Hidden/Invisible Disabilities – Reaching and Teaching all Learners

October 9, 2019
By Stacey S. Joseph for ImpactEDI™

Students with hidden/invisible disabilities such as learning disabilities (LD), emotional and psychiatric disabilities, ADD/ADHD and those suffering from chronic pain are among the fastest growing category of students with documented disabilities.  Invisible disabilities(IDs) are some of the most difficult for educators to identify because students can hide/mask their disability either intentionally, or because they simply aren’t aware that they have one. Children with learning and attention challenges, and other IDs are as smart as their peers; some even fall into the category of ‘gifted students’. With the right support, students learning and living with invisible disabilities can achieve at high levels.  However, a lack of early or effective interventions leads too many kids on a downward spiral.gettyimages-180828619-612x612

In addition to some of the more common invisible disabilities listed above, other IDs include anxiety disorder, depression that affects a student’s daily life, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and learning disabilities that don’t easily present themselves like dyscalculia or dyslexia.  More recently, IDs are being found to be prevalent in another population of ‘nontraditional students’ with disabilities. This includes:

  • Students who are primary caregivers to young children or elderly relatives.
  • Students who have spent considerable time in the workforce between high school and college.
  • Students who are financially responsible for feeding their families.
  • Students who did not grow up in the United States and whose first language is not English.
  • Students from “culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.”
  • Students from cultures that may not value or encourage self advocacy, asserting disability-related needs, and speaking up in class or negotiating with faculty.

Intuitively, we all seem to understand and embrace that having or installing a wheelchair ramp for a student who uses a wheelchair is considered a “reasonable accommodation.”  The same principle of equal access is now fueling a demand for accommodations for students with invisible disabilities.

More schools are providing better services to students with conditions ranging from ADHD to Autism Spectrum Disorders in order to target a growing market. And although the stigma attached to various conditions still exists, advocacy groups have helped reduce some of it, making it easier for students to seek support.  However, teachers are by far, the largest group of frontline first responders whose advocacy for students with IDs can change their academic and emotional wellness trajectory.

Reaching and Teaching All Learners

Two years ago, after having someone break into their home, Ella, a fifth grader at an independent K-8 school who rarely experienced academic challenges, began experiencing temporary symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress.   In conversations with Ella and her parents, Ella revealed that she had been experiencing what she now identifies as a panic attack, during one of her classes. She shared that in attempt to help her calm down, one of her teachers explained to her that her experience was “all in her mind.”  Fortunately, two of Ella’s other teachers took notice of the change in her usual ability to focus, organize her work, and remain engaged during class.  After inquiring with her parents, who shared the unfortunate news of their family’s break-in, Ella’s parents were able to get her the help and support she needed outside of school, while her teachers formulated a plan of advocacy and support at school.

Over 29 percent of young people in the U.S., ages 9-17, are affected by anxiety and depression disorder, and research shows that “brains in pain cannot learn.”  When  educators are open to the idea that invisibility disabilities and their symptoms aren’t so-called “just in your mind” and are indeed real, they are well on their way to successfully understanding and helping such students. Moreover, they are re-opening the path to teaching all learners.   If we can remember that our brains drive our bodies, we then understand that everything that happens in the brain is real for the body to which it is attached.

Below are additional ways in which educators can come to understand, advocate for, and support students with Invisible Disabilities:

Engage Parents in Conversations About Their Child’s Learning

Happy family meeting with African American TeacherWhen educators sense that a child is having a learning challenge, reaching out to parents is always a good idea.  Teachers of minor students should speak with the school psychologist and parents to find out if there is a known disability or diagnosis. It’s quite possible that there is a mild-to-moderate diagnosis about which the parents may be able to provide insight.  If there is no known disability or diagnosis, ask parents if they feel comfortable sharing any events or changes happening at home that might be the cause of or contributing to emotional or psychological changes in your student.  Additionally, proactively sharing and discussing information (about the brain and how it responds to stress, anxiety, depression, and drama) with the entire school community can de-stigmatize IDs, make open conversations easier, and makes it more comfortable for everyone to express concerns. Keep in mind, it’s important to establish procedural safeguards that enable parents and guardians to participate meaningfully in conversations and decisions regarding the evaluation and placement of their children.

