Returning to the classroom and bridging the education gap for neurodiverse kids

by Amanda Morin

As we enter a new school year, millions of students and teachers are returning to full-time, in-person learning after months of hybrid and virtual instruction. One big question weighs heavily on parents’ and educators’ minds:

How has this affected our kids?

The return to the physical classroom after so many months of learning from home has prompted many to worry about “the education gap” — a term used to describe the disparity in test scores, dropout rates, and other metrics between groups of students.

Pre-pandemic, those most likely to exhibit an education gap were students from low-income families, students from diverse communities, students for whom English is an additional language, or students with learning disabilities and other learning and thinking differences.

Unfortunately, remote learning has exacerbated this gap for students with learning and thinking differences. The very things that helped many students with learning and thinking differences to learn — stability, routine, and individualized attention, to name a few — were often harder to achieve and receive during remote learning.

This school year, nearly all kids will be facing some sort of education gap as we transition from remote learning back into the classroom. A new study from Understood shows that 90 percent of educators are concerned about longer-term challenges that all students might face from missing traditional education last year. And 50 percent of all parents are worried about their child facing challenges because of not having the same education last year due to COVID-19.

Not all kids will meet every academic milestone they “should” be meeting as we return to in-person learning. But for kids with learning and thinking differences, the gap is wider, and potentially trickier to close.

The virtual environment is full of distractions — not just for kids with learning and thinking differences, but for all of us. I know many adults who have struggled to adapt to working from home and often find it difficult to stay focused on their tasks.

The difference is, many adults have the ability to do something called “set shift” — to switch from task to task easily without losing focus. Kids with learning and thinking differences struggle to set shift, and increased distractions in a virtual environment can make it even harder.

Learning from home has also meant less individualized instruction from teachers — a critical tool in helping kids who learn differently. Remote learning has denied our kids this important resource, as special education and supplementary services have been difficult to implement during the pandemic. We’ll likely see the result of this in reading comprehension skills, as many younger kids who struggle to read haven’t been able to get the one-on-one instruction they need.

We’ve also all lost out on more than a year of socialization. I know adults who worry that they’ll have lost their ability to talk with others once we return to a more normal existence. Kids have that same worry too — but kids with learning and thinking differences, especially ADHD, are likely to need more practice than others.

For some kids, the very idea of returning to in-person learning after months of remote or hybrid instruction may be a stressor. At home, there’s more room to fail and less pressure to “fit the mold” or learn the same way as other students. With the return to the classroom, there’s a greater risk of separation anxiety and fear of failure.

As we return to in-person learning this fall, it’s critical that we meet all kids where they are — not where they “should” be. It will be up to educators to work in tandem with parents to identify the scope and scale of the gap to ensure that all children’s needs are met, with special attention toward those who have additional challenges in learning.

The Take N.O.T.E. tool, developed by Understood in partnership with the American Academy of Pediatrics, can help both parents and educators.

Months of remote schooling have allowed parents to observe their children’s behavior, struggles, and achievements in learning environments- in ways they never could before.

Take N.O.T.E. empowers parents to use this information to start important conversations that can get neurodiverse kids the support they need. The site offers helpful guides for how to talk with educators and how to engage with kids to advocate for what they need.

Going back to the classroom full-time will be yet another transition to manage in a world full of changes. Resources like Take N.O.T.E. will help parents, educators, and students ensure that kids with learning and thinking differences are part of that transition — not left behind.

Amanda Morin is the director of thought leadership and expertise at Understood. She is an education expert, author, speaker, podcast host, former classroom teacher, early intervention specialist, and special education advocate.

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