Interrupted special education services may set back the 1 in 5 students who learn and think differently

4 min readJun 9, 2021


With COVID-19 restrictions loosened and the school year behind us, a clearer picture is emerging of how the pandemic impacted education for students with learning and thinking differences like ADHD and dyslexia.

In April, Understood took a closer look by surveying 1,500 parents from across the U.S. We spoke to families of neurotypical children and families of kids who learn and think differently.

Forty-four percent of parents with children who learn and think differently say their child’s legal right to access an equitable education has not been fulfilled in the move to online learning. Since the spring of 2020, many families have reported that their kids weren’t receiving all the services and accommodations in their IEPs and 504 plans. As a result, a number of parents filed legal complaints against schools.

“In the early part of the pandemic, except for some high-profile lawsuits, we saw a drop-off in complaints,” says Andrew Lee, an education law expert at Understood. But toward the end of 2020, there was a big rise, based on reported legal decisions and state surveys. “Hearing officers and judges have started to order compensatory education, like services or even reimbursement, when there’s been failure to implement an IEP,” adds Lee. Lee says the special education hearing process is expensive and time-consuming, and not every family has the resources to file a complaint.

Challenges with special education services have also intensified families’ fears of learning loss for their children. Nearly 60 percent of parents of students with learning and thinking differences say their children are a year behind and may never catch up, compared to 33 percent of parents of neurotypical children.

Survey results revealed that parents’ concerns may be more deeply rooted in their relationships with the education system as a whole. Fifty-eight percent of parents with a symptomatic or diagnosed child say they don’t believe the school when it shares that their child is doing well academically, compared to 36 percent of parents whose child is neurotypical. Similarly, 57 percent of parents with a symptomatic or diagnosed child say that they’re not sure how to help their child with academic challenges, and 54 percent disclosed that they don’t know who to reach out to for help.

While parents are worried, educators have been trying their best under difficult circumstances. Some schools have allowed students receiving special education services to continue in-person learning. And many teachers have spent countless hours learning new ways to support their students who learn and think differently during distance learning.

“In a virtual classroom setting, it’s hard to ‘read the room,’ especially when some students have devices without cameras or don’t feel comfortable turning their cameras on. One way to address this issue is to have students self-assess,” says Shira Moskovitz, a fifth-grade special education inclusion teacher in New York City and an Understood Teacher Fellow. “After each mini-lesson, I ask students to reflect on their understanding of the skill we learned.”

This summer, many families will try to help their kids catch up academically. On top of their concerns about learning loss during the 2020–2021 school year, twice as many parents of kids with learning and thinking differences are concerned about the “summer slide” compared to parents of neurotypical kids (49 percent vs. 25 percent). Eighty-six percent of parents of kids who learn and think differently are planning on seeking summer academic support, compared to just half of parents of neurotypical kids. They plan to spend more than $1,000 on average for educational enrichment, which is about $240 more than other families.

Despite their concerns about learning loss during the pandemic, about 60 percent of parents surveyed are not confident about sending their kids back to school. Yet they also don’t believe remote learning provides the ideal learning environment. (The availability of vaccinations for kids ages 12–15 may have changed this sentiment, which was captured in April.)

This upcoming school year, Understood will continue to support families and educators as they adapt to the “next normal.”

“As the school year winds down, parents might want to ask their child’s teacher which one to three skills or concepts are most important for their child to learn to prepare for next year. Teachers can also let families know about free summer learning programs or fun learning activities they can do at home,” says Trynia Kaufman, an education expert at Understood. “While summer is a great time for learning, it’s also important to keep it fun and give kids plenty of time to play, relax, and reconnect with their friends.”

If any of the challenges reported in the survey are familiar to you or someone you know, visit Understood or the following resources:

Working with your child’s teachers

Advocating for your child’s rights

Preparing to return to school