Undiagnosed Learning Disability V. Typical Post-Pandemic Struggles

Undiagnosed Learning Disability V. Typical Post-Pandemic Struggles

Why have some children easily bounced back from educational interruptions caused by COVID-19, while others are still significantly struggling in the post-pandemic classroom? Could it be an undiagnosed learning difference or disability?

By LAURA SPAULDING, Staff Writer/ Consultant 

As a team of educational professionals and learning disability advocates in one of the nation's largest cities, our school focuses on the unique educational needs of students with learning differences and disabilities. As schools have settled into the new post-pandemic normal, we are now frequently hearing from parents asking the same question: “Why is my child still struggling in school?”

What We Have Always Known

• Historically, most of our applicants begin struggling in grades two through four. Since COVID-19, there has been a significant increase in applicants struggling in middle school.

• Students falling behind in kindergarten through second grade struggle primarily with essential skill acquisition or executive functioning challenges. They often have no known diagnosis or have recently received diagnoses of ADHD or a Specific Learning Disorder (i.e., Dyslexia or Dysgraphia). These bright academically capable students exhibit few early signs of developmental delay or impending school challenges. However, they are the students most likely to give up on learning completely without early intervention. Early and intense interventions in this age range result in significant and measurable academic growth. 

• Students falling behind in later elementary or middle school often struggle with communication, comprehension, or less apparent executive functioning challenges. While many never received formal diagnoses, some have a Receptive/Expressive Language Disorder, lower working memory and processing speeds, or ADHD). Good at "faking it," they develop coping skills to mask challenges, eventually hitting a wall and shutting down once school no longer focuses on basic skill acquisition. Learning to read was easy enough, but reading to learn brings their comprehension and communication difficulties to the surface. These middle-grade students come to life in our classrooms after finally feeling seen, understood, and safe.

• Students applying for our youngest classes come from highly rigorous private preschools or special schools focused on early intervention. Children from rigorous early childhood programs have cognitive profiles suggesting success in highly competitive environments. Despite instruction and resources available, expected progress is not made. Those coming from special schools were likely identified at a very young age, and despite more complex learning profiles, they have received highly effective intensive early intervention.

What The Pandemic Changed

Over the last several years, students everywhere have been impacted by learning loss, slower social and emotional development, decreased self-regulatory and classroom readiness skills, and increased toxic stress and mental health challenges. The question remaining is how the school shutdowns specifically impacted students with learning differences and disabilities. We have made some critical observations worth emphasizing.

The 20-21 school year began online nationwide, resulting in all academic support services for students with learning differences and disabilities being postponed or provided virtually. Adjusting to virtual classrooms, in addition to other practical and psychological stresses of living through a 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 various instructional resources. Since the key indicators for identification of learning differences and disabilities looked 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 academic year, many schools had online options, leaving pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students nationwide missing out on formative years of instruction. Once back in classrooms, teachers faced the challenge of making up for lost learning and filling in all students' academic gaps, while dealing with post-COVID physical, mental, social, and emotional difficulties. As the National Center for Education Statistics reported, slowed social-emotional development and increased stress and mental health issues surfaced in classrooms nationwide, evidenced by a significant increase in serious misconduct following the return to in-person learning. "Specifically, respondents attributed increased incidents of classroom disruptions from student misconduct… to the COVID-19 pandemic and its lingering effects." Unfortunately, these significant mental health and behavioral challenges masked the more subtle social challenges and minor learning disruptions often accompanying learning disabilities. Identifying and offering academic and social intervention to students needing the most support was increasingly difficult. Everyone was struggling to get back to the business of learning, but students with learning differences were being lost and falling through the cracks more than ever before.

While schools slowly but surely get back to the business of traditional in-person teaching, some children are not bouncing back as quickly as their same-age peers. 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." As we steadily approach that three-year benchmark, it is increasingly evident students with learning disabilities have been overlooked in light of school shutdowns, virtual learning, and the significant increase in misconduct and mental health challenges during post-pandemic transitions.  

How do we know what is a typical post-pandemic struggle versus what is a learning disability? According to the DSM5, the diagnosis of a specific learning disability "is 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 other disorders cannot better explain the problems." But here is the catch, little intervention or identification happened because everyone struggled for the last three years. Everyone's scores were down, and fewer interventions were offered to measure a child's response. No one could technically meet the clinical criteria for learning disability identification. We are through the initial transition phase, student stress levels have settled, and academic progress has steadily increased. Students with learning differences and disabilities are finally being noticed as not progressing or compensating for their learning loss at the same rate as their peers.


As new norms emerge, students with learning disabilities stand out on paper and in the classroom. The more minor social and emotional challenges facing students with learning difficulties 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 misconduct or defiance. Teachers describe these students as unsettled, lost, shutting down, "all over the place," or "not ready to learn." Coupled with delayed academic progress, the clearest sign indicating a child needs intervention is ongoing or growing concerns with excessive sadness, anxiety, hopelessness, or worthlessness, and a child's verbal references to feeling stupid or something being wrong with them.     

What The Pandemic Confirmed

Most students have resettled into traditional school routines, successfully bouncing back from years without a solid academic, social, and emotional foundation, while students with learning disabilities are still struggling. Their gaps in learning continue to widen instead of close. The pandemic has taught us 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 educational potential begins here:

1. Early identification and intervention work! With early intervention, making up for lost learning is straightforward. When identification is delayed, there are limits to how many learning gaps can be filled or which academic struggles can be addressed. We cannot adopt a "wait and see" approach for students continuing to appear lost, unsettled, "all over the place," or "out of sorts" in post-pandemic classrooms. Instead, we must invest time, energy, and resources into identifying and offering the appropriate interventions to students with learning differences and disabilities.

2. A solid academic foundation is essential to long-term academic achievement. Most students experience high-stress events, gaps in learning, and significant transitions without permanent impact because the developmental skills and knowledge necessary to cope are already in place. Other children lack these foundational skills. A solid academic foundation through direct instruction and intensive intervention helps fill the gaps and holes in an otherwise shaky foundation, giving children with learning differences the best chance at future academic and social success.    

3. Success breeds success. Returning to in-person learning meant new and exciting places to belong and opportunities to struggle and succeed. After a prolonged season of stress and isolation, this was a primary catalyst for most students' improved mental health and wellness. Traditional classroom settings are often unable to provide places of belonging and success for students who struggle socially and academically. The continued stress and isolation of having unidentified learning disabilities have left these students unsettled and floundering in the post-pandemic classroom. Success for every student in an environment where they experience safety and belonging is the best way to build continued success in the future.

4. People are the difference makers. The most effective resource for children with learning disabilities is people-intensive instruction and interventions. Trusted adults are a crucial component in children's educational success. Teachers are irreplaceable. No curriculum, platform, technology, tool, or program can replace the physical presence of caring adults and peers. Ask anyone affiliated with our school about the secret to our program's success, evidenced in our students' long-term success, and the answer will forever be, "It's the people."  

Students everywhere were impacted by school shutdowns, virtual classrooms, and the transition to a post-pandemic "normal." However, students with learning differences and disabilities face the most significant and permanent negative impacts on their academic, social, and emotional success. With swift identification and interventions in a people-intensive, safe, and supportive environment, we can help these children meet their full academic, social, and personal potential. 

For more information about our work with students with learning differences and disabilities, visit our website