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Public School Classes For Mentally Deficient Children (1904)

Public School Classes For Mentally Deficient Children

 by Lydia Gardiner Chase, Providence, R.I.,  a presentation at the National Conference Of Charities And Correction held in the city of Portland, Maine, June 15-22, 1904.

As interest in child study has increased, educators are beginning to see that one course of study and discipline cannot be fitted to all pupils found in our public schools. Even to-day children unable to keep up to grade are not infrequently accused of indolence or laziness, when the backwardness is due to some mental or physical defect. For many years in this country efforts have been made to care for those who are too defective to be in school, but it is only recently that attention has been given to those who are mentally and physically subnormal. Perhaps none have been more misunderstood than the mentally deficient. Through neglect, these children will degenerate into the ranks of the defectives and the delinquents; through individual training, some can be saved for the social body and the condition of all can be improved.

While it is agreed to-day that the institution should, in most cases, care for the idiots and the imbeciles, there are many with slight defects who need not be removed from the home environment. From the study and investigations of medical experts, it is estimated that one per cent, at least, of our school population is mentally deficient, and needs individual care and attention.

The close relation of the mental and the physical life of the child is now generally recognized; those with mental defects are almost without exception more or less abnormal physically. There are cases, however, of children thought to be mentally deficient, where the defect is really a physical one. Deafness, errors of refraction, growths in the nose and throat, faulty nutrition, may have to answer for what seems to be mental trouble. An examination by a medical expert will, of course, prevent a wrong diagnosis.

It has been said that “the causes of feeble-mindedness from a medical point of view are difficult to classify owing to the many kinds of deficiency and the variable states of intelligence which are grouped under this one heading, many of which have nothing more in common than a mere negative quality — the inability to learn. At the same time some attempt has been made to refer these forms of subnormal development to certain pathological antecedents. According to Dr. Muller of Augsburg, heredity is said to claim seventy per cent of the whole, which means that feeble-mindedness in the child is largely the outcome of evil habits and preventable disease in the parent. The remaining thirty per cent are to be referred to illness arising after birth, especially the febrile diseases of childhood, to malnutrition, to starvation and neglect.” (1)

(1) Report of the Congress on the Education of Feeble-minded Children, held at Augsburg, April 10-12, 1901, In Special Reports on Educational Subjects, v. 9. Education in Germany, p. 596.


Certain foreign countries have advanced further than the United States in the care of mentally deficient children, in special day classes. In Europe, Germany was the pioneer in 1867. Norway followed her lead in 1874, and England, Switzerland and Austria in 1892. In Prussia, since 1880, the establishment of classes or schools, for defectives, has been obligatory upon towns of 20,000 population. Particular attention was paid to this line of work. Their special classes are “intended solely for children of inferior brain power who yet possess sufficient intelligence to be amenable to the discipline of their own homes, and who are capable of benefiting by instruction sufficiently to enable them to pass out of school at the limit of school age with a probability of being able to earn their own living.” It is felt that those who are apparently imbecile should be placed on probation in the special schools, and if the deficiency is found to be too severe, they should be sent to an institution. On the other hand, if children make sufficient progress after attending the special classes, they are to be returned to the ordinary schools, but it is claimed that a child “when properly selected will in most cases need the care of the special school till the limit of school age.”

Germany. (2) At the Congress on the Education of Feebleminded Cchildren -sic-, held at Augsburg, Germany, in April, 1901, Germany cares for these children either in special day schools or in auxiliary classes in ordinary schools. In April, 1901, there were ninety-eight day schools and in all 326 classes. There were 7,013 children in attendance, and it was estimated that there would have been 60,000 if complete provision had been made.

(2) Special Reports on Educational Subjects, v. 9, pp 595-600.

As a rule, the children who are admitted to the special classes must have shown, through an attendance of one or two years in the ordinary school that they are unable to make satisfactory progress. After they are visited in their own homes by the head of the special school, they are admitted on probation for a few weeks; at the end of that time, they are brought before a committee consisting of the inspector, the school doctor, and their teachers.

With the exception of the instructors in needle and kindergarten work, the teaching is almost entirely done by men. They receive no special training, but those with special aptitude are appointed from the ordinary schools.

The majority of the congress favored making manual training “obligatory and recommended that schemes of manual instruction should be devised not merely as a succession of mental exercises, but that they should also have regard to the main object in educating the feeble-minded — to enable him to lead an independent existence in after life.” Gardening had not been generally adopted, but was recommended by the congress as part of the course of instruction wherever possible.

