Parenting A Child With An Intellectual Disability: What You Need To Know

A caring teacher attentively guiding a student with an intellectual disability during a classroom activity.

The IEP team meeting has just ended, and the school staff hands you a large document of information about your child’s academic plan, otherwise known as the IEP. Reviewing the document, you noticed the words “Intellectual Disability.”

Wait, what is this?
Did I miss something in the meeting?
Did they even explain this to me?

You have so many questions, you do not understand what this diagnosis means, and the questions keep swarming through your mind.

You feel like the meeting for your child was in a foreign language.

Where Do Families of Children With Intellectual Disabilities Begin?

If you have been in this situation before, know you are not alone. As a special education educator, I can say that IEP meetings can seem foreign for most parents of children with developmental disabilities. 

This is especially true for families who speak more than one language. 

Through observations, families and students of all backgrounds are baffled by the terminology of various disabilities, as mentioned in the Individuals with Disability Education Act (IDEA). 

No matter how often you explain the meaning, it still causes confusion. I have heard countless expressions like, “why is my child like this, or why aren’t they showing improvements faster?” 

These are all valid questions, but sometimes they make it seem like something is wrong with your child. 

Your child is normal. 

He just learns at a different rate than other people. It is okay if you have thought about those questions above, and no, you are not a bad parent. You are human. 

My goal today is to remind you that there is hope for you in learning more about your child’s disability. 

By the end of this blog post, I hope to have shed some light on the characteristics, behaviors, and observations of a child with an intellectual disability.  

What is an Intellectual Disability?

An intellectual disability is when someone’s brain works differently than most people’s. As a result, they might need help learning new things, understanding complex ideas, or solving problems. 

For example, when you’re trying to assemble a puzzle, sometimes the pieces don’t fit as easily as others.

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Children with intellectual disabilities are like everyone else but might need extra help or time to learn and do things. However, it’s important to remember that they can still have a fun time, make friends, and enjoy life, just like a typical child! 

They might be good at some things and have a more challenging time with others, and that’s okay. We all have strengths and weaknesses, and we can reach our full potential with the right support.

It’s essential to treat people with intellectual disabilities with kindness and patience, just like we would want to be treated. 

They are our friends, classmates, and family members who might need extra emotional support from us. But they are also unique and wonderful people who can teach us a lot.

3 Main Characteristics of Intellectual Disabilities

To better understand intellectual disabilities, knowing the three key characteristics you may see in your child is helpful. 

By learning about these key aspects, we can better support and appreciate the unique abilities of people with intellectual disabilities.

#1 Academic Performance

For many families, an IEP meeting can be daunting, not to mention discussing your child’s disability. 

A child with an intellectual disability is a student who struggles to think or act with clear cognitive functions. You may see this characteristic in your student’s academic scores or formal testing

Most of the time, a psychologist, health professional, or teacher will provide a test to your child to learn his academic strengths and weaknesses for the current grade level. 

For example, a student in the 8th or 9th grade may show that he lacks specific foundational skills to progress toward higher math

Or he may need help to read or understand passages on grade level because he is performing academic skills and knowledge well below their actual age or grade. 

He also may be below standards compared to other students in his class. 

Instead of being able to do 8th or 9th-grade material, a student with an intellectual disability may be comprehending reading passages, writing sentences, or performing mathematical reasoning problems at a 3rd-grade level. 

In a more severe case of intellectual functioning, a student may only be able to comprehend material at a 1st-grade level and only form a single sentence with a subject and verb. 

These signs indicate that your child has an intellectual disability, performing their academic skills below age or grade level.

#2 Emotional Delays

Another characteristic a child with an intellectual disability may experience is emotional delays. Though a student may be 15 or 20 years of age, the emotional or mental age of the student may be years younger. 

With these developmental delays, I have often noticed these individuals appear younger than same-aged peers. 

For example, a student with an intellectual disability in high school might fixate on Power Rangers. A student of the same age and grade level would think that is childish and odd. 

Your child may not be able to recognize social cues or demonstrate appropriate behavior in social activities with his peers. 

