Education has transformed over time and for the better. What was once a teacher-centered, authoritarian classroom has become a student-centered space where educators focus on academic, behavioral, social, and emotional skill development.
Instead of focusing solely on academic achievement, today’s educational leaders are taking steps to support students in a broader sense and setting them up for long-term success. Part of this student-centered approach includes recognizing and supporting students who live with disabilities.
Research from the National Center for Educational Statistics says that 14% of public-school students have a disability as of 2019, which equates to nearly 7 million students. Students with disabilities need support from their teachers and administration in order to have an optimal educational experience. However, not all disabilities are visible, which can make them difficult to diagnose.
- 7 million students in U.S. public schools have been diagnosed with a disability.
- Invisible disabilities are far more common than visible disabilities.
- Students whose invisible disabilities go unsupported face a major disadvantage.
What Are Invisible Disabilities?
Some disabilities are made visible by assistive devices such as a wheelchair or a hearing aid; however, many don’t require any devices. We call these invisible disabilities, and some examples are anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or dyslexia.
Invisible disabilities can go unnoticed for a number of reasons. Quite often, students may not realize they have an invisible or learning disability. In some cases, the student may be ashamed or embarrassed to admit they have a disability. These reasons make it particularly hard to diagnose an invisible disability, but there are some guidelines we can follow in order to best support our students.
Identifying Students with Invisible Learning Disabilities
When it comes to supporting students with invisible learning disabilities, you should first speak to your school psychologist or special education liaison about the legally and ethically correct ways to support your students. Speaking with your school psychologist first will allow you to check if the student has an invisible disability already reported on file. If there’s no diagnosis on file for the student, you should ask your school psychologist about contacting their parents to schedule a meeting and share to share your concerns.
Symptoms of an invisible disability might be recognized as behavioral problems. Some students may experience anxiety and depression which could impact their ability to focus in class, seek negative attention, or have difficulty with social and emotional interactions with their peers. It’s important to remember that behavioral problems are not the sign of a “bad kid”; they are typical reactions to a less obvious challenge.
Symptoms are not typically consistent. This is because many invisible disabilities are often triggered by stress or changes in routine. It’s important for educators to support students every day, especially on days when symptoms are present.
Some behavioral symptoms you can look for to identify an invisible disability are memory loss and forgetfulness, excessive tiredness, low interest in activities, poor appetite, and irritability. While these are all symptoms that students without disabilities may occasionally experience as well, it’s important to recognize when these symptoms are a common challenge for some students. If a student is struggling to keep up in class due to symptoms like these, you may want to talk to the school psychologist about the proper steps to take.
What Kinds of Supports Do Students with Invisible Disabilities Need?
Once a diagnosis has been made, teachers can work with the administration and the special education liaison to make learning accommodations for your student. In collaboration with your school psychologist and special educational liaison, you’ll be able to develop an individual educational pathway (IEP) to follow throughout the year.
To fully support your students with invisible disabilities, their privacy must be taken into consideration. Unlike adults who are better at celebrating personal differences, peer pressure has a significant impact on most students because fitting in is very important in school. Being diagnosed with a disability can be embarrassing for some students. Be mindful of this as you teach. Never discuss a student’s disability in front of their peers or other teachers. The only people you should discuss their disability with are the student, parents, school psychologist, and the special education liaison.
Some students may be more open about their disability and choose to talk about it around their peers. If this is the case, don’t assume that you can also talk openly about their disability. Allow the student to lead the conversation if it arises in front of others. If a student does mention their disability openly in front of the class, you might use the opportunity to talk about the importance of celebrating our differences. This might resonate with students who also struggle with an invisible disability but don’t feel comfortable speaking about it or don’t recognize their symptoms as a disability.
Resources and Instructional Strategies
- The On Our Sleeves movement is encouraging teachers and parents to talk to their students about the importance of mental health. Having open conversations about mental health will allow students with invisible mental health struggles to feel seen in the classroom.
- Do2Learn has an extensive list of accommodations and supports for students with disabilities as well as characteristics of students with those disabilities. This can be very helpful for teachers trying to identify whether a student may need to be evaluated and considered for special education services.
- Child Mind Institute provides teachers with a list that identifies specific behaviors teachers’ students may exhibit in your classroom which may be early indicators of an invisible or learning disability.
- The International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards(IBCCES) provides a list of instructional strategies for students who may be exhibiting signs of depression. This resource shares strategies on how to avoid using negative techniques and the importance of establishing small achievable goals for long-term school success.
Last week, we shared a blog that identified the top 3 strategies teachers can use in their classrooms right now to support the needs of students with invisible disabilities.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is that there are a large number of students in schools that have different types of disabilities and some of these students have IEPs in place to support their academic and behavioral needs. Invisible disabilities often go unnoticed entirely or don’t get the proper attention and support that a student needs to achieve success in school. As educators, it is our job to support our students academically, behaviorally, socially, and emotionally. We cannot do this if we ignore the challenges our students face.
While many students qualify for an IEP, many more students do not. They might make just enough academic progress to get by, but they deserve more. Some educators might see a student experiencing symptoms and assume they are lazy or unmotivated. Students generally want to do well in school and connect with others; it’s our job to help them do so. Rather than label a student “lazy” or “unmotivated,” consider whether these are symptoms of an invisible disability and speak with your school psychologist to check for a diagnosis.
Unfortunately, not every student who needs an IEP will qualify for one. You can still support your students by talking about the importance of school success, celebrating personal differences, and offering extra educational resources to students and their parents. We are in this together and all students can learn, we must design schools that are prepared to address the needs of all students.
There is a plethora of research and opinions about how to identify and address the needs of all students which can be overwhelming and may lead to let’s implement everything and see what will work. This is where you may appreciate the support of an outside expert who can provide customized research-proven strategies that address the needs of your school. We have found that the one-size-fits-all approach is designed to leave some students behind.
Schedule a free call with one of our experienced consultants to help us understand the challenges you face as a school leader and design a plan that is driven by achieving student achievement success.