Of the children who enter these special classes, about eighty-three per cent at the limit of school age are able to find some employment requiring a minimum of skill, and can in time support themselves wholly or in part. The care of the remaining seventeen per cent, however, is a serious question; they return to the community, “a burden, and a danger.” The congress felt this to be wrong and recommended that those who are found to be beyond the scope of the special day classes should be transferred to institutions before they reach the limit of school age.

England. Special instruction for mentally deficient children was begun in England in 1892. It was made permanent by the defective and epileptic act of 1899, which “empowers provision for the education in special classes of children who, not being imbecile and not merely dull or backward, are incapable of receiving proper benefit in the ordinary public elementary schools.”

There are certain carefully specified conditions that must be fulfilled by these special classes. They have to do with the school buildings, the admission of the children, their medical supervision, the requirements for the teachers, the number in class, the number of school hours, and the course of study. (3) Besides the usual kinds of manual work, instruction in cookery and laundry work is given to some of the older boys and girls.

(3) Statutory Rules and Orders, 1900. NO. 218, Elementary Education, England. Defective and Epileptic Children.

“Physically and mentally,” the teachers in the London special classes, “strive to make every child profit by the instruction given, so that each according to his ability, may enter the ranks of the wage-earning community.” It is felt, however, that about one-third of the children who attend the special classes, after twelve years of age, should be placed in institutions, and that a second third need supervision after leaving the special classes.

On March 25, 1902, in London, there were sixty-one centers for mentally deficient children, with 2,882 on roll and an average attendance for the year of 2,180.


Providence. In the United States, Providence, Rhode Island, was the first city to take up the work of day classes for mentally defective children. In October, 1893, three schools for special discipline and instruction were “organized and made a part of the public school system.” The teachers in the regular grades-experienced so much relief when their disorderly pupils were removed, that they soon urged the transference of those who were mentally deficient. The latter were tried in the disciplinary schools, but it was found that treatment suited to “active, mischievous boys” was not suited to “feeble, plodding children.” The result was that in December, 1896, a special class was opened for those mentally subnormal, followed by a second in December, 1897, and a third in December, 1898. (4)

(4) Report of the School Committee, Providence, 1899-1900, pp. 212 and 222.

Feeling that physical development must precede mental with these children, there are daily exercises “to train their muscular systems to a regular and ready response to commands given by the teacher.” Other exercises are planned to develop the different senses and faculties. Games are played; they are considered merely fun by the pupils, but each has some educational value. Raffia work, clay modeling, free hand drawing, and kindred branches. form an important part of the daily curriculum. In connection with the work just mentioned, primary work and a modified’ kindergarten course are given. The teachers receive no special training for their work.

The sub-committee having the classes in charge, is largely made up of physicians; they are consulted in special cases, but the need for medical examination and supervision is felt by those most interested in the welfare of the children. At present, they are selected by a supervisor who has charge of these pupils in conjunction with the kindergartens.

Out of the eighty-two who had been in the classes between December, 1896, and June, 1900, it is interesting to note that five had been returned to the regular schools; seven, able to do grade work, for some particular reason, had been sent to the schools for special discipline and instruction, and sixteen, over fifteen years of age, were earning their living wholly or in part. “With five exceptions (one a case of paralysis, one of epilepsy, two, too old to be improved, and one too low grade), all had made some improvement, and in many cases, improvement in a marked degree.” (5)

(5) Report of the School Committee. Providence, 1899-1900, pp. 222 and 223.

In Boston, the movement for the care of mentally deficient children in special day classes began late in 1898. At that time, Mr. Seaver, superintendent of schools, sent circulars to the masters of the different school districts, asking them to report the number of very feeble-minded children in their respective districts, together with the teacher’s report of each case. Two hundred children were reported, varying in age from five to seventeen, the majority being betwen the ages of eight and twelve. Even though only extreme cases were asked for, it was considered that the estimate was too conservative; in some school districts containing over a thousand pupils, no children were reported. The first teacher appointed had had practical experience with feebleminded children, so she spent two months in examining the cases recorded by the masters. Most of them she found to be distinctly feeble-minded. (6)

(6) School Document No. 4, 1900. Boston, pp. 52-54.

The first class began its work in January, 1899. At present, there are seven in operation. They are designated only as “Special Classes,” are held, as a rule, in the public school buildings, their sessions being from nine to one. They are limited to fifteen on roll.

Teachers of the first four classes were well fitted for their positions, having had previous experience in similar work. And the city provided a training for the last three appointed. They were carefully selected by the superintendent of schools from the ordinary grades, and after observing methods in the special classes in Boston, they spent some three months in studying the work of the schools for the feeble-minded at Waverly, Mass., and at Elwyn, Penn. During this time of preparation both salaries and expenses were paid by the city. The aim is to have the teachers appointed to the special classes feel that they have been promoted.

