Special Education Monographs No. 3: Exceptional Pupils with Mild Intellectual Handicaps in Secondary Schools

Special Education Branch, August 1986


Table of Contents

  1. Purpose
  2. The Education Mandate
  3. Who are the Exceptional Pupils with Mild Intellectual Handicaps?
  4. Planning the Secondary School Program
  5. Courses of Study
  6. Making Knowledge Useful
  7. Cognitive Strategies for Teachers
    1. Concept Learning
    2. Thinking Skills
    3. Communication Skills
    4. Study Skills
    5. Evaluation

1. Purpose

This monograph has been prepared to assist secondary school teachers in developing courses of study for, planning lessons for, and teaching exceptional pupils with mild intellectual handicaps. The following areas are addressed:

  • structuring a pupil's learning program;
  • organizing the school and the class;
  • encouraging reading and literacy skills;
  • promoting a positive self-concept and social skills.

The general suggestions that follow are applicable to all curriculum guidelines

2. The Educational Mandate

The Education Act requires that all students, including exceptional pupils, receive an education suited to their needs and abilities. An exceptional pupil is defined in the legislation as one whose "behavioural, communicational, intellectual, physical, or multiple exceptionalities are such that he is considered to need placement in a special education program by a committee of the board."

Special education programs may be conducted in a variety of settings, such as a regular classroom, a resource or withdrawal program, a self-contained class, or a special school.

After an Identification, Placement and Review Committee (I PRC) has identified a student as exceptional, it recommends an appropriate placement. A plan that includes specific objectives and provides for continuous assessment and evaluation must then be developed. The placement must be viewed at least once a year, although a parent may ask for a review at any time after the student has been in the placement for three months.

3. Who Are the Exceptional Pupils with Mild Intellectual Handicaps?

Intellectually handicapped students identified as exceptional at the elementary level or upon entry to the secondary school have a limited ability to read, write; and perform basic numeracy tasks. The complexity of the secondary school organization, coupled with difficult text material and the abstract content of many secondary school courses at the general and advanced levels, heightens these students' anxiety and interferes with their performance. These students may:

  • have had previous school experiences that were negative or frustrating;
  • have difficulty accepting constructive criticism;
  • demonstrate extremes in behaviour;
  • have problems with any change in routine;
  • require reassurance to establish and maintain teacher/pupil trust;
  • be bored;
  • have met with little success in academic achievement;
  • have problems with reading, writing, and organizing;
  • have a language deficit that inhibits academic growth;
  • need to develop more independence;
  • have rejected academic subjects as being unimportant;
  • have little self confidence in relating to others;
  • be reluctant to participate in school tasks and activities.

Other factors, such as previous teachers' comments on student performance, data from Ontario Student Record folders, and current teachers' commitment to working with mildly intellectually handicapped students, should also be considered.

4. Planning the Secondary School Program

Students moving from elementary to secondary schools must adjust to a new learning environment. It is important that the students' special needs be identified upon entering the secondary school. A close liaison between the secondary school and the elementary school is necessary for students with mild intellectual handicaps to receive appropriate programming from the beginning of their secondary school experience. Specific arrangements are essential for these students to gain confidence and self-esteem in the secondary school program.

When assigning these students to teaching situations, the following elements of student performance should be considered:

  • language achievement;
  • verbal and non-verbal reading abilities;
  • mathematics achievement;
  • achievement in school tests and examinations;
  • attitude to school and personal qualities;
  • peer and adult relationships;
  • motivation and task commitment;
  • other elements, such as spelling ability, foreign language ability, parent and student expectations, artistic abilities, natural physical skills, hobbies, and leadership qualities.

5. Courses of study

Courses are developed from Ministry of Education curriculum guidelines. Section 2.3 of the circular Ontario Schools: Intermediate and Senior Divisions (OSIS) points out that "learning experiences must correspond with the pupil's needs, abilities, interests and aspirations, but may differ in content, process, product and evaluation. Special education programs, therefore, will involve modifications to the kind, breadth, depth and pace of these experiences."

