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Will Distance Learning Produce a Coronavirus Virus Slump?

How to minimize the online learning slide for kids with ADHD, ASD, and LD.

Kids with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning disabilities (LD), and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often lose what they learn in school during the summer vacation. Educators refer to this backward sliding as the summer slump. Kids with ADHD, LD, and ASD slide back from previous levels of academic performance at the end of the school year when they don't have academic challenges and enrichment during the summer. Some of these students fall back as much as three months from previous levels; the slump impacts them until December of the following school year.

Pixabay / No Attribution Required
Source: Pixabay / No Attribution Required

A recent opinion piece by the Editorial Board of The New York Times entitled The Coronavirus’s Lost Generation of Students has raised concerns that the same type of slump or slide is likely to occur during the COVID-19 pandemic for many of our nation's 50 million children, regardless of learning difficulties. They cite a study by the Northwest Evaluation Association that suggests, students who do not receive sustained instruction during the coronavirus school shutdown will retain only 70 percent of their annual reading gains compared to a typical year. Deteriorating performance in math is even more dramatic. These losses can be attributed in part to missing many days of school at the onset of the pandemic when most schools were unprepared to move to online learning platforms. While some states have been able to make the transformation to distance learning quickly and effectively, many have simply discontinued schooling until the end of the school year, while others are still working on developing their online education.

Some have piecemeal programs that are much disliked by teachers and students alike. Many of these programs were hastily put together, lack engaging content, require little of students, and are not challenging. Beyond the poor quality of most online learning programs, teachers lack experience in using them. Online teaching requires special skills and talents, including an understanding of how to use the technology, learning how to manage a classroom online, supplementing courses with engaging video and visuals, and developing strategies for doing group projects that help to keep kids engaged and learning.

Research suggests that large group online learning programs with limited teacher support are not as helpful as school, face-to-face learning with teachers for children with special needs. However, this can be dependent on the construction of the learning program, the qualities and characteristics of the content, and the involvement of parents and teachers in indirect supervision and direction. To be successful with online programs, kids with learning difficulties often need more individualized instruction, strategies to get started and sustain attention on tasks, and regular feedback.

Pixabay / No Attribution Required
Source: Pixabay / No Attribution Required

One of the often-overlooked factors that can be devastating to online learning is a lack of access to high-speed Internet connections or computers that can be used for this type of learning. A higher proportion of families with access issues have kids with special educational needs and may also be less capable of providing the support and supervision these kids need to succeed in home-based learning. As a result, kids with ADHD, LD, and ASD are likely to be even more negatively impacted by the educational concomitants of the coronavirus pandemic.

Many states and school districts recognize the shortcomings of our current distance learning during the coronavirus quarantine, including children’s ability to maintain their focus and attention to online learning materials. Many school systems are already in discussion about how they can provide special education students with ongoing education during the summer, with some recognizing the need to provide up-to-date technology in the home for students with ADHD and LD. Other school districts are initiating training programs for executive-functioning skills designed to maximize what students can get from online learning. Schools also report the need to provide training to the parents of kids with special needs to take on the role of teachers aides.

It's all too easy to criticize school districts and states for not being prepared for the coronavirus pandemic. In defense of schools, they have enough concerns while educating students in a traditional fashion. Adding new demands on them to create an effective online school program in the span of a few weeks has been tasking, and applying these emergency programs to kids with learning issues poses an even greater ask.

Here are a few ways we can minimize the slide from online learning for kids with ADHD, ASD, and LD:

Have more online instructors available. The use of special education teachers, teaching assistants, or even high school students as supplemental instructors may be necessary. This type of intervention can keep kids more engaged and provide them with ongoing feedback.

Make instructional materials more engaging. In the rush to get materials online, teachers have done their best to make classes happen for their students. Now, they are encouraged to find ways to add to their instructional strategies online. Many creative teachers are already doing this. One simple strategy would be to create a PowerPoint slideshow-like lesson that uses many images. Include videos that kids will find to be engaging and even the occasional funny video that has nothing to do with school.

Pixabay No Attribution Required
Source: Pixabay No Attribution Required

Teach kids self-management skills. You can use the LW4K LIVE program, but there are also classroom programs such as the SMARTS program that can be modified for online use. Teachers can also find many valuable insights for teaching executive-functioning skills in Executive Skills in Children and Adolescents, Third Edition: A Practical Guide to Assessment and Intervention (The Guilford Practical Intervention in the Schools Series) by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare.