Parental intellectual disability assessment tool

Use this tool when working with parents with an intellectual disability.


The label ‘intellectual disability’ on its own does not provide any information about a person’s parenting ability, style or potential.

Parental intellectual disability on its own does not indicate significant risk to a child.

Risk factors, such as poverty, heightened child vulnerability, history of child protection involvement, young age of parent, parental substance abuse or mental illness, family violence or anger management difficulties, absence of extended family support, absence of appropriate social and professional networks, significantly increase the risk of severe abuse and neglect of a child.

In situations involving a number of risk factors, it is important that risk assessment and protective intervention address each issue separately while considering how they may be interrelated The effect the parental intellectual disability might have on his/her ability to provide adequate care and protection for a child needs to be considered with all other factors.

Studies on parenting education for parents with an intellectual disability show that most parents can improve in one or more skills. Some mothers with intellectual disabilities have been taught to increase their demonstrations of affection, descriptive and reflective statements, stimulating conversations and behaviour management skills. The subsequent increase in a parent's skills will lead to an overall improvement in their child's development and behaviour.

Ongoing assessment is required regarding the adequacy of the parent's level of improvement now and in the longer term in ensuring the safety of the developing child.

Parent with intellectual disability

  • Has the parent previously been provided with an opportunity to be taught child care and parenting skills?
  • What were the learning outcomes for the parent?

If the child is a first child, or the parenting capacity is unclear, the benefits of a residential assessment program should be considered. The benefit of such programs must be assessed in terms of the parent's ability to generalise skill development between environments; the removal of support networks from the parent for the time of the assessment; the parent’s ability to function in a ‘gold-fish bowl’; the parent’s ability to cope with the change to a new setting.

There is strong evidence to suggest that some intellectually disabled parents, with appropriate training, will be able to improve their parenting capacity. For parenting training to be effective, it must be ongoing, based not entirely on the use of written information, able to be reinforced in the parent's own home, and rely on a variety of teaching strategies, such as modelling, opportunities for practice, use of picture books and constant feedback.

  • Has a residential assessment program been considered in the context of the current risk assessment?
  • If there is a history of child protection involvement with this parent, have there been any previous residential or other assessments?
  • What were the outcomes of any such assessments?

It has been found that a parent with an intellectual disability who is committing intentional abuse is less likely to benefit from intervention, due to poor motivation to acquire and maintain appropriate parenting skills.

  • What is the parent's capacity to independently gain access to community resources and/or to accept intervention from these services?
  • What other issues are confronting the parent that may be competing with parental responsibilities and intentions?
  • Is the parent suffering from a mental illness? See Parental mental illness assessment tool.
  • Is the parent abusing substances? See Parental substance abuse assessment tool.

Family violence may be an issue in any family whether the parents have an intellectual or cognitive disability or not.

  • Is family violence perpetrated by any member of the family an issue?

Evidence from other professionals needs to be sought, regarded as cumulative and then reviewed periodically. However, it cannot be assumed that a worker from another service system or discipline will be knowledgeable about what information is relevant to a protective risk assessment and case plan. It is incumbent on the protective worker to provide guidance regarding the information required.

Other parent or carers

Extensive research has highlighted the importance of another adult who is able to give extended daily support to parents with an intellectual disability and their children. If there is a support person who is able to provide practical advice and assistance in daily management tasks, be called on in times of crisis and offer to take the child for short periods to enable the parent to have respite from the constant stresses of caring for a child, then the likelihood of the child receiving adequate care is greatly enhanced. If the network questions were not answered previously

  • Is there a significant adult whom the parent with an intellectual disability identifies as someone to whom he/she is able to respond and trust? (i.e. a more able partner, an extended family member, a friend, a member of the local community)
  • Is the identified support person willing, readily available and capable to take on a significant daily support role in assisting with parenting the child?


Intellectual disability:

The Disability Act 2006 defines intellectual disability:

in relation to a person over the age of 5 years, means the concurrent existence of—

  1. significant sub-average general intellectual functioning; and

b)significant deficits in adaptive behaviour—

each of which became manifest before the age of 18 years.

Developmental delay:

The Disability Act 2006 defines developmental delay as:

a delay in the development of a child under the age of 6 years which—

  1. is attributable to a mental or physical impairment or a combination of mental and physical impairments; and
  2. is manifested before the child attains the age of 6 years; and
  3. results in substantial functional limitations in one or more of the following areas of major life activity—

(i) self-care;

(ii) receptive and expressive language;

(iii) cognitive development;

(iv) motor development; and

   d. reflects the child's need for a combination and sequence of special interdisciplinary, or generic care, treatment or other services which are of extended duration and are individually planned and    coordinated.