distrust their abilities and may need a great deal of emotional support as well as experience with success to become a more confident learner. Encourage their academic and non-academic successes.
  • Assign the student with mild to moderate mental retardation classroom jobs she can successfully accomplish. Classroom or school jobs such as being class messenger, and passing out music or other classroom materials can greatly enhance self-esteem.
  • Structure positive peer interactions. Organize activities that will help students with mild to moderate mental retardation interact with classmates. Consider organizing a select group of four to five students who will make a special effort to include these students in activities. The more a teacher can build a peer support system for students, the more they will feel they belong in the class or ensemble.
  • If necessary, request an aide for the students in class.

Additional Resources

Welcome to Holland is here:

The National Down Syndrome Society Web site

Family Village - A Global Community of Disability-Related Resources

Whole Schooling Consortium

Article on the CEC website

Copyright 2005 Project Seven Development