Mental Retardation and Child Development

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There are general stages children pass through as they develop and certain time frames during which these transitions occur. There is not a specific time that is considered normal for any individual child to attain a goal, as cultural and environmental factors are also important to development, but researchers have formed general, broad ranges of time in which skills such as walking and talking are displayed. Children with disabilities or delays may follow different paths of development. Children with mental retardation have been found to pass through typical stages of development, such as Jean Piaget’s stages of cognitive development, but at a much slower rate. Burack, Hodapp, and Zigler (1998) however, contrast the idea that slowness is the only characteristic of mentally retarded people to be considered, by introducing the study of mental retardation as a “more complex enterprise” (p. 3). Today, as a result of recent advancements in the past 50 years (Hodapp, and Zigler, 1986, p.3), researchers know more about the development of persons with mental retardation and about the phenomenon in general.

The work of three influential developmental theorists has laid foundations for the current study of mental retardation: Heinz Warner, Jean Piaget, and Lev Vygotsky (Burack et al., 1998, p.3). Heinz Warner, while studying at the Wayne State Training School, developed three ideas that he applied to persons with metal retardation. First, he realized that “behavior reflects underlying thoughts” and that sometimes individuals with mental retardation would perform better on perceptual and cognitive tasks than individuals with normal intelligence because the retarded individuals had not yet learned the rules that governed their behavior (Burack et al., 1998, p. 4). His second idea was that there existed two forms of mental retardation: exogenous and endogenous. Individuals with exogenous retardation (brain damage) showed “unclear and inconsistent” patterns of development, while individuals with endogenous retardation (no organic damage) “behaved similarly to younger individuals of average intelligence” (Burack et al., 1998, p.4). This idea lead the way for future researchers to do “two group” studies of mentally retarded people. Werner’s third idea was that studies of retarded individuals compared to normal development would be beneficial. He figured since individuals with endogenous retardation were compared to younger, average intelligence individuals, that they must have been following the usual development patterns, only at a slower rate (Burack et al., 1998).

Jean Piaget and his colleague, Barbel Inhelder, were also interested in mental retardation. Like Werner, Piaget and Inhelder focused on what the individual was thinking and not just the observed behaviors. Piaget provided sequences of development in a variety of areas; and since the 1940’s, researchers have been studying whether persons with mental retardation pass through these Piagetian sequences. Researchers have assumed that mentally retarded persons pass through these sequences in the exact same order. However, Inhelder observed that mentally retarded persons more often displayed regressions in what they were learning even during a single session. The work that Piaget and Inhelder did with sequences and processes led the way toward later developmental approaches (Burack et al., 1998, p.5).

The work of Lev Vygotsky is just now beginning to influence western ideas. Vygotsky focused on “how children develop and on how development may be altered when a child has mental retardation. He criticized IQ tests and other ‘non-process’ views of children’s development” (Burack et al., 1998, p.6). He was concerned with how individuals compensate for their disability, an idea reflected in much of today’s research of resources for people with mental retardation and the adaptations for them to participate in everyday life. Vygotsky was also interested in how...
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