The teaching in the special classes is based on the theory that the physiological training of the hand arouses some action in the brain. Stress is, therefore, laid on manual work which includes sloyd, clay modeling, basket weaving, sewing, and raffia work. The instruction in the usual school branches is largely a modified form of the kindergarten, with work of the primary grades for those who need it. Emphasis is placed on games, and the children are taught to play.

The plan in Boston is to have the true imbecile cared for in institutions, the mentally deficient in special classes, and the normal, but very dull children, in ungraded classes in connection with the regular schools. There are without question some of the first type in the special classes, but the authorities are naturally unwilling “to exclude from school any child for whom suitable provision cannot be made elsewhere.” The institution at Waverly is so crowded that admission cannot be obtained for many who need its care.

The last three classes formed were selected by Dr. Arthur C. Jelly, after examination of a large number of cases reported by the teachers.

Philadelphia. The work for mentally deficient children in Philadelphia began in July, 1899, under the auspices of the Civic Club and the Public Education Association. It was taken over by the Board of Public Education in the summer of 1901. There are at present six or seven classes. They receive children, with speech, sight, hearing or nervous defects that make them unfit for “the pace of a large, graded class.” They are not all mentally deficient. Emphasis is placed on manual training, such as sloyd, raffia work, and basket weaving. Regular school instruction is given to suit the needs of the individual. The teachers, so far as I know, have received no special preparation for their work.

The classes for mentally deficient children are held in the same buildings with those for the wayward. The aim is to have different centers with at least three classes, for those most interested in the work feel that to obtain the best results, there must be proper grading of the pupils. The children are sent to these classes on the advice of the principals of the elementary schools.

The City of New York. The City of New York has a serious problem to face in the care of her mentally deficient children. A beginning was made some time ago along this line, but it is only during the past year that active steps have been taken to form classes throughout the city. In November, 1902, Superintendent Maxwell sent a letter to the principals of the schools in the city asking for the number of pupils in the regular grades whom they considered mentally deficient. They were requested not to give the names of those who were merely dull or who were physically defective. About 1,200 children were reported. As I have said, the most conservative estimate places the number of such children at one per cent of the regular school population, so that the situation in New York was similar to that in Boston when the same question was asked there a few years ago. Now, children of this class in New York were either not known to be mentally defective or they were not in school at all. In some instances, the teachers are unable to recognize mental deficiency; in others, they are unwilling to do so. They seem to think they are attaching some stigma to a child to call him mentally defective when they are actually injuring him by trying to educate him with the normal.

This last fall, the principals were again asked to make a careful canvass of their classes to ascertain whether there were children in the schools who were incapable of making adequate progress in their studies, to such an extent as to necessitate special treatment. Those reported were referred by the district superintendents to Dr. Elias G. Brown of the department of physical training who had been appointed to examine such children and to act in an advisory capacity in the formation of ungraded classes. During the year. Dr. Brown has examined between 1,300 and 1,400 children.

The work in New York for mentally deficient children is in a formative but chaotic state at the present time. The terms “ungraded” and “special” classes are used synonymously, and cover-those for wayward, backward, and mentally deficient children.

It is impossible to tell how many there are for the latter, for backward and mentally deficient children are often in class together. There are, however, at least five where the majority of the children are mentally deficient, and where the work is planned for such pupils.

The formation of classes depends upon the principals and the district superintendents. Not all educators in the city, however, approve of such work; some consider it simply a fad. In certain parts of the city where the classes are most needed (for the parents cannot afford to hire private tutors for their defective children), the schools are so overcrowded that the principals are unwilling to place one hundred normal children in part time classes in order to make provision for twelve or fifteen who are abnormal.

Unfortunately the teachers of the ungraded classes are selected by no one person; therefore, some are good and some are not. They receive no training for their work and the salaries are not enough greater than those for the grade teachers to be a special inducement. The supplies are difficult to obtain, for the ungraded classes are not a separate department of the school system.

The education of mentally deficient children in the City of New York is at a critical point. Are these classes to become dumping grounds? or will the educators of the city help Dr. Brown to carry out his plans and make the three following divisions to the ungraded (or special) classes?

a) Training class (for mentally deficient children).

b) Coaching class (for backward, delicate, or slightly exceptional children, such as need special help).

c) Disciplinary class.

In spite of all the difficulties, there is excellent work being done in more than one class in the city for mentally deficient children. I should like to speak somewhat in detail of the class at P. S. No. 1 on the lower East Side of New York City.

