Risk factors associated with mild mental retardation, learning disabilities, and low achievement: An epidemiological approach

Date of Award




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Developmental Psychology

First Committee Member

Keith G. Scott - Committee Chair


Some argue that children identified as having educable mental handicaps (EMH), learning disabilities (LD), and low achievement (LA) do not have functionally different outcomes and can be served with similar remedial services. The opposition argues that there are differences between the disabilities in terms of etiologies, cognitive abilities, academic achievement, behavioral characteristics, and post-secondary school outcomes. The current study investigated birth risks associated with each of these learning problems to inform this debate. Similar profiles of risk would support collapsing categories of learning problems, while disparate profiles would support maintaining current categories.A data linkage procedure was used to link birth and school records of children in the state of Florida. Data were analyzed using epidemiological, logistic regression, and discriminant function analyses. All risk factors were significantly related to special education placement due to large sample size. Low maternal education, low birth weight, Black ethnic/cultural heritage, and single marital status were prominently related to EMH. The pattern of risks for LD and LA were similar to that of MMR, but odds ratios were lower on most risk factors. Male gender, low maternal education, and low birth weight were most strongly associated with being LD. Low maternal education and single marital status were most strongly associated with LA. Risk factors were able to discriminate between children identified as EMH and all other groups. Children identified as LA were not easily distinguished from their NA/gifted peers. Children labeled LD appeared to fall between their EMH and NA/gifted/LA peers.Using a NA/gifted comparison group, persons with EMH are at higher risk of having been exposed to the risk factors under investigation than are persons with LD or LA. The differences appear to be both quantitative and qualitative in nature. Low maternal education was associated with high risk to the individual for all outcomes and a large percentage of cases of EMH, LD, and LA in the population. Identification of early risk factors, such as low maternal education, can guide prevention and intervention efforts to attenuate the occurrence of these disabilities.


Education, Educational Psychology; Education, Special; Psychology, Developmental

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