Diagnosis of conditions that affect learning: who can diagnose and who can’t?!

Diagnosis of conditions that affect learning: who can diagnose and who can’t?!

Children can be diagnosed with all sorts of conditions that can affect the way they learn. As a parent it can be difficult to know who to seek advice from and as a teacher it is important to know what you can and can’t advise.

This is a brief guide of some of the conditions that affect learning in children and is by no means an exhaustive list.

  • Language Learning Disorders - dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, dyspraxia
  • Autistic Spectrum Disorders
  • Speech and Language Impairments
  • Intellectual Disability
  • Medical Conditions - ADHD
  • Psychological condition - depression, anxiety, eating disorders

The difference between diagnosis and screening

A diagnosis is a definitive decision made by a qualified professional or team of qualified professionals about a condition, in this case disorders that affect learning. Diagnosis takes the following into consideration: psychometric testing, child’s history, child’s experiences, parental observations, teacher observations, and professional opinion. Note that not all of the above are required to make a diagnosis but the more information professionals have the more informed the decision.

Screening is a process by which a qualified professional can advise a parent as to whether there is a risk or likelihood of their child being affected by a condition. This usually takes the form of a questionnaire which can calculate risk of whether the child has a condition. This is not a diagnosis, it is just an indicator of risk. It differs from a diagnosis because it is designed to be a quick way of considering the risk factors to see if it is worth putting a child through expensive, time consuming and potentially stressful diagnostic testing.

The importance of stakeholders’ opinions and experiences

When a child goes through the diagnosis process of a condition that affects their learning, qualified professionals may conduct psychometric testing (if available for the condition). These are important because psychometric tests are standardised which means that results are able to be compared with ranges of results that show the normal distribution.

Whilst it is important to conduct psychometric testing so that a fair assumption is made about a child, it is also important to consider extra information. This is where the opinion of the parents and various professionals (teachers, speech pathologists, occupational therapists, and psychologists) are important. These experiences create a rich picture of information so that the most informed diagnosis can be made.

Who can diagnose

It is very important to know who can and who cannot diagnose. Again the following list is not definitive and finer details may differ from region to region.

Advice to parents and teachers

The most important things to note are that teachers cannot diagnose any conditions that affect learning, which means they must be very careful with what they say when reporting information about a child. For example, if they believe that a child they teach may have dyslexia, they must communicate this information very carefully. Instead of suggesting this to a parent, it would be much wiser to consult with the person in charge of this in your school (leading teacher, allied health team, wellbeing team, psychologist or person in charge of special educational needs). They will be better equipped to advise you or speak to the parents for you. Care needs to be taken because you simply cannot say that you think that a child has a condition, you can however, say that you have noticed that a child presents with certain learning difficulties but avoid comparing these observations to a diagnosis. Conversations like these with parents can be difficult because your professional opinion may not be well received, so it is always best to seek advice from the experts within your field on the matter beforehand. When preparing for a parent-teacher interview, consider inviting someone in your school who is qualified to give this advice.

Secondly, a general physician or paediatrician may not necessarily be the best person to diagnose conditions that affect learning. Medically trained doctors are trained to treat medical conditions like ADHD and can prescribe medication but they are not trained to deliver psychometric testing. A psychologist is trained to use psychometric testing and can diagnose learning disorders like dyslexia where this sort of testing is necessary to make an informed decision.

Psychologists always give advice for interventions for any child they have diagnosed. As a teacher you should always do your best to use strategies that are based in evidence in your classroom.

If you are interested in finding out more about evidence-based practice in education take a look at our free publication available on iBooks.


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Further information





Autism Awareness Australia


DSM 5 - Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders


Learning disorders


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