Education Matters - understanding learning differences

Many students have had recent academic struggles chalked up to pandemic learning loss. But, If you think a child is struggling with something more long-term, there are resources you're legally eligible to tap to help that child thrive.

Many parents spent the 2020-2021 school year supervising their child's virtual learning at home in the pandemic, but most parents are not trained in diagnosing when a child's academic struggles were actually the symptom of a learning difference that needs accommodation.

"If your child is three or older, whether they are going to public school or not, they can receive services through the public school,"  says Cheval Bryant, who spent two decades in special education including seven years as senior manager for the Office of Special Education at Houston ISD, the largest school district in Texas.

Bryant says the pandemic should not make parents hesitant to ask about having a child's learning struggle assessed to see if it's actually a deeper learning difference or disability.

"It's scary," she admits, "because you don't know what the outcome is going to be. A lot of times parents just don't want to know, or they're in denial, or 'my child will grow out of it' but it's always best to just get that evaluation."

So, what does an evaluation entail? "A professional will sit with that child and give a battery of standardized tests to see where that child is developmentally. Then, if they qualify, the child will receive services through the public school system," explains Bryant.

Going into the pandemic, an estimated 14% of public school students were receiving learning accommodations.

Bryant now works at the Parish School, a private school built entirely to accommodate students with learning differences.

"The difference is that, here at Parish, it's more intense," Bryant says, explaining that the school has a full staff of experts, therapists, councilors, and other experts on-site so a student with a learning need can receive complete care without traveling to various appointments. "Our entire environment is a therapeutic environment."

But even private school students are eligible for services through their local public school. "The public school still can provide speech therapy, for example, or additional support to that student through the private school, even if you're homeschooled."

Bryant recommends getting a student evaluated early, rather than opting to "wait and see" only to find out later that they had a need. "At that point, we're kind of playing catch-up," she warns.

So, where do you start?

"They can literally walk into the school and the people in the main office should know what to do if a parent walks off the street and asks 'I have concerns, I want my child evaluated.' They can help you navigate that process," explains Bryant.

If you want to learn more about the various types of learning disabilities, or ages at which these needs may pop up, watch part one of anchor Kaitlin Monte's report on learning differences in the age of a pandemic.