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What Is Borderline Intellectual Functioning?

Mary McMahon
Updated: Mar 03, 2024

Borderline intellectual functioning is a condition characterized by cognitive abilities that are lower than the average, but not at the level of full mental retardation. Patients with this intellectual disability typically have an intelligence quotient (IQ) score between 71 and 85. They do not usually need assistance with tasks of daily living. Their impairments tend to be focused on learning and applying information, especially in areas like abstract and critical thinking. Some people with this condition have high levels of independence and can acquire an assortment of skills, while others may experience more difficulty, especially if they live in deprived environments.

This condition can be initially challenging to identify and diagnose. Unlike children with mental retardation, children with borderline intellectual functioning may not be immediately identified, or their developmental delays may be attributed to slightly slow development, but nothing out of the ordinary. As such children enter school and begin to interact with peers, their intellectual delays can be more apparent, and a doctor may recommend a screening to determine the child's IQ.

Patients with this condition usually do not experience problems with activities like self-care, but can have trouble following complex conversations. Some can also experience problems with socialization. There may be difficulties with higher-order thinking as well. Children with intellectual delays can be subject to taunts and bullying by classmates that may lead to a decline in self-confidence, and difficulty with social environments.

In school, borderline intellectual functioning can cause a child to struggle in class. Such children can have trouble acquiring skills like reading and math. As assignments become more demanding, the child may have difficulty keeping up. Tasks that require abstract and critical thinking can be especially difficult, while more simple, concrete thinking can be easier. For example, a child might not understand how to turn a word problem into a workable mathematical equation, but could solve an equation if a teacher presented it.

Children with borderline intellectual functioning can benefit from support in school such as tutoring and mentoring sessions. This can be especially important if a child has comorbidities. A disability counselor can determine which kinds of services might be most beneficial for a child. Teachers and parents can work with a counselor to create a plan to support the child through school and to establish a framework to assess progress. Periodic reevaluation may be helpful to determine if a child with this level of intellectual functioning could benefit from additional support services.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon1001292 — On Apr 06, 2019

My daughter has an IQ of 72, along with Asperger's disorder, ADHD, depression and anxiety, and a benign pituitary tumor. She is graduating high school next month. She is going to Beacon College in the fall. It's an accredited college for students with learning disabilities. There is also one in Vermont.

Like you, when we got the diagnosis we were devastated and worried about her future. But she has a drivers license, graduated high school, and is going to college. Your kids are never going to choose the same future that you chose for them. Parents have a plan and kids don't follow them.

My daughter exceeded all of my expectations. There is also a nurse with down syndrome at my daughters pediatricians office, imagine those proud parents. So, don't count them out, don't tell them they can't. My daughter knew about every diagnosis but the borderline IQ. It seemed counterproductive to tell her she wasn't smart. Anyhow, don't give up on your kids because of a few paper tests in a psychologists office. Let them know they can do or be anything they want, they just may have to work harder to get it.

By anon997974 — On Mar 25, 2017

I would like to say that I have an IQ of 75. I was in special education all through school and pulled a 2.8 GPA in high school. Had a lot of problems with mental health and graduated at the age of 18. I live in something of an unstable household and I'm trying my best to get through it.

I'm currently in my second year of community college. I have an average 3.7 GPA and have made the dean's list the last two semesters. I was asked to join a fraternity at my college for two year students world wide. I even worked on an honors project with a professor and got a scholarship for it.

I'm receiving social services right now. I'm getting help with paying my education. I'm doing my best to develop into an adult. It make take a few more years, but it's doable. I just want to say to the person above something.

I don't like being put into a box. I don't like having limitations or being told that this is going to happen because of this. The fact is that people with borderline intellectual disabilities can do very well in life. They may not be a CEO or they may not be a doctor, but they sure can do good with technology and other things. I've been put into a box the last few years. I refuse to be put into a box being told that I will have to stock shelves for the rest of my life.

I have more potential that people give me credit for. I have worked really hard to get were I'm at today. Wrestler M. Ali had a below average IQ and look where he went. For some people, stocking shelves is realistic for them. But, don't put everyone else who may have different levels of capabilities into a box. I have a goal of going to law school and working for the government.

