Why Is School Still So Hard?

Why Is School Still So Hard?

Undiagnosed Learning Disability or Typical Post-Pandemic Struggles?

By LAURA SPAULDING, Staff Writer/Consultant

COVID has confirmed that many "best practices in education," which benefit all students, are crucial educational practices for the academic success of students with learning differences and disabilities. 

As a team of educational professionals and learning disability advocates in one of the nation’s largest cities, we focus on meeting the unique educational needs of students with learning differences. These are students who, although intellectually capable, have difficulty finding success in traditional school environments. At The Joy School, our mission is to prepare students with learning differences to return to traditional classroom settings by enabling them to reach their academic and social potential in a safe and supportive environment. Simply put, we fix what we can fix, give strategies for the rest, and send students on their way, ready to succeed in learning and in life.1

What We Have Always Known:

• For more than 25 years, we have been paying attention to the stories entrusted to us by families reaching out for help when their children are falling behind or failing in school. We continue to learn much from the stories and successes of the families and students we serve.

• The first big hurdles for students with unidentified learning differences consistently show up midway through elementary school. The majority of our inquiries and applicants are students currently struggling in second through fourth grade. Since COVID, we have seen a significant increase in middle school students who never realized their potential during elementary school.•

• Students falling behind in kindergarten through second grade tend to struggle most with basic skill acquisition or significant executive functioning challenges. These children often have no known diagnosis, or they have been recently diagnosed with either ADHD or a specific learning disability such as Dyslexia or Dysgraphia. Bright and academically capable, these students exhibited few or no early signs of developmental delay or impending school challenges. However, they are the students most likely to give up on school or themselves early without any intervention. Early and intense interventions with students in this age range result in significant and measurable academic growth. In other words, these students’ struggles are the easiest to “fix” with early identification and intervention.

• Students falling behind in later elementary or middle school often struggle more with communication, comprehension, or less obvious executive functioning challenges. While many have never received formal diagnoses, some have a Receptive/Expressive Language Disorder, Delayed Processing Speeds, or ADHD labels. Good at “faking it,” they develop coping skills to mask their challenges, eventually hitting a wall and shutting down once school is no longer focused on basic skill acquisition. Learning to read was easy enough, but reading to learn brings their comprehension and communication difficulties to the surface. After finally feeling seen, understood, and finding a safe place to struggle and succeed, these are the students who really come to life in our classrooms.

• We have a limited number of kindergarten or first-grade applicants each year, as most students have not had an opportunity to fail academically before then. The students applying for our youngest classes tend to come from either highly rigorous private schools or another special school focused on early intervention. Children coming from rigorous early childhood programs have the cognitive profiles to succeed in a highly competitive and rigorous environment, yet despite the instruction and resources available, they do not make the expected progress. Those coming from special schools have typically received enough early intervention to be ready for the next step despite more complex learning profiles. Often these children are identified at a very young age, and intensive early intervention has proven highly effective.

• The younger a student is when they come to us for help, the shorter their stay in our program before they are ready to transition to a traditional classroom environment. 

What The Pandemic Changed:


While the number of families reaching out to us for support or to inquire about how we can help their struggling child has not changed since March 2020, the stories we are hearing, and the reasons families need support, have changed significantly both during and since the COVID school shutdowns. The reality is that all families are struggling. And all students have been impacted by learning loss, slower social and emotional development, a decrease in self-regulatory and classroom readiness skills, and an increase in toxic stress and mental health challenges. Everyone knows the pandemic has changed education in significant ways, but for us, the main question yet to be answered is how exactly has the pandemic changed things for families with learning differences and disabilities? We have made some important observations worth emphasizing.

In March 2020 we joined the rest of the world in shutting down normal school operations. Because of our tiny classes and the intimate knowledge and connections our teachers had with students and families, it was easier to make the shift in a way that was more meaningful for each student. But even with only 6 students on a Zoom call, we were limited in our ability to offer the hands-on, real-time interventions, assessments, encouragements, and accommodations that for us have always guaranteed our students’ growth and success.

