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

Many disabilities will be identified by the time an adolescent attends high 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 high school. For example, some students with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are diagnosed before they begin school. 
Other adolescents may not show clear signs of ADHD until they start high school. Adolescence can also be a common time for other concerns to appear, including anxiety and mood disorders like depression. Some of the common developmental concerns or disability diagnosed in high school are:

Do you have concerns about a student’s development?

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

A student may need additional support if some of the following signs are present and affecting their learning, mood, communication, control, attention, participation, and/or ability to make and keep friends:

  • Low mood or irritability.
  • Change in their participation in school and/or social activities.
  • Difficulty initiating and maintaining interactions with others when playing or talking with other students.
  • Greater concern with reading, writing or mathematics in comparison to their peers.
  • Frequent stomach aches, a racing heart or other physiological symptoms (with no known medical cause).
  • Frequent emotional outbursts.
  • Struggling to understand schoolwork or social cues compared to peers.
  • Difficulties in completing schoolwork due to an inability to focus their attention to the task, or unable to remain seated for periods of time.
  • Frequently feels tired, worthless or unmotivated.
  • Avoidance of specific situations such as going to school, social events, school concerts or physical education.
  • Refusal or inability to follow requests or instructions.
  • Difficulty with executive functioning, particularly organising, planning and prioritising.
  • 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 concerns.

How to seek help

If you think a student in your class might be experiencing concerns 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 start by discussing the student’s strengths, and then go on to discuss areas they might need more support with. 

Families may then wish to talk to their GP, paediatrician or other allied health professionals to seek support and assessment. You can also discuss with families assessments or support with psychologists or allied health professionals through your school’s learning and support team.

All schools are resourced to be able to access a specialist teacher and an allocation of funding that the school can use flexibly to support their students.

Regardless of diagnosis, teachers and schools can work collaboratively with all stakeholders to address the specific learning needs of a student at school. 

This includes planning achievable goals, adjustments the student requires to access the curriculum and, strategies to support the teaching and learning of the student.

Dept of Education, Fairfield High, EALD. 27/5/2019 Photo James Horan
School Excellence Framework alignment


Australian Professional Standards for Teachers alignment

Standard 1: Know students and how they learn


Secondary teachers


This resource can support teachers in helping students and their parents/carers to seek support for disability and developmental concerns.

Timeframes and when to use

This resource can be used at any time to provide further information and practice guidance

Evidence base

This resource was developed with the AllPlay Learn team who conducted a series of systematic reviews of the empirical literature, with over 177,000 articles screened. The resources remain up-to-date, with content reflecting best practice reviewed by a world-class multidisciplinary research team, led by Monash University.


November 2021. Share your feedback here