Teaching to Symptoms, Not a Diagnosis

by | Adapt & Modify Activities, Educational Leadership

Once you were given a diagnosis for your child, you wanted to know everything there was to know about it.

You read relevant books, bookmarked the best websites, and joined support forums.

When it comes to supporting your neurodivergent, chronically ill/disabled child in education, you want to do the same: find all the books, websites, and resources you can get your hands on about your child’s diagnosis. But, what happens when your child’s diagnosis is rare? Or, when your child presents with symptoms that fall under multiple conditions? What happens when no book, website, or educational program exists with your child’s name on it?

Does this mean that you can’t support your child?

The good news is that you most certainly can, even if an educational program for your child’s diagnosis does not exist. This article explains why it’s recommended to teach to symptoms and not to a diagnosis.


Diagnosis vs. Symptoms

According to Dictionary.com, diagnosis is defined as “the process of determining by examination the nature and circumstances of a diseased condition.” Some examples of specific diagnoses are Down Syndrome, Dyslexia, or ADHD.

A symptom is defined as “a phenomenon that arises from and accompanies a particular disease or disorder and serves as an indication of it.” Some examples of symptoms include fine motor delays, difficulty reading, or inattention.

“You can support your child even if an educational program for their diagnosis does not exist.”


Why it’s best to teach to symptoms rather than a diagnosis

  • A medical/neurological diagnosis is too broad. There are no two children alike, even within the same diagnosis. A child with Dyslexia may present with many of the common traits of Dyslexia, but certainly, will not have all. It’s best to focus time and energy on what your child truly needs rather than the entire checklist of dyslexic characteristics.
  • It allows for individualized educational planning and instruction. If you pay attention to and acknowledge your child’s strengths and challenges, you can develop those first.
  • It allows you to support your child without having an official diagnosis first. Getting a diagnosis for your child is a family decision. Some families decide not to pay the heavy fees for testing, especially when they are certain of the results and would much rather not have a label. Some parents are placed on long waiting lists if they do want to get a professional opinion. In the meantime, teaching to symptoms allows you to continue with your educational plans without penalizing your child’s progress.
  • It creates a bond between parent and child. When you are attuned to your child’s needs rather than on generalized recommendations, you will find that you will connect with your child in ways you couldn’t before.
  • It helps build confidence in the student. When you teach to your child’s specific needs, you will allow them to feel successful and inspired.


What to look for

When teaching to symptoms, there are several questions you need to ask yourself:

  • What are my child’s strengths?
  • What learning style does my child most rely on (visual, auditory, tactile/ kinesthetic)?
  • What are my child’s challenges?
  • Does my child have gross motor difficulties? What are the difficulties?
  • Does my child struggle with fine motor skills? What does that look like?
  • Is there a language delay?
  • Is there a cognitive delay?
  • Are there social/emotional difficulties?
  • Does my child have long or short-term memory difficulties?
  • What are my child’s behaviors like when working on a new task? A familiar task? A task they have mastered?
  • When is my child most frustrated?


These questions will help you pinpoint the markers that apply most to your child, thereby becoming short-term and long-term learning goals. They will also make for targeted searches in books, online, or in forums.

Originally published on Home Educating Family Association. Reprinted with permission.


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