The 20-21 school year began online across the entire country. This meant all academic support services for students with learning differences and disabilities, including identification, assessments, and interventions, were either postponed or provided virtually. Adjusting to virtual classrooms on top of the other practical and psychological stresses of living through the pandemic meant everyone was struggling- students and educators alike. Significant learning loss resulted from waning student attention and motivation, missed instruction, and limited access to a wide range of instructional resources. Test scores and reading levels were down across the board, and there was no way to differentiate or adequately support students who were impacted by the various mental, social, and emotional ramifications of the pandemic. Since the key indicators for identification of learning differences and disabilities looked so much like the struggles all students were having in online classrooms, identification and assessment for learning differences and disabilities was not just difficult, it was "virtually" impossible.

Going into the 21-22 school year, many schools still had online as an option, with a significant number of pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students across the country missing out on these formative years of instruction completely. Once students were back in the classroom, teachers faced the challenge of assessing and figuring out how to make up for lost learning and the academic gaps facing all students, even as everyone was also dealing with post-COVID physical, mental, social, and emotional challenges. Slowed social-emotional development and increased stress and mental health issues were surfacing in classrooms around the country, evidenced by a significant increase in serious misconduct following the return to in-person learning as reported by the National Center for Education Statistics. “Specifically, respondents attributed increased incidents of classroom disruptions from student misconduct…to the COVID-19 pandemic and its lingering effects.”2 Unfortunately for students with learning disabilities, these significant mental health and behavioral challenges masked the more subtle minor social challenges and learning disruptions that often accompany learning disabilities. Thus making it even harder to identify and offer academic and social intervention to the students needing the most support. Everyone was struggling to get back to the business of learning, but kids with learning differences were being lost and falling through the cracks more than ever before.

This school year, parents are reaching out, all telling the same story. While schools seem to be slowly but surely getting back to the business of traditional in-person teaching, some children are not bouncing back as easily as the rest of their same-age peers. The gaps in their academic development are widening instead of closing. According to The Associated Press, “For the average elementary school student, researchers projected it would take three years to reach where they would have been without the pandemic.”3 As we steadily approach that three-year benchmark, it is evident that students with learning disabilities have been completely overlooked in light of school shutdowns, virtual learning, and the significant increase in serious misconduct and mental health challenges during post-pandemic transitions.  

So how does a parent know when they are dealing with typical post-pandemic struggles or something such as a learning disability which will take a lot more than just time to fix? Because everyone was struggling, very little intervention or identification was happening. According to the DSM5, the diagnosis of a specific learning disability “is made based on a clinical review of an individual's history, teacher reports and academic records, and responses to interventions. Difficulties must be persistent, scores must be well below the range on appropriate measures, and the problems cannot be better explained by other disorders.” When everyone was struggling persistently, everyone's scores were down, and fewer interventions were being offered to measure a child’s response,4 no one technically met the clinical criteria for learning disability identification. Now that we are through the initial transition phase, student stress levels have settled and academic progress has started to steadily increase. The result is students with learning differences and disabilities are beginning to be noticed for not progressing or compensating for their learning loss at the same rate as their peers.

For those with unidentified learning differences and learning disabilities, the gaps in academic improvement are widening instead of closing, and their test scores and reading levels are beginning to fall far below those of their classmates. Now that a new norm is emerging, students with learning disabilities are finally beginning to stand out, not only on paper but in the classroom as well. Everyone needed time to readjust to the sudden constant social interaction, new social structures and expectations, and difficulties with self-regulation when they first returned to in-person learning. In the midst of so much change and uncertainty, it has taken time for this new norm to be established and for the significant spike in serious misconduct from toxic stress and increased mental health challenges to subside. Now that we are here, the more minor social and emotional challenges facing students with learning differences have become increasingly evident. These red flags suggesting more than just post-pandemic struggles include: ongoing difficulty with peer and group engagement, task initiation or completion, and an overall lack of classroom readiness skills. These are behaviors unrelated to serious misconduct or defiance. Many students facing these challenges are often described by teachers as unsettled, lost, shutting down, “all over the place” or simply “not ready to learn.” When coupled with delayed academic progress, the clearest sign a child needs intervention is ongoing or growing concerns with excessive sadness, anxiety, feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness, and a child’s verbal references to feeling stupid or that something is wrong with them.     