Students' needs can be met by:

  • combining compulsory and optional credits;
  • adapting course content;
  • using special teaching strategies in the classroom;
  • emphasizing a supportive learning environment.

Ministry of Education curriculum guidelines outline provincial policy expectations for the development of courses of study. The task of developing the course of study, including adapting and implementing the course, rests with the teacher.

It is important that teachers responsible for developing courses of study be aware of the knowledge, skills, and attitudes of a particular student or group of students. A teacher can help students complete a course successfully by carefully adapting the course. This may be done by:

  • planning alternative teaching strategies;
  • devising appropriate evaluation techniques;
  • providing materials at the pupil's instructional learning level.

The teacher is responsible for preparing a course of study that is comprehensible to the student and reflects the intent of the guideline. The course should motivate the student to learn, encourage thinking and reasoning, and maintain the student's interest.

Not all subjects offered in a secondary school will be offered at all three levels of difficulty. Section 4.6 of OSIS states that "many courses will be offered at only one level of difficulty, but where circumstances permit and where the needs of different students can be accommodated by offering courses at two or more levels of difficulty, such levels should be offered. This is particularly important in the required subjects, since their successful completion is necessary for the earning of a diploma."

Content adaptation is not a process of simply changing levels of difficulty. Change in content, instructional approach, and evaluation must occur.

OSIS (4.6) further states that "courses developed at any of the three levels of difficulty may be adopted to meet the learning needs of exceptional pupils. This adaptation would normally be arranged by the principal of the school." Courses at the basic level are "designed to focus on the development of personal skills, social understanding, self-confidence, and preparation for the world of work. The academic work and related skills should be perceived by the student as being personally useful."

6. Making Knowledge Useful

There is considerable emphasis in OSIS on the personal usefulness of knowledge for all students. The task of adapting courses to reflect individual needs and abilities is a prime responsibility of the teacher.

"Life skills are abilities that are useful to a person in everyday life" (OSIS, Section 2.9). OSIS gives a sample list of eleven such abilities:

  • using language with clarity and accuracy;
  • analysing ideas expressed in pictures, prose, or conversation and discussion;
  • distinguishing fact from opinion;
  • computing;
  • organizing time;
  • reasoning practically;
  • planning projects by identifying the purpose and action steps and by setting a time line;
  • establishing priorities;
  • reading a newspaper and viewing television and films with discrimination;
  • evaluating the quality of one's own work;
  • treating others with courtesy and respect.

Many mildly intellectually handicapped students plan to enter the workforce directly from secondary school. Their programs should involve them in practical studies. In such cases, courses may emphasize practical studies in the form of a school-related package. Section 5.9 of OSIS notes that "teachers can build relationships among courses within a particular package to facilitate direct entry by students into employment or into training in a particular area of study."

A student taking technical courses should enrol in English courses that relate to the reading of technical manuals and in mathematics courses that relate to the practice of technical mathematics. Such courses should be jointly planned by all teachers involved in the delivery of the package.

The importance of co-operation among teachers cannot be overemphasized. The principal should provide opportunities for resource teachers and/or subject specialists to meet regularly to discuss course adaptations for effective programming. The meetings must incorporate ongoing discussions of course aims, content, materials, and teaching methods, and provide opportunities to exchange views on individual student needs. such discussions will provide a much-needed forum for curriculum development, implementation, and review.

Flexibility in course selection and course workload for the students can be greatly increased through the provision of thirty 114 credit modules as provided by section 4.5 of OSIS.

Section 5.11 and 5.12 of OSIS provide program-delivery alternatives that relate in-school courses to the world of work. These sections ensure that courses having cooperative education and work experience components fit the rationale and intent of Ministry of Education curriculum policy.

Section 5.11:
A co-operative education course consists of an in-school component and an out-of-school component so that learning and experience area combined in an educationally beneficial way. Co-operative education courses can develop skills that are needed in a social service activity, business, a vocational pursuit, or some special activity or study in the community, provided that the out-of-school learning enhances the educational experience of the students involved.
Section 5.12:
Work experience provides the student with a learning opportunity in the workplace, under the supervision of an employer for a limited period of time within a credit course. As a component of the student's program, work experience provides opportunities to practice and reinforce the vocational skills and technical or business knowledge acquired in school.

