Diagnosis of Disability and School Support

By Dr Jason McGowan
Special Education Consultant President, Literacy Foundation for Children

Knowing when and knowing how much learning support or intervention to provide for a student can be a difficult task for teachers and schools.

While a formal diagnosis is helpful it can take a long time to obtain. Formal diagnoses in the area of developmental disorder are criteria based and not all children will meet enough criteria to allow a diagnosis to be made. For children under seven years, a diagnosis in the area of Learning Disability such as Dyslexia, Dysgraphia or Dyscalculia can be particularly difficult to acquire.

In other cases, students may struggle with emotional regulation, attention or behaviour all of which put downward pressure on learning but also make it difficult to be specific about a diagnosis of a learning disability.

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Some parents are concerned that without a diagnosis their child won’t be able to access the learning support that they need. Many families (particularly since the challenging years of 2020-2021) are finding it difficult to locate an appropriate clinician. Professionals now tend to have long waiting lists and costs for Psychological, Medical and Learning based services, have significantly increased.”

However, providing learning and other types of support for students does not require a formal diagnosis. It is often the classroom teacher that first observes a potential difficulty and they are in an ideal position to take steps to support the student.

A teacher may not necessarily alert parents at first and it is wise not to ‘hit the panic button’. A classroom teacher is a professional in their own right and therefore is able to put measures in play to address their concerns about a student’s learning.

Therefore, initial learning assistance very likely occurs on the basis of ‘suspicion’ and ‘concern’ and happens in the classroom under the direction of the teacher. What is important about this process is that it allows for the Response to Intervention principle to be put into action at the earliest possible point. The degree to which the student responds to the teacher’s additional measures provides evidence on which to make further decisions about the nature and degree of support or the need for formal investigations.

It is very likely that many students who had difficulties, particularly in the formative years of schooling were recovered by the classroom teacher and continued to do well. For the most part, these cases go unannounced and it is easy to lose sight of the good work being done by the vast majority of teachers on a daily basis.

There are, of course, a number of students (for Dyslexia it is approximately 10% of the population) that have significant difficulties with literacy-based learning. These students are generally bright and have reasonable language skills and other strengths and talents. Their struggles with reading, spelling and writing are unusually poor relative to their other areas of development.

Commonwealth Standards for Students with a Disability and the National Consistent Collection of Data (NCCD)

The NCCD is a national data collection process reported by schools annually. It records students who have received a reasonable adjustment to address the functional impact of a disability. All schools nationally are legally required to report to the NCCD.

If a child is having difficulty with their learning, this can be documented with the NCCD. Parents should be consulted in this process and a decision made as to whether an Educational Adjustment Plan /Individual Education (Support) Plan is appropriate.

An Individual Support Plan can be established regardless of whether a student has a formal diagnosis or not. Teachers can do this based on their level of concern and gathered evidence.

Implementing support (known as Reasonable Adjustments) allows schools to measure the student’s response to support and therefore continue to gather data. This data, in turn, permits teachers to make an imputed diagnosis of a disability.

An imputed disability is a difficulty or set of concerning ‘signs and symptoms’ that the school observes in a student. To impute a disability the school team must have reasonable grounds to make such a judgement. At a minimum, it is good for teachers to consult with the student’s parents and carers and together, under the guidance of the school team, identify reasonable adjustments to address the recognized concerns.

A school can impute a disability if they have reasonable grounds, supported by evidence, to make such a judgement. The school will collect evidence demonstrating that the student’s need for adjustments has been identified and arises from ‘characteristics of disability’.

It is important that parents realize that teachers and schools cannot diagnose a disability such as autism, intellectual disability, mental health conditions or ADHD. Instead, schools are identifying whether the adjustments they are making address the functional impact of one of the NCCD’s four broad disability categories: Physical, Cognitive, Sensory or Social/Emotional.

The Qld Government is working through their, ‘Every Student with Disability Succeeding Plan 2021–2025’. They have made a commitment to, “continue our journey towards a more inclusive education system” and state, “all children must be able to achieve academically and socially with reasonable adjustments and supports tailored to meet their learning needs.”

Prior to NCCD, parents were required to provide a medical or specialist report confirming their child’s diagnosis. Under Reasonable Adjustments Resourcing, schools are able to impute a disability if they believe a student has a genuine difficulty.

It is important that parents and carers of children with struggles understand that this is a major undertaking for teachers and schools as the process can be labour intensive and time consuming.

Open and transparent communication remains critical as does patience and persistence in helping all students reach their potential.

Accessing private professional services is usually costly. The Literacy Foundation for children remains committed to raising and distributing funds to help cover costs for families who have children with Learning Disabilities.


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