What Covid has Confirmed:


All students would benefit from an hour of tutoring after school every day, but not everyone needs that hour of tutoring just to meet minimum standards. In the same way, while most students have resettled into traditional school routines and are successfully bouncing back from the lack of a solid academic, social, and emotional foundation, students with learning disabilities are still struggling, as their gaps in learning continue to widen instead of close. COVID has taught us that what is considered best practices in education for all students are essential to the academic success of students with learning differences and disabilities. The recipe for enabling children with learning differences to reach their social and academic potential begins here:

1. Early identification and intervention work! When students get the support they need early, the effort it takes to make up for lost learning is straightforward. When students are identified later, it is unlikely they will ever fill in all their learning gaps or address every academic struggle. Unfortunately, the COVID school shutdowns have resulted in large numbers of students with learning differences and learning disabilities remaining unidentified or undiagnosed. As most students are bouncing back post-pandemic, these students are finally being identified and assessed. It is important that parents and educators do not take a “wait and see” approach for the students who continue to seem lost, unsettled, “all over the place,” or “out of sorts,” in our post-pandemic schools. Rather we need to invest the time, energy, and resources available to identify students with learning differences and disabilities so they can receive the appropriate resources and interventions they need as soon as possible.

2. A solid academic foundation is absolutely essential to the long-term academic achievement of students with learning disabilities. Most students are able to experience high-stress events, gaps in learning, and significant transitions without permanent impact because the developmental skills and knowledge necessary to build upon academics are already in place. As long as the foundation is secure, you can easily fill in gaps or adjust your structure to accommodate as necessary. This is what has happened for most students in our post-pandemic classroom as they have settled into the new normal and started making steady progress toward catching up to their pre-pandemic trajectory. Children with learning differences and disabilities, however, are often lacking nonacademic foundational skills or knowledge leaving them with an unstable foundation from the start. A strong academic foundation through direct instruction and intensive intervention helps to fill in the gaps and holes in an otherwise shaky foundation, giving them the very best chance at future academic and social success.    

3. Success breeds success. For many students, getting back to in-person learning meant new and exciting places to belong and opportunities to both struggle and succeed. After a prolonged season of stress and isolation, having a place to experience belonging and success was a primary catalyst for improved mental health and wellness for most students. Traditional classroom settings are often unable to provide places of belonging and success for students who struggle socially and academically. It is not surprising the continued stress and isolation of having unidentified learning disabilities has meant these students have not settled into the new normal or found places to belong or succeed. Guaranteeing success for every student in an environment where they experience safety and belonging is the best way to guarantee continued success in the future.

4. People are the Difference Makers. The most effective tool for children with learning disabilities is people-intensive instruction and interventions. More than anything else, COVID confirmed how irreplaceable teachers and educators are in the lives of all students. We can have the best technology has to offer or the most scientifically proven method of instruction at the click of a button, but no curriculum, platform, technology, tool, or program can replace the physical presence of caring adults and developmental peers. If you ask anyone at our school what our secret is to the success of our program, evidenced in the long-term success of our students, the answer will forever be, “It’s the people.”  

Students everywhere have felt the impact of school shutdowns, virtual classrooms, and the transition to a post-pandemic “normal.” But students with learning differences and disabilities will face the most significant and permanent negative impacts on their academic, social, and emotional success without access to swift identification and interventions in the form of a people-intensive, safe, and supportive environment. COVID has confirmed for us that these really are the most important things we can do to ensure children with learning differences are able to meet their full academic, social, and personal potential. 

For more information on joining our Joy School family as a teacher, visit Work at Joyor if you're interested in enrolling your child with a learning difference, visit our Admission page.

  1. "Welcome from Shara," The Joy School, accessed May 12, 2023, https://www.thejoyschool.org/our-school/a-message-from-shara
  2. "More than 80 Percent of U.S. Public Schools Report Pandemic Has Negatively Impacted Student Behavior and Socio-Emotional Development," National Center for Education Statistics, July 6, 2022, accessed May 12, 2023, https://nces.ed.gov/whatsnew/press_releases/07_06_2022.asp
  3. "Study: Student Gains Last Year Narrowed COVID Learning Gap", AP News, July 18th, 2022, accessed May 12, 2023, https://apnews.com/article/covid-technology-health-education-1d2f79e2c242d2212ff47983050e5330 
  4. "Mental Disorders and Disabilities Among Low-Income Children", National Center for Biotechnology Information, October 28, 2015, accessed May 12, 2023, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK332886/#:~:text=.%2C%202010).-,Diagnostic%20and%20Statistical%20Manual%20for%20Mental%20Disorders,during%20formal%20years%20of%20schooling