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Understood experts share predictions around learning and thinking differences for 2022

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While great strides have been made in incorporating neurodiversity into broader conversations about diversity and inclusion in recent years, new challenges created by the ongoing pandemic continue to disproportionately impact the 70 million people with learning and thinking differences at work and at school. As these challenges persist in 2022, Understood’s mission to shape a world where every person can thrive — particularly the 1 in 5 people with learning and thinking differences — has never been more important. 

As we look to the year ahead, Understood experts Yvonne Cowser Yancy, Chief Administrative Officer and Head of Workplace; Bob Cunningham, Executive Director of Learning Development; Amanda Morin, Director of Thought Leadership and Expertise; and other special education teachers and school administrators identified three key changes that will dramatically impact people with or affected by learning and thinking differences if left unaddressed. 

Here’s a look at what they expect to happen in the workplace, in the education system, and within schools next year — and the actions employers, schools, educators, and families must take to better support those with learning and thinking differences in 2022. If you’re interested in an expert interview about these predictions, reach out to media@understood.org

Prediction 1: People with learning and thinking differences make up 20% of the U.S. population. If workplaces don’t prioritize neurodiversity in their inclusion efforts, they could lose a fifth of their workforce.

More than 4 million people — about 3% of the nation’s workforce — quit their jobs in September 2021 for better pay, remote options, and better work-life balance. And after record-breaking monthly resignation numbers since July, this movement shows no signs of stopping.

For the 70 million people with learning and thinking differences in particular, accommodations, like flexible work schedules, additional training time, and dual written and verbal content, also play a massive role in whether they feel supported and valued at work, or if they can work at all. In fact, the unemployment rate as of October 2021 is 9.9% for people with disabilities — more than double of those without (4.1%).

After nearly two years of reshaping our workforce, employers can no longer pretend that accommodations don’t exist, aren’t necessary, and aren’t fairly simple to implement. These supports are usually free to organizations, and those that aren’t are generally one-time expenses of $500 or less, according to Understood and Society for Human Resource Management’s Employing Abilities @Work Report

The bottom line: If employers aren’t willing to be flexible with supports they provide within their organization, they’ll miss out on hiring and retaining a massive group of people with incredible talent and perspectives — perpetuating the cycle of inequality for people with learning and thinking differences, and hurting their own inclusivity efforts and bottom line along the way. 

So, what can we do?

  • Talk about supports proactively. Gone are the days when it’s up to each individual employee to ask for what they need from their employer. Employers should be the ones asking employees what they need to be successful. Do this by asking about and offering accommodations during your application process and sending out surveys to better understand what your employees need to thrive. This not only shows people everything you do offer, but it also helps remove the stigma around accommodations and creates a more inclusive workplace.

  • Consider supports big and small for in-office and at-home environments, especially as COVID-19 variants surge. Remote work, flexible schedules, and no-meeting days are some of the bigger and more prominent offerings in this new normal. But asking employees about their computer preference or what home office equipment they need can go a long way in making them feel more comfortable and helping them produce better work.

Prediction 2: A record-breaking number of special education evaluations will be completed for students without disabilities or learning and thinking differences.

study by McKinsey & Company in December 2020 compared fall 2019 and fall 2020 testing data. It found that students learned only 67% of the math and 87% of the reading that they typically would have learned, translating to a three-month loss in learning in math, and one and a half months in reading. These losses have only extended and deepened over 2021, particularly for students of color.

It’s important to recognize that there is not going to be an academic “catch up” period — most schools and students are simply trying to maintain current learning levels. Given this, there will be a huge push for special education evaluations for students who don’t have a disability or learning and thinking difference, but who are behind academically because of interrupted learning: students whose grades have suffered, whose test scores aren’t hitting the mark, or who are experiencing behavior issues. Many of their challenges will not be caused by a learning and thinking difference, but by the impact of the pandemic and inadequate instruction. 

This creates problems for students who do have disabilities or learning and thinking differences. There’s already a shortage of special education teachers, as well as a backlog for evaluations and compensatory services needed for students who missed them during the past 22 months. New York City, home to the largest public school system in the United States, is dealing with a special education backlog that’s up 30% in November 2021 compared with November 2020.

The bottom line: If schools use their already-stretched-thin special education resources for students without disabilities, 2022 will see the greatest special education shortage of our time — and students with learning and thinking differences will fall further and further behind. 

So, what can we do?

  • Every family is entitled to request an evaluation for their child. But schools need to remind parents that inadequate instruction is a disqualifying consideration for special education eligibility under IDEA

  • Schools should create or expand programs based on response to intervention (RTI) and multi-tiered systems of supports (MTSS) in general education, and parents should ask for these supports. While RTI/MTSS approaches to supporting students and working on challenges should never be used to circumvent a family’s right to request an evaluation, these approaches could provide incredibly valuable information to families and schools as they consider the impact of pandemic-related disruptions to learning.

  • Families should ask schools to review pre-pandemic records and work samples to look for patterns in performance suggesting that current challenges may have existed or been emerging before the pandemic. These patterns would suggest that evaluation is needed. 

Prediction 3: If schools don’t prioritize teachers’ mental health, the achievement gap will widen dramatically for students with learning and thinking differences.

Nearly half of public school teachers who quit their jobs after February 2020 did so because of challenges created by the pandemic: working longer hours and navigating the remote environment. And special education teachers have been leaving the field at almost double the rate of general education teachers, often due to stress, low pay, and risks to their own physical health, which are only increasing amidst spikes in COVID-19 variants.

According to research by Understood and the National Center for Learning Disabilities, 58% of current teachers report burnout. This number was even greater for teachers who work with students with learning and thinking differences, who were acutely affected by the pandemic themselves. 

The bottom line: Teachers’ mental well-being directly affects students’ academic, mental, and social well-being. This is especially true for students with learning and thinking differences. If schools and communities don’t prioritize teachers’ mental health, 2022 will see a second wave of mass teacher resignations. And students with IEPs504 plans, and special education needs will be hurt the worst.

So, what can we do? 

  • Schools must find ways to increase co-teaching opportunities to allow teachers to learn from, lean on, and share responsibility with each other. Co-teaching also helps build inclusive classrooms, with special education and general education teachers working alongside each other to offer more differentiated instruction to all students. 

  • When it comes to the teacher shortage and hiring challenges, states and school administrators must consider alternate pathways to certification. Certain shortcuts can eliminate some of the financial and educational barriers that prevent people from entering the field. For example: For paraprofessionals with years of experience working with students, new types of training could replace traditional education and certification requirements and help get them in their own classrooms more quickly. 

  • Additionally, schools should consider looking outside of the conventional college-to-classroom pipeline for new teacher talent. There are millions of people who are leaving the corporate world right now, many of whom likely have skill sets that, with additional support and training, can be transferable to teaching in some way.

If you’re interested in an expert interview about these predictions, reach out to media@understood.org

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