What disabilities and developmental challenges are diagnosed in secondary school students?

Many disabilities and disorders will be identified by the time an adolescent attends secondary school. This might include more noticeable disabilities such as cerebral palsy, blind and low vision, Deaf, deaf and hard of hearing, physical disability or communication disorders. Others are more difficult to diagnose before secondary school. For example, some students with more severe attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are diagnosed before they begin school. Other adolescents with milder challenges may not show clear signs of ADHD until they start secondary school. Adolescence can also be a common time for other challenges to appear, including anxiety and mood disorders like depression. Some of the common developmental challenges or disabilities diagnosed in secondary school are:

  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
  • Oppositional defiant disorder/conduct disorder
  • Anxiety
  • Mood disorders (e.g. depression)
  • Specific learning disability (reading, mathematics, writing)

  • Do you have concerns about a student’s development?

    Parents are often the first to notice a challenge or delay with their young person. They may come to you for professional advice. Sometimes teachers will be the first to notice, as some challenges, such as social difficulties, may only be apparent in group situations like the classroom.

    A young person may need additional support if some of the following signs are present and affecting a student’s learning, mood, participation, and/or ability to make and keep friends:

  • Reduction in socialising; keeps to themselves
  • Low mood or irritability
  • Decrease in their participation in school and/or social activities
  • Frequently feels tired, worthless or unmotivated
  • Struggles with schoolwork; finding it much more difficult to understand than their peers
  • Avoidance of specific situations such as going to school, social events, school concerts or physical education
  • Frequent stomach aches, a racing heart or other physiological symptoms (with no known medical cause)
  • Struggles completing schoolwork due to being distracted or unable to sit still
  • Many more challenges with reading, writing or mathematics in comparison to their peers
  • Refusal to follow requests or instructions
  • Frequent outbursts or meltdowns
  • Steals or destroys others’ property
  • Smoking, drinking alcohol or substance use

    Please note that this is not a comprehensive list of indicators, and you may notice other challenges.

  • How to seek help

    If you think a student in your class might be experiencing challenges that impact on their relationships, learning, self-esteem or mood you can talk to the student’s family and discuss what you’ve noticed in a sensitive way. Make sure you bring up both the young person’s strengths as well as areas they might need more support with. Families may then wish to talk to their GP, paediatrician or others to seek support and assessment. You can also discuss with families organising assessments or support with psychologists or speech pathologists through your school’s student services team.

    If a student in your class has a disability or developmental challenge that requires extra support, the school might be eligible for funding under the Program for Students with a Disability (PSD), through the Department of Education and Training.

    An individual education plan may also be helpful. This is a plan with strategies to address the specific needs of a student at school, including school work and behaviour.