Pandemic learning loss or disability? Houston expert encourages getting assessments

Many parents spent a year of the pandemic supervising their child's education during virtual learning. Yet, most parents are not trained in how to spot the difference between pandemic-related learning loss and a diagnosable learning difference that would make their child eligible for ongoing support that could change their lives.

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

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"We all have pandemic learning loss; life has been disrupted, we've all been plagued with anxiety, we all have a diminished intellectual capacity, but long-term learning disorders are a completely different kind of thing," says Dr. Kimberly Harrison of the Conative Group, who specializes in working with children as they are diagnosed with, and learn to handle, a cognitive difference.

Reading, writing, and math are the three areas of learning disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Dr. Harrison says academic needs in these areas can show up at a variety of ages.

"A lot of people think everything shows up in first grade, and it doesn't," Dr. Harrison points out. "In order to diagnose a writing disability the child has to have a certain amount of practice writing, and so a writing disability might not show up until maybe third or fourth grade."


"Math: same thing. A lot of children can count on their fingers, so as long as the math they're doing is with their digits they're okay. You have to have problems that require a higher level of reasoning before a math need is identified. So, often fifth, sixth, seventh grade."

Dr. Harrison says other qualified learning differences, like ADHD, can lay hidden up through high school.

"A bright child can hold it together and memorize a lot of things without having to pay close attention until about eighth or ninth grade when we see a dramatic decline in test scores. Usually, that's where the red flags go up. That's when investigation needs to happen," she says.

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Investigating a possible learning difference is a service available through the public school to which your child is zoned, even if your child is not currently enrolled. Parents can walk into the main office and request a learning assessment.

"We usually see our children through our eyes, and if they're not 'just right' it's hard to figure out what to do. But, I always encourage parents to go online and lookup a list of successful people who have dyslexia or a math disability or attention deficit," Dr. Harrison says.


From Walt Disney to Richard Branson. Michael Phelps to Stephen Spielberg, "when you have a deficit in one area you're going to have a gift in another area," Dr. Harrison explains. "Some of our most successful people have learning differences. They've developed resiliency to overcome them, and are very successful.

Dr. Harrison says having parents on board with investigating a learning difference is vital. 

"It's then that they begin to unlock the giftedness of their child. It may not be in reading or math; it might be an art or science, or who knows what, but I try to encourage parents to look all the way down the road past school and into a successful life and then usually parents will come on board."