This all may be unrealistic to you, but believe me, your child or young adult has a lot more potential than you think. I was diagnosed with Asperger, ADHD, and other things and I think I've done pretty well and I'm not finished, yet.

By anon992154 — On Aug 18, 2015

I have a borderline intellectual functioning disability myself. I am 21, I graduated high school, went to college and live on my own with my boyfriend who is also intellectually disabled. He also graduated from high school and college and has a full time job.

Just because you may not learn like everyone else does not mean that you are not able. It does not mean that you will not be able to graduate, live on your own and get a permanent job, and furthermore, it is not called mental retardation; it is called an intellectual disability.

By anon976328 — On Nov 02, 2014

I just found out my 10 year old daughter's IQ is 76. I would like to know her true mental age. Does anyone know of a scale? I can't seem to find one. She has always struggled in school. We retained her in second grade two years ago, and she is still getting failing grades.

I wish I had known sooner. I wouldn't have pushed her beyond her capabilities! I have a degree in psychology, so I know all about the self fulfilling prophesy. This does not apply to my daughter. She will never live up to my former expectations of graduating college. It's devastating and I don't know how to break it to her, or if I even should. Her school provides nothing beyond spending all day with the special help teacher, and my daughter is a "mystery" to the staff, which is not encouraging at all!

By anon352434 — On Oct 22, 2013

@Umbra21: You just don't get it and never will. IQ generally can't be improved in lower functioning people. Kids under 80 in particular are very close to mental retardation. These kids will often end up on some social service program or work very low skilled and low paying jobs, often part time, their whole life. Many people below 80 could never hold full time jobs that are not invented for them, like jobs at Goodwill or state jobs created for low functioning people.

Many folks below 80 end up in the criminal justice system. They have trouble holding down jobs, maintaining focus and interest and often lash out in anger because they're frustrated and don't have the ability to help themselves. What's worse is many are just above the IQ score necessary for full services. So they fall through the cracks.

By anon349528 — On Sep 26, 2013

My daughter is 21 and works a minimum wage job as a greater very cashier. She has no idea what she wants to do with her life; she did not graduate from high school until age 20. She cannot live on her own at this income and yet she has become difficult to manage at home. What are some options for her?

By anon320828 — On Feb 19, 2013

I need to help my son, He is 26 and still hasn't found something that he can study, but he wants to study something where he can work for living to support himself.

He did not receive any help at the school because they said his IQ is borderline but he doesn't qualify for help or for disability. He feels frustrated and I need some advice.

By lluviaporos — On Oct 01, 2012

@Mor - Unfortunately, that's not the way it works. In studies, usually if a teacher "knows" that a child is considered to have a lower IQ they will teach that child in such a way that the child will do even worse. If they are told the child has a high IQ the child will do really well and improve.

People don't mean to, but they will treat what they think is a smart child as though they are a smart child and that helps them to improve. Even if they don't mean to, they can be discouraging to the child they think isn't going to do well and it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.

Personally, I think measuring the kids like that can be a mistake. Everyone should do the best they can and be measured against their own best efforts rather than against someone else's best efforts.

By Mor — On Oct 01, 2012

@umbra21 - To me, it's flawed but it's just another kind of information about a student. I don't think information is ever a bad thing, as long as people aren't prejudiced by it. It's better for teachers to know which students are going to need more help and which ones aren't so that they can figure out how to put more resources at that child's disposal.

By umbra21 — On Sep 30, 2012

I don't really think that kids should be judged on a sliding scale like this. I much prefer the Gardner way of thinking with the different types of intelligence. I wonder if kids who test in this level of IQ can actually be superb musicians or artists, or be really good with people, because they have a higher musical IQ or whatever.

Plus, I don't think it gives enough emphasis on the fact that you can improve your IQ. People seem to think it's a score that you are born with and can never change but that's not true. You can make yourself smarter by studying and practicing. I just don't like limiting kids or anyone else in this way.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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