Learning Loss or Learning Disability?

group of people studying together

By Dr. Allison Kawa

The COVID slide isn’t a new dance coming soon to a Bar or Bat Mitzvah near you. It’s a term used to describe the loss of learning that has occurred over the past two years or so due to the abrupt shift to distance learning in March of 2020, as well as the stops and starts with instruction since then. McKinsey & Company, a nonprofit organization that provides academic assessments, released data in July of 2021 indicating that elementary school students ended the 2020-2021 school year an average of five months behind in math and four months behind in reading. These sobering statistics are even worse for students who had been grappling with systemic racial and socioeconomic inequities before COVID-19. There are numerous factors contributing to a loss of learning, in addition to the obvious shifts in instructional models and additional requirements placed on parents to mediate at-home learning for their children. Rates of depression and anxiety have soared in the last two years, and a depressed or anxious brain is not a brain that is optimized for learning. 

We are just beginning to collect data on the impact of school closures and virtual learning, and it will likely be a while before we have a quantifiable answer about the long-term impact (if any) of distance learning to students’ academic achievement and ultimately their career outcomes. Now that students are finally back in the classroom, teachers are likely to face more diversity among their students in academic skills, knowledge, and ability than ever before. For elementary school teachers who are tasked with ensuring that their charges end the 2021-2022 year with foundational abilities intact, the stakes have never been higher. Middle school and high school teachers are likewise being asked to cover sophisticated curriculum for students who may be even farther behind than their elementary school counterparts due to the high rates of absenteeism noted in eighth- through 12th-graders during the pandemic. Teachers will need to differentiate the curriculum, fill in gaps in knowledge, and support the social/emotional status of their students like never before. Given this uncharted territory where performing below grade-level is the norm, it may be harder to spot those students for whom academic delays signal something that warrants evaluation and specific intervention.

Delays in Identification

Learning and processing differences often become apparent during early to middle elementary school. Early identification is important because the sooner supports and treatments are put into place, the better the chances of the student overcoming their challenges. Additionally, the farther behind a student falls because of a learning difference, the harder it is to remediate while simultaneously closing the gap in curriculum mastery. Unfortunately, students with learning or processing deficits were among those who struggled the most during distance learning, and referral for a diagnostic evaluation has now been delayed by a year or more. As we are finally getting back into the classroom, parents and teachers may understandably attribute a student’s academic problems to the effects of online learning, as well as the social/emotional challenges that we have all faced during quarantine. However, it is imperative that those students who are standing out from the crowd with a slower rate of catch-up be identified quickly and screened or evaluated. 

While there is evidence that some degree of academic delay is to be expected right now, we can absolutely measure the underlying cognitive processes that serve as the foundation upon which those academic abilities are built. These cognitive building blocks develop naturally as the student gets older and are less dependent upon explicit instruction than academic skills like long division or spelling. This means that differentiating between “garden variety” learning loss and true learning disabilities is readily achievable with formal assessment. It is also important to consider student mental health and trauma responses, which can have just as much of an impact on learning as a processing disorder does. For this reason, now more than ever, it is imperative that any evaluation includes a careful look at the emotional world of the student and how it is playing into their learning profile.

Preparing for the “After Times”

Investing in supports for our youth is crucial at this time, whether this means an assessment, tutoring, psychotherapy, or some other treatment. Learning loss has the potential to ripple through the lifespan of an entire generation, impacting educational and vocational choices, and ultimately quality-of-life. Fortunately, the human mind is incredibly resilient and responsive to intervention once the right therapy is put into place. Many aspects of our lives were put on “pause” during the COVID-19 pandemic, and we owe it to our children to be responsive to their challenges so that we can press “unpause” and mobilize supports if needed. As we are all working toward establishing the new normal, a balanced approach to helping students recoup lost ground while supporting their psychological health is needed. For those with learning and processing differences, feeling understood and being provided with diagnosis-specific intervention can be especially healing after two agonizing years of distance learning.  

How Can I Tell the Difference?

It is estimated that 10% of the population meets criteria for an attentional, processing, or learning difference. Although these challenges are relatively common, parents do not necessarily have the training or the experience to identify them. Learning disabilities are chronic, and weakness in one area often trickles into others over time, having a negative cumulative effect on academic achievement as a whole. By contrast, a learning loss is a gap that can be closed with direct teaching such as through tutoring or other types of extra academic help that might be available. If the gap seems to be getting wider instead of closing, that is one indication that your child might be grappling with a learning or processing disorder that merits a closer look. Here are some other signs:

  • Your child is struggling with paying attention or you notice extremes in their attention (i.e., low focus on boring tasks and intense focus on interesting ones).
  • Your child seems unable to manage their materials and belongings now that school is back on campus (e.g., losing their things or assignments, forgetting due dates, messes everywhere, etc.).
  • Your child is having trouble retaining new information.
  • Your child can’t generalize information from one task to another (e.g., they perform well on a spelling test but misspell the word when writing it in a sentence later).
  • Your child is having a hard time with critical thinking about the curriculum (e.g., they read well but they don’t seem able to grasp the main idea or to draw inferences).
  • Your child hates school or resists attending school. Most children, especially elementary school-aged ones, are thrilled to be back on campus.

When in doubt, have a frank conversation with your child’s teacher. At this juncture, most teachers have developed an informal barometer for how quickly students in their class are making up for learning loss. They will be able to tell you whether your child is generally on par with their peers or whether the rate of catch-up is slower (or faster) than expected.