Learning social communication and expressing emotions is often challenging for students with intellectual disabilities. This is because he struggles to regulate or identify his feelings in different social situations successfully. 

The needs of children change as they age. Therefore, your child may need ongoing support to help cope with these new skills. 

A teenager or young adult may express frustration with a parent by yelling or stomping their feet. But typically, children stop doing this in their early years.

If your child experiences emotional immaturity, he might do so because of an intellectual disability and may benefit from support services. 

#3 Adaptive Behavior

A third characteristic of a child with an intellectual disability is significant limitations in adaptive behaviors. These are everyday life skills you will likely see in the home environment, such as: 

  • How to tie their shoes
  • Following directions
  • Using the bathroom independently
  • Brushing their teeth
  • Eating properly

When these tasks become a challenge, your child may act out negatively. This characteristic ties in with emotional delays. 

These are often clear signs that something might be off. I have found this a huge concern in many families I have worked with in schools. 

Many parents seek answers from their child’s primary care physician. Some even get a diagnosis of intellectual disability for their child this way. 

 A great way to help a child with these types of tasks is by using social stories. Check out these ideas for creating social stories for your child or teen

How to Help a Child With an Intellectual Disability

If the information thus far is causing you to breathe heavier, spark anxiety or a sense of failure, do not worry! 

Sometimes the path to success takes a little longer than you want. 

However, when you provide your child with the right tools and information, you can guide your child with an intellectual disability to positive outcomes. 

To help you get started, here are two strategies you can implement in your home, classroom, or wider community to meet your child’s specific needs.  

Strategy #1: Learning Styles 

When a student has an intellectual disability diagnosis, the first key to success is to understand how he learns so you can meet that child’s needs. 

Is your child a visual learner

Provide bright colors and information that is memorable for them to recall. Use contrasting colors that trigger brain neurons to activate and become more interesting for them to remember. 

Is your child an auditory learner? 

Use music, sounds, and words to express the material when teaching.

Is your child a kinesthetic or tactile learner? 

Use the sense of touch and physical movement to provide excitement and entertainment to engage the brain to remember better. 

Once you can identify your child’s learning style(s), it will be easier to help him grasp material on grade level better. 

Strategy #2: Repeat, Repeat, Repeat!

Once you know their learning style, the second key is to provide constant, daily, repetitive practice of a given skill. 

Repetition is so important in brain development. However, for children with developmental disorders, the ability to retain information is a challenge. 

What new information your child learned one day may have been forgotten the next day. Practice makes progress, not perfection. 

A typical person has to repeat a skill over and over and over before he has mastered it. Your child with an intellectual disability is no different. They need supportive environments with patience and guidance, and constant practice to learn how to be successful. 

The parent’s ability to understand how their child learns and the child having the time to practice a skill over and over will make it much easier to master. 


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Not the End: This is Just the Beginning 

Your child with an intellectual disability can learn grade-level material when given appropriate support and guidance. 

It might seem like it would be easier if your child had physical disabilities. More people understand them. 

The more people learn about an intellectual disability, the better they can provide: 

  • Family support
  • Early intervention services and programs
  • Community support

Your child wants to be successful, regardless of his disability. He can be successful in every aspect of life. However, they need to know someone is walking alongside them while they do the hard work in their life. 

It might be scary for you, and that is okay. 

You might be a parent who has never had a child with a disability before, and you don’t know where to begin. Or you may be an experienced parent, having had your teenager overcome many challenges. 

Regardless of your journey, these strategies and information can be a comfort and help on those difficult days. But this is not the end; it is only the beginning of a beautiful journey that awaits discovery. 


Additional Resources for Parents of Special Needs Children

Through dozens of blog posts, quotes, videos, special education resources, and one-on-one special education tutoring, we are here to help you every step of the way.

Would you like support in your child’s IEP? Schedule a call so we can chat here.

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A caring special education teacher attentively guiding a student with an intellectual disability during a classroom activity.
Are you parenting a child with an intellectual disability? Here’s what you need to know to support & encourage your child’s unique abilities.

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Mary Grogan

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