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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Shadow of a girl against an orange wall making a bird shadow puppet

Invisible disabilities (IDs) are some of the most difficult ones for educators to identify because they are just that -- invisible. Students can "hide in plain sight" either intentionally or because they aren't aware that they have a disability. Some students are fearful, along with their parents, that they won't be accepted to college or that they will carry a label through the end of 12th grade. The silent aspect of IDs also makes it difficult for teachers to learn about their students' needs unless they are told outright.

An invisible disability is anything that cannot be seen. It can be an anxiety disorder, depression that affects a student's daily life, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or a learning disability that does not easily present itself. Some college students choose not to share their disability with their professors or the university because they had a bad experience in high school. Other times, the student doesn't know that his or her situation qualifies as a disability even in adulthood (most common with clinical depression and anxiety disorders). Students who walk through their academic career dealing with any disability on their own are left to a great disadvantage.

Teachers working with ID students in high school are advised to speak to the school psychologist or special education consultant about the legally correct and ethically appropriate ways to handle working with such a student. If the student has not yet been diagnosed but a disability is suspected, any testing should go through the proper channels. In the past, students with an ID were often told that they were "making it up" or that it was "just in your mind." This situation has prevented many ID students from reaching out, especially if they received their diagnosis closer to adulthood.

If educators are open to the idea that this so-called something "just in your mind" is indeed real, they are well on their way to successfully helping and understanding such a student. Remember that our brains are the drivers and our bodies simply the cars following commands. Everything that happens in the brain is real.

1. Is There a Diagnosis?

Teachers of minor children should speak with the school psychologist as well as the child's parents to see if there is any known disability. Going through the proper channels is crucial when handling this type of situation. Always talk to a school representative before talking with the parent. It's quite possible that there is a mild-to-moderate diagnosis about which the parents may be able to provide insight.

2. Respect Students' Privacy

Teachers should be ever mindful of a young student's inherent need to fit in. Adults relish the idea of being special, being set apart from the norm. As adults, we embrace our differences and view most of them as neutral or positive (with some exceptions, of course). However, if we look back at our own high school yearbooks, we will notice that we desperately wanted to be the same as our peers.

Students with IDs are faced with being different at every turn. While their contemporaries are focused on sporting the same hairstyle, students with IDs can spend most of their day trying to hide the fact that their brain works differently. Any discussion regarding a student's disability should take place far away from friends and peers. Teens love to listen in on teacher conversations (not out of rudeness but because they assume the conversation must be about them). The student's choice of privacy is paramount.

3. Recognize Periodic Episodes

Many IDs come and go in waves, but few educators are made aware of this. This is especially true with anxiety disorders. Students who have panic attacks may only suffer on Mondays, or during finals week, or when their best friend is absent. Students with Tourette syndrome may only exhibit symptoms in certain teachers' classes or when they are suffering from additional stress. It's essential that the school environment allows (but doesn't force) these kids to "fit in" on symptom-free days. Teachers who are lucky enough to have less than 15 kids in their class (mostly in private schools and rural areas) will often pick up on their students' patterns, while teachers with 30+ students are advised to utilize the services of their teacher's aide, the special education department, or other appropriate resources.

4. Make Learning Accommodations

Once a definitive diagnosis has been documented, educators can work with school staff to help the student in the best way possible. Students with IDs often have a learning disability or anxiety disorder that needs to be addressed in the classroom. Hopefully, students will be given an independent educational pathway (titled differently in different school districts) after which the teacher can follow the plan and help the student throughout the year.

Although IDs are not easy to identify, students who go undiagnosed may find that they end up a straight C student and don't go on to college when their potential might have been to obtain a 3.5 GPA and a college diploma. Patience and understanding from even one great teacher can make it or break it for these students.

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Peya's picture

I found this article to be both helpful and insightful. I work as a teacher at a residential treatment facility for adolescents with behavioral and emotional disorders. Many of my students have faced many of the difficulties and challenges mentioned in the article. I live in the Caribbean and our culture has a tendency to stigmatize mental illnesses and disorders. As mentioned in the article, many of my students have been told that their difficulties were in the their own minds, or that they were simply bad kids. It is important that teachers, educators, and parents listen to children when they express they are having difficulties, not quickly judge atypical behavior as a student being willful or disobedient, and finally, to at least educate ourselves about some of these invisible disabilities so that we are able to recognize some of the symptoms and seek help for these students. It is sad to think that many of my students could have been diagnosed and gotten the assistance they required before they had to be placed in the most restrictive environment there is.

James Trott's picture

Invisible disabilities could act as a major impediment in a student's education. It's important to detect and treat the child's disability accordingly for their proper growth. Now many autistic schools for children are racing to figure out how to handle the wave of students who are dealing with invisible disabilities.

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