The education crisis is also a growing epidemic

By The Understood Team

Today, we celebrate International Day of Education and its theme of “Changing Course, Transforming Education.” Never has this been more pertinent, particularly as the multiple impacts of Omicron on school systems, teachers, parents, and kids create a domino effect throughout the country. 

Earlier this month, the New York Times articulated the issue in alarming terms: “American children are starting 2022 in crisis.” But the article is largely referencing the 4 in 5 kids who are neurotypical. The evolving reality for neurodiverse children — the 1 in 5 kids who learn and think differently — is much greater.

Kareem Neal, a special education teacher in a self-contained classroom in Phoenix and an Understood expert, says that among his 32 students, 20 have already missed school because of Omicron in the first two weeks of January. 

“I think about how I had two students who lost parents and one kid who was in the hospital for an extended stay [earlier in the pandemic]. You’re looking at this empty seat where a student should be. It weighs on you.” Still, he remains hopeful. “But my kids have been rolling with the punches. I truly feel like they will get through all of the rest.”

There’s no question that students with learning and thinking differences are facing increased academic, social, and mental challenges right now. On this International Day of Education, it’s up to all of us to explore these challenges — and then use what we’ve learned to offer the kind of support that students, families, and educators need most.

Academic challenges continue to grow

All of us are facing ongoing concerns about physical health. But students with learning and thinking differences are also bearing the weight of academic challenges greater than those of their peers. 

In an Understood study conducted with UnidosUS at the beginning of the 2021–2022 school year, 90% of educators said they believe that children with learning and thinking differences would face increased challenges in the year to come. The study also found that more than 65% of parents of a child with learning and thinking differences were worried about their child falling behind academically.

Educators and parents were right to be concerned.

Since the start of the pandemic, parents of kids with learning and thinking differences reported that their child experienced difficulty paying attention in school (42%), an inability to concentrate for long periods of time (41%), reading challenges (36%), and math challenges (32%). These experiences are nearly twice as prevalent among neurodiverse kids when compared with neurotypical kids, according to the Understood and UnidosUS study.

In Understood’s 2022 Expert Predictions for Learning and Thinking Differences, Understood experts anticipated that these academic challenges will only continue to grow — particularly as more families seek special education evaluations for interrupted learning, rather than for learning and thinking differences. This increase in evaluation requests, paired with staff shortages and backlogs for compensatory services, means that there may be even less support for students who learn and think differently. 

Mental health issues are rampant for students

In addition to academic and social challenges, the New York Times article also cites growing mental health problems for teenagers and children. 

According to the Understood and UnidosUS research, students who learn and think differently have experienced feelings of depression (33%) and increased anxiety about school (38%) since the onset of the pandemic, compared to 20% of neurotypical students. 

“I am concerned about kids’ academic successes, for sure,” says Lauren Jewett, a third- and fourth-grade special education teacher in New Orleans and an Understood expert. “But overall, student mental and physical wellness are key for me.”

But mental health issues are also real for educators

Only six months into the pandemic, a coalition of the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Children’s Hospital Association published a Declaration of a National Emergency in Child and Adolescent Mental Health

But teachers are facing a mental health crisis of their own. According to Bloomberg, educators “are beyond burnout. They’re being reduced to ashes.”

Research from Understood and the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) in spring of 2021 showed that nearly 60% of teachers were burned out. This number was even greater for teachers who work with students with learning and thinking differences.

As we enter year three of the pandemic, prioritizing mental health for teachers remains paramount. 

In its 2022 predictions, Understood experts urged schools to find ways to increase co-teaching opportunities. This is a quick solution that helps build inclusive classrooms while allowing special and general education teachers to support and work alongside each other. 

A longer-term recommendation is for schools to broaden their search beyond the college-to-classroom pipeline. Millions of people leaving the corporate world have skills that, with support and training, can be transferable to teaching. They may be able to provide much-needed support and relief for shortages.

Pulling together to stop the domino effect

Like many teachers, Jewett is facing these stark realities while trying to find optimism: “I definitely look to moments of certainty and joy within my school day and school week, although doing that does not always detract from the flood of emotions that I observe in myself or in interactions and conversations with colleagues, students, and families.”

Her perspective crystallizes that the crisis is real for everyone — student, family, and educator. 

So where do we begin?

On this International Day of Education, it’s imperative that we remember an essential element from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Everyone has the right to education. 

This includes students who learn and think differently. They — and the teachers who support them — need our collective support and understanding. It’s never been more important or more urgent.

The good news is that there are many ways to start. Visit u.org for free resources in English and Spanish to educate yourself about learning and thinking differences. Listen to an Understood podcast to hear new perspectives from the neurodiverse community. Request a chat with an expert to learn more about the pandemic’s nuanced effects on those who learn and think differently. 

Understood is here to help. Together, we can shape a world for difference.

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