This class was started several years ago, and for over three years has been in charge of Miss Elizabeth Farrell. She says:

“The class was organized primarily to care for backward boys, but it was apparent to those most interested that the backwardness was directly related to a physical or a mental defect. With this fact established it became necessary to change the whole character of the work. Instead of working to pull a boy up to the requirements of a certain grade which he was to enter at the earliest possible moment, it became a duty for some one to diagnose each case presented for admission, and upon that diagnosis to lay out a series of exercises that would meet the physical, as well as the mental development of the child.”

Miss Farrell was, I believe, a graduate student of philosophy at Columbia when she took charge of this special class. Starting out with no actual experience in teaching mentally deficient children, through her study and observation of children and methods at schools and institutions for the feeble-minded in this country and abroad, she has built up a most excellent work.

The class has been a difficult one to teach: in the first place, it has usually numbered eighteen or twenty; then the boys have been very ungraded, at times, some more wayward than backward. At present, there are nineteen in the class, twelve of whom are mentally deficient. The youngest is six and a half years of age and the oldest seventeen. In work they range from “sub-kindergarten” to the second year of the grammar school. Nothwithstanding these difficulties, each child is studied individually and his education fitted to his needs.

The chief aim is to create in the boys a love of work so that when they go out into the world, they will not join the ranks of the criminal class. For this reason, everything is related to manual training and made subordinate to it. They always have some subject as a center; at present it is the farm. In woodwork, they are making a house and barn, fences, furniture, and flower-boxes. They are weaving the rugs for the floor, making a hammock, doing- raffia work and basketry. They went to the country for the soil to plant their miniature fields, and sent to Washington for the seeds. In painting, their subjects have been apple blossoms and violets with an illustrated trip to Bronx Park. In picture study, they have taken “Oxen Plowing,” “The Angelus,” etc. In arithmetic, the older boys measure in a concrete way, the rooms of the house and the fields. In their written work in English, they are having stories of farm life, and reports of personal observation; in reading, stories of dogs, horses, making hay, and so on; in spelling, words relating to manual occupations, e.g., “soil, seeds, leaves, barn.” In nature work, they are studying soils, the earthworm, buds and seeds. This is simply suggestive of the excellent work that the boys are taking up at present. The subjects are chosen and the different studies related to the center with the purpose of developing the social instincts in the boys.

Besides the cities I have spoken of, there are others that have begun work along this line. In the East, Springfield and Worcester may be mentioned. Those that have been slow to recognize the need for special day classes can now profit by the experiments of other places. If, however, the work is to be a success, there are certain things that have been found to be essential in the care of mentally deficient children.

(1) Classification — It must be clearly understood that these classes are meant to prevent by judicious training, mental degeneracy, and to remove those who are a hindrance to the well-being of the normal. They must not be considered a substitute for institutions for idiots and imbeciles. But neither must they do the work of the ungraded class, nor receive children who are backward on account of some marked physical defect or those who are morally abnormal.

(2) Medical supervision — The work of the teacher and the work of the medical expert should go hand in hand. Not only should every child who is admitted to a special class undergo a. thorough physical examination, but his course of school work should be outlined by the physician, and he should be kept under medical supervision.

(3) The teachers — The teachers should have special training for their work. The plans used in Boston are practical. This, summer at the New Jersey Training School for Feeble-minded Boys and Girls, there is to be a six-weeks’ course for teachers. who intend to take charge of special classes. The personality of the teacher should be considered. It is most important that the-best be selected, those who are strong physically, have an infinite amount of patience, have faith in their pupils, and are able to surround them with an atmosphere of love.

(4) The training — No set course of study can be given; each child must be studied individually. Not only must he receive an education that will develop him mentally and physically, but one which will help him to become self-supporting when he leaves school. Too great emphasis, therefore, cannot be placed on manual training.

(5) The number — Where there is not grading, the number in a class should not exceed twelve or fifteen. The ideal plan in large cities is to have centers with three or more classes.

(6) The expense — The question of expense is, of course, a serious one, but shall these children now have the opportunity to become self-supporting or shall we first turn our attention to them when they have joined the ranks of criminals? Some can be saved for the community. Those who cannot will be less of a burden for the training of the special class. Through the special class, it may be possible to transfer some who are more than mentally deficient to permanent custodial homes before they have by a criminal career become an expense to the state. The work of prevention is always the more economical.

With those who have studied the problem carefully, there is no question in regard to the need for the education of our mentally deficient children. Such care, moreover, is no longer considered a charity. We are beginning to see that all children who are educable have a right to instruction in our public schools.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Chase, L.G. (1904). Public school classes for mentally deficient children. Proceedings of the National Conference of Charities and Correction. Portland, ME.

Source:   National Conference on Social Welfare.

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