Recognize Periodic Episodes

Because many IDs are episodic, they come and go in periodic waves.  Educators  should be mindful of this.   This is particularly the case with anxiety disorders and IDs where panic and anxiety are prominent symptoms.  Students who have panic attacks for example, may only suffer on Monday mornings, or may suffer excessively during weeks when state exams or finals are given.  Frequent occurrences may also happen when their best friend or favorite teacher is absent. In other cases, students with IDs such as Tourette syndrome may only exhibit symptoms in certain teachers’ classes or when they are suffering from additional stress brought on by less obvious factors. Students with an ID such as Post Traumatic Stress may not exhibit any symptoms at all, until and unless triggered by something (a sound or visual stimulation) that might only be present during certain times of year or on certain days.  It’s essential that the school environment allows (but doesn’t force) these kids to “fit in” on symptom-free days. Teachers who have the privilege of teaching less than 15 students in their class (unfortunately this is most likely to be the case in private schools and rural areas) will often pick up on their students’ patterns.   On the other hand, teachers with 15+ students are should utilize the services of teacher’s aides or other appropriate resources in order to provide additional accommodations/support during times when students experience increased symptoms.

Respect Students’ Privacy

As adults, we take pride in standing out or being set apart from the norm.  For the most part, we do our best to embrace differences and we aim to treat most of our differences as positive or neutral.  Children on the other hand, have an inherent need to fit in.  With few exceptions, children tend to desperately want to be the same as their peers.  For a child with an Invisible Disability, they are perpetually faced with being different.  While their cohorts may lend the majority of their focus to age appropriate concerns, students with IDs can spend the larger portion of their day and interactions trying to hide the fact that their brain seems to be working differently from everyone else’s. It’s imperative that any discussion related to a student’s disability take place privately, and as far away from friends and peers.  Tweens and teens in particular are very curious about adult conversations, and they love listening in on what adults are saying.  This is not out of rudeness, but out of the assumption that the conversation is about them.  The student’s choice of privacy is of paramount importance.

Team Up to Make and Decide on Learning Accommodations

Once a definitive diagnosis has been documented or it has been decided that a student has an ID that is creating challenges with learning, educators should work with school staff, parents, and the student to form a student focused team to provide ongoing support.  Accommodations can include but does not have to be limited to:

  • Developing an Independent Educational Pathway or IEP  after which the teacher can follow the plan and help the student throughout the year.
  • Adjust class schedules to allow time for therapy or counseling.
  • Give students extra time to complete work, or let your student begin projects or assignments early.
  • Diversify the way you teach by using visual, auditory, and kinesthetic methods and tools.
  • Provide options for the ways in which assignments can be completed: i.e. pre-recorded presentations as opposed to real time, in-class presentations.
  • Record in-class lessons, and make them accessible to all students so that students can process information in ways and in an environment that may be more comfortable for them, and more conducive to the way that they learn.
  • Teach students how to set goals and self-monitor.
  • Coach the student in ways to organize, plan, and execute tasks/assignments that are due daily/weekly.
  • Provide ongoing feedback and encourage students to celebrate and be proud of goal attainment.
  • Provide students with language that articulates the type of help they may need. Sometimes IDs can make a seemingly simple task like asking for help [simply formulating a question around needing help] extremely difficult.  Give actual examples of how students can request help/accommodations: I.e. “I’m feeling unsure about…, I’m feeling nervous that I may…, I think what I may need is…, Would it be okay if…”

Of course it’s understood that it’s not possible for every event to be completely inclusive of all students every time.  Still, we need to think about how to practice inclusion in every experience we provide for students from in-class lessons, trips, trainings, sports, bonding activities et al. The first question that each experience (including staff/faculty meetings) should start with is “How can we do our best to make sure that we are including all students in this space and fostering belonging  at the same time.”

*Images by GettyImages


1 thought on “Hidden/Invisible Disabilities – Reaching and Teaching all Learners

  1. Matthew Culbertson October 17, 2019 — 1:04 pm

    Very informative. Anyone in the life of a child with challenges will benefit from using the tools/information given in this article.

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