Understanding Mildly Disabled Students in Christian Schools

Educating mildly disabled students has not been a high priority item on the educational agendas of many private Christian schools. In fact, recent studies show that special education in Christian schools is almost nonexistent, where only between 8 and 16 percent of Christian schools nationwide operate formal programs (Carver, 1989; Sutton, in press). With the emphasis placed on disabled persons in the Scripture (Sutton, 1990) however, most Christian educators would probably agree that our schools must do more in providing for the needs of mildly disabled students through formal special education programs.

Another reason why we should be more concerned about the needs of mildly disabled students is that we are finding more of these students cropping up in regular classrooms. Hallahan, McNergney, Sutton (1989) report that in today's schools it would not be uncommon to find two to four mainstreamed mildly disabled students in regular classrooms of 25 to 30 students. The concept of mainstreaming presumes that mildly disabled students have received some direct services for their disabilities from special educators in either resource or self-contained special education classrooms prior to being reintegrated into regular classrooms. Although the lack of special education programs precludes significant mainstreaming efforts in Christian schools at the present time, the potential for finding mildly disabled students in regular classrooms is still there. The only difference is that many mildly disabled students in Christian schools simply have not been formally identified as yet.

It is clear, then, that Christian educators must recognize two things with regard to mildly disabled students. One is that these students are not limited to just special education classrooms anymore, and will in all likelihood be present in regular classrooms to some extent. Two is that as mildly disabled students are identified and mainstreamed into regular classrooms, the regular classroom teacher will be the primary educational caregiver for these children, not the special education teacher.

Regular classroom teachers in Christian schools, therefore, must be more cognizant of the basic characteristics and educational needs of mildly disabled students. Moreover, given the current novelty of special education in Christian schools, it would profit all Christian educators to know more about this unique group of students. This article seeks to provide answers to three basic questions: (a) who are mildly disabled students? (b) what criteria are used to identify them? and (c) what are some of their general characteristics?

Mild Disabilities Defined

Hallahan and Kauffman (1988) describe eight forms of exceptionality in which students may be eligible to receive special education services, which are: communication disorders (both speech and language), emotional.behavior disorders, hearing impairments, giftedness, mental retardation, learning disabilities, physical impairments, and visual impairments. These disabilities may range from mild to severe in the degree that they affect a child's ability to succeed in school.

The specific subgroup of mildly disabled students typically includes children who have been identified as either educable mentally retarded (EMR), emotional/behavior disordered (E/BD), and/or learning disabled (LD) (Houk & McKinney, 1988; Kelly & Vergason, 1991). Statistics from the U.S. Department of Education (1986) indicate that roughly 11% of the school-age population is disabled in some way. And approximately 75% of the total disabled student population are classified as either emotionally disturbed, learning disabled, or mentally retarded.

Identification Criteria

Appropriate identification of a child as mildly disabled will include both formal and informal assessment procedures (Salvia & Ysseldyke, 1988). But one very important preliminary step to the identification process is determining whether a child has hearing and/or vision problems. If medical personnel determine that problems exist in these areas, many learning problems experienced by these children can be prevented through use of hearing devices or corrective lenses. Thus, special education services would not be necessary in these cases.

For other children whose hearing and vision have been checked and cleared and who still demonstrate significant learning difficulties, the identification process would continue. After several prereferral interventions have been implemented and tried without success, the next step would include administration of a number of individual tests and rating scales that measure intelligence, achievement, adaptive behavior skills, and/or genetic behavior. Although specific criteria for identification do vary across states and school districts, there has been some consistency with regard to general requirements for classifying mildly disabled students over the last few years.

In the area of learning disabilities, the definition adopted by the federal government in P.L. 94-142 has been the most commonly accepted standard for identifying learning disabled students. A number of leading authorities agree that the primary identifying criterion contained in the law is establishment of "a severe discrepancy between achievement and intellectual ability" (Federal Register, December 29, 1977, p. 65083). This is usually accomplished by comparing the individually administered IQ and achievement test results (in standard scores) to see if there is a significant difference. States vary on the minimum number of difference points that will qualify a student for learning disabilities programs. For example, North Carolina requires a minimum of 15 points difference (N.C. Department of Public Instruction, 1984). Yet Ohio requires 30 points and Vermont requires 22 points, while Virginia leaves use of a discrepancy formula and determination of a minimum number of points up to each individual school district (Virginia Department of Education, 1987). Even though discrepancy score models and formulas have received criticism because of statistical inadequacies, many states still make use of them. Better school-based evaluation teams will not limit identification to a discrepancy formula alone, but will consider other, equally valuable information gathered on the child (e.g., behavior ratings, classroom observations, teacher interview information).

Students classified as educable mentally retarded must meet a two-fold requirement: (a) subaverage intellectual functioning and (b) maladaptive behavior skills. Most school systems look for an individual IQ score in the range of 50 to 70 (Hallahan & Kauffman, 1988). Clearly, an IQ score in this range does represent subaverage intellectual functioning when one considers the fact that the average IQ scores range from 85 to 115. Educable mentally retarded students will also have problems with adaptive behavior skills, which would include self-help skills (e.g., feeding and dressing oneself), communication skills, coping skills, and other life skills.

Of the three mildly disabling conditions, emotionally disturbed (someone called "behavior disordered") is the most difficult to classify. Much subjectivity is involved in identifying these students since "no one has come up with an objective standard that is understandable and acceptable" (Hallahan & Kauffman, 1988, p. 162). It is generally agreed, however, that behavior disordered students will exhibit behaviors that are: (a) extreme--not just somewhat different; (b) chronic--that is, not short-lived; and (c) unacceptable when viewed in light of social or cultural expectations (Hallahan & Kauffman, 1988).

