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Borderline Intellectual Functioning in Children and Adolescents
By Frank John Ninivaggi, M. D., Psychiatrist, Devereux Glenholme School

The development of children and adolescents is complex and consists of multiple growth and maturational dimensions, some of which can be measured. One important dimension is intelligence. Intellectual development, just as emotional development, is a delicate process driven both by constitutional endowment and by environmental facilitation. In addition to the learning that goes on within the family, society, and one's cultural milieu, a child's formal education within an academic setting is crucial to maximize potential and overall functioning in life.

There is a growing recognition of what appears to be a gray area along the spectrum of intellectual or cognitive development. Using standardized intelligence tests, IQ scores that are about 85 and higher are considered normal, whereas IQ scores under about 71 are regarded as indicating some level of significant cognitive limitation or retardation. Children and adolescents whose scores range between about 71 and about 85, and whose adaptive functioning is poor, are technically considered to be within what is termed the borderline intellectual functioning range. The DSM IV of the American Psychiatric Association denotes this group as those having "Borderline Intellectual Functioning."

Borderline Intellectual Functioning can be detected by a variety of standardized measures as well as cognitive, emotional, and behavioral signs and symptoms. In addition to IQs between 71 and 85, learning across the board is slower and more uneven than expected for chronological age and grade level. Grades may be poor and checkered with some failures. Behaviors may reflect poor attention and concentration, slowness in responding, tendencies to go task behavior, general disorganization, predilection for concrete activities, overactivity or passivity, low frustration tolerance, mood swings, silly affect, fearfulness, dysphoria, anger, poor common sense, and naïveté. Lowered self-esteem usually results.

Students who actually have Borderline Intellectual Functioning often are not explicitly recognized as such by most professionals, including educators. Many times, a child who is diagnosed as having Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder or Learning Disabilities, in fact, may have a primary condition of borderline intelligence that manifests with symptoms of attentional problems, intellectual blocks, and academic difficulties. Behavioral and emotional issues usually accompany this. When the primary condition of Borderline Intellectual Functioning is not recognized, as often is the case, misdiagnoses are made and attempted interventions result in poor response, sometimes further deterioration. The inappropriate use of psychotropic medications may play a part in this, and cause added complications.

Devereux Glenholme School in Connecticut is especially sensitive to this condition in children and adolescents. Comprehensive programming is designed to address the specific needs of this emerging population. The special educational needs of those with Borderline Intellectual Functioning, along with the personal, social, and family ramifications of this lifelong condition, are directly addressed. A strong behavioral program and attention to emotional development, along with psychological, social work, and psychiatric interventions, provide services that optimize intellectual, emotional, and social adaptation.

To explore more about Devereux Glenholme's programs, please contact Kathi Fitzherbert, Director of Admissions, at 860-868-7377, e-mail You may also contact Dr. Patrick Queenan at 860-868-7377,

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