As an educator, could you ever imagine requesting one of your students who wears prescription glasses to remove them during guided reading instruction? A more absurd scenario might be requiring a student who uses a wheelchair for mobility to attend second-floor classes in a building with no elevator. These are examples of visible disabilities that are easy to recognize, and it is straightforward to address the student's needs. However, there are many hidden disabilities of equal magnitude that hinder student learning and are often undiagnosed. To have an invisible disability means that there is more to the student’s educational struggle than meets the eye.
The issue of hidden disabilities affects a significant number of students. According to the U.S. Department of Education, “approximately four million students with disabilities are enrolled in public elementary and secondary schools in the United States. Of these, 43 percent are students classified as learning disabled, 8 percent as emotionally disturbed, and 1 percent as other health impaired. These hidden disabilities often cannot be readily known without the administration of appropriate diagnostic tests” (emphasis added).
Protection of Hidden Disabilities
One of the laws that protects the rights of students with disabilities is Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which protects the civil rights of people with disabilities and is upheld by the federal Office for Civil Rights (OCR). Examples of hidden disabilities most commonly found in the classroom that can benefit from a 504 plan are ADHD, anxiety, and depression. By law, it’s our job as educators to identify students with hidden disabilities and provide them with the appropriate accommodations and modifications to create an environment where all students can find success.
Examples of Accommodations and Modifications may include
- Preferential seating
- Extended time for testing
- Modification of test format and delivery
- Verbal, visual, or technology aids
- Modifications in classroom and homework assignments
- Assistance with note taking
- Organizational assistance
- Setting up a system of communication
- Positive behavior management strategies
Often, students who are not paying attention or act out are seen as being a behavioral concern. However, more often than not, these students are misunderstood and simply need supports put in place to remove the barriers that inhibit learning. Most importantly, these students need someone to advocate for them and help level the playing field to give them an equal chance at success.
How do we identify these students?
In my experience, the identification of students with hidden disabilities usually happens in two ways. Teachers can seek students out through consistent teacher observation and by digging deep into student data to identify any trends.
Seek students out through consistent teacher observation
What are some behaviors to look for when observing and identifying students who may need to be referred for further evaluation?
- Poor attention and concentration
- Difficulty remaining in seat
- Non-compliance with teacher directions
- Often loses things necessary for tasks
- Has trouble transitioning
- Shifts from one uncompleted task to another
Did you know that many children with learning and attention issues are not formally identified with a disability? When these children receive the right interventions and informal supports, many can succeed in general education. Without enough support, however, children with unidentified disabilities may not reach their full potential and risk falling behind and having to repeat a grade. This could lead to other problems, including dislike of school, absenteeism, and dropping out. According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, “1.22 million students repeated a grade in 2014-2015 and 76% of them were general education students who had not been identified as having a disability.”
Anyone, including a parent or guardian, can refer a student for evaluation. A Section 504 referral should be in writing and ask that the school evaluate whether or not a student has a disability and needs accommodations, aids, and services. Schools have a special responsibility to make a Section 504 referral for every student they know or suspect has a disability.
Dig deep into student data to identify trends
To gain a deeper understanding of students’ learning needs, teachers need to collect data from multiple sources, such as formative assessments, state assessments, interim district and school assessments, classroom performance data, and other relevant data. A districtwide data system allows teachers to collect data by classroom, content areas, or assignment type to identify trends in performance.
It can be time-consuming to collect the amount of data required to identify these students. A strong assessment tool can save you time and give teachers the power to shine a light on the students who fall into this hidden disability category. Teachers can give readily-available assessments and visualize student data from all assessments given to provide an accurate picture of the whole child.
Pivot’s Student Success Suite includes the tools you need to make sure each student is getting the instruction and interventions he/she requires. You can identify current levels of mastery, target specific skill deficits, implement interventions, and monitor progress with this powerful software package. View Pivot’s demo site here!
Before making decisions about student learning, educators must have a clear understanding of the current level of mastery. Pivot’s Data Warehouse allows you to view and analyze longitudinal assessment data from multiple sources in one place. Pivot stores and displays color-coded results for several assessments, including state standardized tests as well as the PSAT, SAT, and ACT. In addition, you can upload data from any test using the custom import process. Pivot makes it easy to move from documentation to meaningful action.
Learn more about Pivot’s Data Warehouse and 5 ways a Data Warehouse can improve your school district here.
Involve key stakeholders
A key ingredient to the successful implementation of a 504 plan is to involve everyone who is invested in the student’s success. It is critical to include parents in conversations regarding the development of a 504 plan. Parents have the right to understand and be engaged in decisions about their child’s learning. When teachers and families work together as a team, it provides the student with a strong foundation and the support needed to help reach their highest potential.
To make sure that key stakeholders are truly engaged in decisions, it is our job to make sure we educate those stakeholders on their rights and resources available to them. The Kentucky Department of Education has started a Parent Involvement Initiative. This initiative was developed to help meet the needs of parents, teachers, community members, and virtually anyone who impacts the life of a student identified with a disability. This initiative is funded by the Office of Special Education Programs and managed by the University of Kentucky. This website provides a Kentucky Parent Guide for Special Education, a Parent Involvement Video Series, and other helpful resources.
It is important that we bring awareness to the challenge of discovering hidden disabilities and the tools available to help those students be seen. As teachers, let’s continue to advocate for our students, dig deep into data and bring awareness to families about the resources and supports their child can receive.