General Characteristics

Characteristics of learning disabled students are numerous and varied. Most learning disabled students demonstrate some combination of problems in attention (concentration, hyperactivity, distractibility, attention span), memory, information processing, perceptual-motor and general coordination skills, thinking, learning strategy acquisition and usage, motivation, social skills/adjustment, and academic underachievement in one or more of the language arts areas, and/or mathematics (Hallahan & Kauffman, 1988, Lerner, 1989). One additional distinguishing characteristic of learning disabled students is that their intelligence scores generally fall within the normal range (Hallahan & Kauffman, 1988).

Educable mentally retarded students possess similar problems in the areas of attention, memory, organizing information, misbehavior (e.g., disruptiveness, distractibility), motivation, oral language, academic underachievement (especially reading), social skills (including self-esteem problems), emotional reactions and responses, and overall delayed development (Hallahan & Kauffman, 1988; Patton, Beirne-Smith & Payne, 1990).

Mildly behavior disabled students will generally have low-normal intelligence levels, yet show academic deficits in their school work of one or more years below grade level. In addition, characteristic behaviors may include: hyperactivity, distractibility, impulsivity, overt aggression (e.g., arguing, cruelty, fighting, disobedience, threatening), covert antisocial acts (e.g., truancy, negativism, poor peer associations, destructiveness), anxiety-withdrawal (e.g., fearfulness, feelings of inferiority, oversensitivity), depression, and/or general unhappiness (Hallahan & Kauffman, 1988, Kauffman, 1989).

Implications for Christian Educators

Given the preponderance of mildly disabled students and the growing trend toward greater integration of these students in regular classrooms, regular teachers in Christian schools will surely see more of these children in their classrooms in the near future. Regular teachers, therefore, must make a greater effort to acquire knowledge of and teaching techniques appropriate for mildly disabled children. Simply learning how to make modifications and accommodations in the areas of studying, class preparation, and testing and evaluation would go a long way in helping these students realize success in a regular classroom.

Those involved in teacher preparation programs on the college level must also do more in the area of providing in-depth training to student teachers on characteristics of these children and how to better meet their unique educational needs. Bob Jones University's School of Education has made significant improvements in this area. Beginning with the 1991-92 school year, all students majoring in education and preparing to become teachers are required to take one course in exceptional children.

As instructional leaders, Christian school principals and administrators must also bear some of the burden of this responsibility. It is important that they make every effort to provide opportunities for currently employed teachers to learn more about mildly disabled students. Several ideas follow:

  1. Make practitioner-oriented journals in special education (e.g., Teaching Exceptional Children published by the Council for Exceptional Children, Reston, VA) available to faculty;
  2. Procure speakers for professional development and in-service sessions to address special education-related topics;
  3. Recommend teachers to take college-level special education courses for enrichment or recertification; and
  4. Encourage one or more teachers to earn a master's degree in special education so that the school will have resident expert(s) to draw upon for resources.

In sum, whether our roles are teacher educators, administrators, or classroom teachers, we must all accept greater responsibility in learning more about mildly disabled students. To deny their existence in our classrooms is to admit as Christian educators that we hold a narrow and myopic view of the differences in students' abilities and how they learn. More importantly, to serve the educational needs of only nondisabled students and to withhold appropriate education from mildly disabled students would, in part, show that we are "preferring one [student] before another" (I Timothy 5:21), a practice clearly denounced in Scripture.


Carver, J.A. (1989). The status of special education in fundamental Christian schools. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Pensacola Christian College, Pensacola, FL.

Federal Register. (1977). Procedures for evaluating specific learning disabilities. Washington, DC: Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, December 29.

Hallahan, D.P., & Kauffman, J.M. (1988) Exceptional children: Introduction to special education (4th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Hallahan, D.P., McNergney, R.F., & Sutton, J.P. (1989, April). "Teacher thinking and behavior in mainstreamed classrooms." Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association Annual Convention, San Francisco, CA.

Houk, C.S., & McKenzie R.G., (1988). Paraprofessionals: Training for the classroom. Circle Pines, MN: American Guidance Service.

Kauffman, J.M. (1989). Characteristics of behavior disorders of children and youth (4th ed.). Columbus, OH: Merrill.

Kelly, L.J., & Vergason, G.A., (1985). Dictionary of special education and rehabilitation (2nd ed.). Denver, CO: Love Publishing Co.

Lerner, J.W. (1989). Learning disabilities: Theories, diagnosis, and teaching strategies (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Co.

North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. (1984). Specific learning disabilities definition and identification procedures. Raleigh, NC: State Department of Public Instruction, Division for Exceptional Children.

Patton, J.R., Beirne-Smith, M., & Payne, J.S. (1990). Mental retardation (3rd ed.). Columbus, OH: Merrill.

Salvia, J., & Ysseldyke, J.E. (1988). Assessment in special and remedial education (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Sutton, J.P. (1990). The forgotten sheep: Ministering to handicapped individuals. Voice of the Alumni, 64(6), 7, 22-23.

Sutton, J.P. (in press). Educating handicapped students: A new item on the Christian school agenda. Journal for Christian Educators.

U.S. Department of Education. (1986). To assure the Free Appropriate Public Education of All Handicapped Children. Eighth Annual Report to Congress on Implementation of the Educational of the Handicapped Act, Volume I. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

Virginia Department of Education. (1987). A position paper on the identification of students with specific learning disabilities in Virginia. Richmond, VA: Virginia Department of Education, Division of Special Education and Pupil Personnel Services.

 by Joe Sutton. Updated October 21, 2015.

© 2022 bjupress.com