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Backward Children


BACKWARD CHILDREN. By backwardness is com monly meant the effects of delayed progress or development in the growing child. Backwardness may be either physical or mental. It is, however, chiefly in mental backwardness that scientific interest has centred. Apart from exceptional cases of a medical or pathological nature such as cretinism or deferred puberty, physical immaturity has mainly been studied because of its apparent influence on the expansion of the mind. Quite recently efforts have been made to find a precise measure of physical backwardness—based, for example, on height, weight, or X-ray photographs of the structure of the bones. But these have been largely undertaken to compare anatomical growth and physiological development with advance in mental capacity.


Mental backwardness may be of two kinds: inborn or acquired. In the one, the child is born with less than the average measure of intelligence. In the other, through ill health, absence from school or poor home circumstances, he fails to make normal progress in knowledge or learning. The proper treatment of both forms is one of the most urgent problems for the parent, teacher and education authority. The development of the child's mind is now usually measured in terms of a mental or educational ratio ; that is, the proportion of the child's mental age, or of his educational attainments expressed in terms of equivalent years, to his physical age by the calendar. Not every child who falls a fraction below the general average is in need of, special school provision. The following is the definition most gen erally accepted : a backward child is one who is so deeply retarded in mental development or attainments that by the middle of his school career he is unable to profit by the instruction given even in the class below that which is normal for his age. In terms of the mental ratio this means that a backward child is one who is retarded by 15% of his chronological age, and therefore has a mental ratio of less than 85%. A child who is backward by more than 30% of his actual age, whose mental ratio therefore is below 70%, is commonly regarded as mentally defective. In Great Britain the milder cases of retarded development have received an official recognition, since the definition of the mentally de fective given in the Act of 1921 speaks of them as children who, "not being imbecile and not being merely dull and back ward, are defective, that is to say, by reason of mental or physical defect, are incapable of receiving proper benefit from the instruc tion in the ordinary public elementary school." Numbers.—Several surveys have been carried out to deter mine the number of children who are backward in this sense. It appears that in most large cities and in most industrial areas they amount to about Io% of the school population. From one district to another, however, the figures vary widely. In good neighbour hoods the proportion may be as low as I % or 2%. In slums and in rural areas where the best elements in the population have been drained away to neighbouring towns, it may rise to 20% or 25%. In the whole of England and Wales it has been calculated the total number of dull and backward children between the ages of seven and 14 amounts approximately to 265,000.


To discover the causes of educational backwardness, intensive investigations have been made of numerous typical in stances. Psychological tests, supplemented by thorough case histories for each child, are the methods mainly used.

(a) Psychological.—Of all the causes thus laid bare the com monest proves to be inborn inferiority in general intelligence. It appears that the unintelligent are always backward; but the back ward are not necessarily unintelligent. Among other psychological factors are to be noted, first, special mental disabilities such as bad memory, unstable attention, poor auditory or visual imagery, incapacity for verbal or abstract symbols as distinct from prac tical or manual work, and, secondly, various temperamental troubles, issuing in emotional apathy, emotional instability, emo tional conflicts, petty moral or disciplinary difficulties, lack of interest in school work, antagonism to a particular teacher or subject, worry about conditions at home and the like.

(b) Physical.—Physical handicaps seem almost as common. They include such specific conditions as defective vision, defective hearing, defective speech, lefthandedness and disturbances of the nervous system, and more general conditions such as malnutrition and lowered vitality from many different causes—rickets, rheuma tism, recurrent catarrh, enlarged tonsils and adenoids, a run of infectious ailments, and the like. In either case the factors are nearly all of a remediable type, and are often so slight as to escape attention and treatment unless an intensive study is made of each individual. Grave incurable disease is far more rare.

The foregoing causes arise within the child himself. Other fac tors are extrinsic ; and require not only an examination of the pupil, but a careful enquiry into his past history and home circum stances. The following are the chief : (c) Defects Within the School Organization Itself.—Among these may be included bad teaching, uninspiring or ill-adapted methods of instruction, too slow or too rapid promotion, and, above all, a sudden break in teaching methods, such as too often occurs when the child is transferred from the infants' to the senior department or from one school to another. Irregular at tendance is responsible for about one case in ten.

(d) Social or Environment Handicaps.—Poverty and its mani fold concomitants—insufficient or inappropriate food, overcrowd ing, want of sleep, lack of facilities for healthy recreation, lack of culture in the home, lack of parental sympathy with the school and its work—these have an effect which is indirect rather than direct, and is harder to estimate than is popularly supposed. It will thus be seen that educational backwardness may be divided into two main causal types : those due to some inherent disability operating from birth, and those due to some accidental circumstance operating after the child is born. The former are sometimes called (in a somewhat technical sense) the "dull"; and the latter (in a somewhat specialized sense) the merely "backward." The distinction makes a world of difference in re gard to treatment and outlook. In the one case the backwardness is irreparable ; in the other, it is, in theory at any rate, curable. Treatment.—It is now generally agreed that the backward child needs special provision along lines somewhat similar to those already accorded to the mentally deficient. Special classes or schools should be instituted, intermediate in type between the special school for the mentally defective and the ordi nary standards for the normal In special classes such as these, the great features will be small size and an easily graded syllabus. There will be less formal and academic work, more concrete prac tical and manual work, and, above all, individual attention to specific difficulties of each particular child. Throughout, success will be attained, not by a little extra coaching or drill, but by discovering, and attempting to remedy, the fundamental causes. To this end the efforts of the teacher in the classroom must be supplemented by special medical inspection and treatment, and by an effective social service directed towards the removal of handicaps in the home.


Brightness and Dullness in Children Bibliography.-H. Woodrow, Brightness and Dullness in Children (1919) ; L. S. Hollingworth, The Psychology of Subnormal Children (1920) ; A. D. Inskeep, Teaching Dull and Retarded Children (1926) ; E. N. Paulu, Diagnostic Testing and Remedial Teaching (1924) ; A. F. Bronner, The Psychology of Special Abilities and Disabilities (1919) ; C. Burt, Mental and Scholastic Tests (1921) .

Reference may also be made to the various reports of the central and local education authorities, more particularly—City of Birmingham, Report on an Investigation upon Backward Children (1920) ; London County Council, Report on the Distribution and Relations of Educa tional Abilities (1917) ; London County Council, Development Memo randum No. 1, The Backward Child (1921) ; Annual Reports of the Medical Officer for the Board of Education. See also articles on Mental Defectives Examinations, Mental Tests, etc. (CY. B.)

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