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What COVID-19 Means for Students with Learning Differences

As school closures and schedule interruptions continue due to COVID-19, it is essential that we teach students how to adapt. Students are under high stress at the moment. They must rise to meet the new challenges of virtual school while seeing their social and extracurricular activities curtail. However, after working with middle and high school students from all over the city for several years, I assure you that with the proper support, students will not only rise to meet these challenges, but they will thrive and discover amazing opportunities in these changing circumstances. 

That being said, the reality of online school creates an interesting problem for students with learning differences, particularly students with executive functioning skill deficiencies and ADHD. Working from home creates a plethora of new distractions that can inhibit the academic success of students of LD’s. To combat this, students and the parents that support them must carefully design techniques, habits, and systems to ensure productivity and balance. Below, I will discuss some of the major challenges that COVID-19 presents for students, as well as the science-backed techniques we recommend to find solutions. 

For students with EF skills deficiencies or ADHD, the major problems with the shift toward online schools will be difficulties with organization, analyzing and processing information, prioritization, regulating emotions, and controlling impulsivity. Furthermore, increasing stress levels could exacerbate these issues if students cannot find a healthy way to cope. Using the step-by-step method below, parents can help students with LD’s perform at their potential during COVID-19. 

Don’t Be Afraid To Talk about It

With concerning stories of Coronavirus all over the news, it may be tempting to shield your child by avoiding the topic. However, not talking about the virus can actually make kids worry more. Try asking, “Are your friends talking about Coronavirus? What are they saying?” Opening up the Conversation allows you to correct false assumptions and incorrect information. Schools are closed, people are wearing face masks in public, and your children’s world has changed dramatically. As a parent, it’s important to acknowledge the changes and explore any thoughts, feelings, and questions they may have. Try connecting with them by sharing how you’re feeling. Try something like, “I’m feeling disappointed that we won’t be able to see our friends for a few weeks. What are you feeling disappointed about?” or “How are you feeling about schools being closed for the rest of the year?” When in doubt, model calmness, but don’t be afraid to show vulnerability. For more tips on how to talk to your child about COVID, see this article or check out these tips from the CDC. 

Remind Students That They Are Not Alone

One of my favorite one-liners to use with my students is, “don’t suffer in silence.” Now more than ever before, students need to recognize and utilize all of the wonderful resources at their disposal. To help with feelings of isolation and social deprivation, encourage students to arrange virtual study groups with their friends using Zoom or Google Meet. Remind students that teachers are still available for office hours, but this might require a little bit more effort. Help them write emails to teachers, counselors, and support staff. By increasing a student’s support network and helping them utilize self-advocacy skills, we can drastically reduce anxiety and frustration. As many teachers pursue remote lectures and even self-paced assignments, the ability to confidently and consistently advocate for oneself is essential. Check-in with students often to see if they fully understand both the content and the instructions for any given assignment. In doing so, you can give your students the reminder they need to ask for help, allowing them to thrive in this “new normal.”

Utilize Schedules 

I know we mention habits and routines often, I cannot emphasize enough how important consistent schedules are during these turbulent times. Most people’s routines are controlled by external factors – school schedules, work schedules, fitness class schedules, sports schedules. Did you notice a redundancy in that last sentence? SCHEDULES are an essential part of normal life. Therefore, the best way to adapt to these changing times at home is to create a schedule with your students. Try your best to maintain consistent sleeping patterns, eating times, work times, and playtimes. The more comfortable your students are with this new routine, the easier it will be to adjust to virtual learning. For inspiration or advice on creating a schedule with your students, check out this blog post or learn more about the importance of consistency in this article about the locus of control. 

Create a Study Space

Another important thing to keep consistent during this time is the location where students work. Especially for students with learning differences, creating a study space is a vital first step to successful virtual learning. Poorly designed and poorly managed study spaces become triggers for distraction, procrastination, and panic. Help your students with learning differences cope with these changes by designing one area in the home that is just for school. This should be their personal classroom free of distractions during this time of school closures. Nearby should be all the supplies they could possibly need to do their schoolwork throughout the day. Make sure there are pens, pencils, highlighters, paper, a ruler, a stapler, a hole-puncher, and a calculator. To reduce screen time, it helps to have a printer so kids can interact with some of their work away from the computer.

Provide Assistance with Planning and Prioritizing

Students with EF deficiencies and students with ADHD often struggle with time management. They lose track of time, and they have trouble estimating how long an assignment will take, which creates a wide array of issues with at-home learning. To combat this, we encourage parents and educators to help students be proactive about planning and prioritizing. At the beginning of the week, or even at the beginning of the day, sit down with your student and create a to-do list. Then, help with prioritizing. We recommend that students use the 3D’s of prioritization when planning: due date (make sure assignments are turned in on time), difficulty (try to do the harder task first while cognitive control and cognitive flexibility are fresh), and desire (if there is a tie, then do the one that you enjoy more). As your student finishes a task, encourage them to cross it off of their list, creating a surge of positive hormones like dopamine and serotonin, which helps them build what we call “success momentum.”   

Make Time for Play

Another important tactic in your arsenal to support students with LD’s at this time is play. “Brain breaks” and exercise can help reduce stress, increase dopamine, and regulate a student’s sleep schedule. Make sure that your student’s schedule includes both short breaks and longer blocks of time for play. The importance of play should not be overlooked, as it is an essential part of the brain’s regulatory process. For more information, check out this article. 

We live in interesting times. However, with new challenges come new opportunities for growth. We hope this article helps your students with learning differences overcome all of the new challenges ahead. We are here to help. Helping students who think a bit differently is our specialty. To learn more about our services or to apply for a one-on-one academic coach, please visit our services page.

Evan Weinberger


Staying Ahead of the Game offers unique academic coaching & tutoring services to help good students achieve greatness.

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