7. Cognitive Strategies for Teachers

Successful learning depends largely on teaching strategies matching students' learning needs. Some students require considerable structure in the presentation of material and assistance in organizing their work. They may also benefit from a teaching approach that is multisensory in nature.

  1. Concept Learning

    Mildly intellectually handicapped students may not easily understand certain concepts and may tend to forget them. Therefore, teachers need to:

    • be as concrete as possible, and move from the concrete to the representational to the abstract. Abstract thought, such as estimating and inferring, is often difficult;
    • present concepts from different points of view;
    • keep learning periods short, and provide simple explanations;
    • use repetition and drills;
    • try to complete lessons in single sessions
    • use applications; deal with facts before moving into discussion;
    • use personal experiences;
    • have a rich stock of visual and concrete aids;
    • reduce symbolism, such as that sometimes found in mathematical and scientific formulae;
    • allow time for discussion of ideas; talking it out may be the best way to arrive at understanding.

  2. Thinking Skills

    Students may need opportunities to develop thinking, reasoning, and decision-making skills. Teachers should:

    • provide opportunities for advancing these skills with puzzles, games, and logic problems;
    • use classroom situations to demonstrate simple steps in problem-solving;
    • provide direct instruction to assist students through the problem-solving process.

  3. Communication

    The teaching of reading, writing, listening, and speaking requires special attention. A teacher should be willing to try a variety of approaches, such as:

    • choosing interesting reading materials;
    • using Adult Basic Education materials for reluctant readers;
    • reading to students. Some learn best this way, and it helps to increase the attention span;
    • presenting textbook material on tape, so that students can listen to it;
    • giving careful attention to vocabulary. Subject-specific vocabulary should be introduced when needed. Simpler terms may have to be substituted for technical vocabulary; for example, "top" and "bottom" instead of "numerator" and "denominator";
    • allowing time for answers, and encouraging expression rather than "yes" or "no" answers. Questions may have to be reworded or restated.
    • giving students opportunities to write with success; using computers. Programmed instruction may be useful.

  4. Study Skills

    Poor organizational skills may stand in the way of learning. Slower-learning students may need more assistance with simple organizational details. Teachers should:

    • show students how to take notes during class;
    • show students how to use graphic aids such as pictures and diagrams;
    • encourage the school librarian to help students locate library materials;
    • provide step-by-step instructions for work assignments;
    • keep work periods short and use a variety of activities;
    • encourage and assist students to organize themselves.

  5. Evaluation

    Evaluation methods should be adapted to the needs of students. Slower-learning students need assistance to improve their reading skills and to interpret and respond to written and oral tests. In addition, they need to understand evaluation methods. When evaluating students, teachers should:

    • consider a wide variety of evaluation techniques, such as, oral examinations, in which questions are read or put on tape;
    • allow as much time as possible for answers;
    • accept answers in point form;
    • use short quizzes and objective techniques where appropriate;
    • where possible, use pictures and diagrams in questions and allow them in answers.

    It is important to review students' performance regularly and to provide consistent and supportive feedback. Reporting should be frequent and constructive. Teachers are encouraged to:

    • communicate informally with parents outside the school setting to discuss mutual concerns;
    • send brief notes to parents to highlight particular accomplishments by the student. This may significantly improve the student's image at home;
    • telephone parents to emphasize a positive performance. This may strengthen parental pride in the student and help provide the student with a positive self-image;
    • help parents and students to set realistic goals in areas where success is attainable.

    It is important to keep in mind that when entering the secondary school, intellectually handicapped students may have experienced continued failure and have a poor self image. They sometimes feel confused and left out of the mainstream of student activity.

    In the early stages of the secondary school experience, the development of confidence and a positive self-image form the basis of an attitude that will assist students to master specific content, acquire particular skills, and have rewarding school experiences.