At five years old, our son Trey, now age 14, was diagnosed with Autism and mixed-expressive language disorder. Long before that, I had suspected something was wrong, but I was in denial. Despite having over 20 years in the social service field working with children who are developmentally delayed, I had a hard time dealing with my own child being diagnosed with Autism.
Fast forward to today, and COVID has interrupted my son’s progress in ways I never imagined.
In a parent survey conducted last spring by Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago, 71% of parents said COVID has negatively impacted their child's mental health. As we continue to navigate the uncharted waters of virtual, hybrid and in-person school with COVID restrictions and quarantines, here is some advice on how caregivers and teachers can create healthy environments for their kids in the classroom.
Discuss the Child’s Learning Profile
Whether or not a child has a formal diagnosis, such as ADHD, Dyslexia, Autism Spectrum Disorder, or any others, each child will have his or her own learning style and learning challenges that need to be evaluated and communicated to the teachers to best support classroom and curriculum needs. For example, autistic children are often dually-diagnosed with other disorders, which often delays the appropriate identification. From a clinical perspective, autism is different from other disabilities because it can manifest in so many different ways. For example, one child can suffer from non-verbal communication, language delays, social issues, cognitive impairment, and sensory dysfunctions.
When a teacher has a misbehaving student in a classroom who has not been diagnosed with any disability, please pause and consider that the student may be a neurodiverse child who needs to be evaluated, not harshly disciplined. Studies have shown that Black children are more likely to be misdiagnosed for behavioral issues than diagnosed for autism, which creates a challenging classroom environment and hampers their academic success.
Empower Children to Challenge Themselves
Although sudden quarantines and hybrid learning environments can be challenging, during remote learning, parents are able to pay more attention to their child’s schoolwork and observe the teacher’s teaching style. This can be an important opportunity for parents and students to take action.
In 2020, I realized some of Trey’s teachers were giving him a pass on incorrect work. I was able to narrow in on his needs and issues in math. I saw that he wanted to learn, but he wasn’t being given the opportunity to improve. I reached out to the teacher and communicated that I would not accept any social promotion of my son.
I took the time to study with Trey. I gave him extra math work, I spoke to him about improving his handwriting, and I watched him succeed. The look of pure joy on his face when he got the answers to his math homework right on his own was priceless. I was not going to accept him not learning because he has a diagnosis.
Now that I am back to work full-time, I cannot have this much oversight. It is imperative to think about if your child needs after-school enrichment (which the school might provide) to make sure your child is being academically challenged enough, while not overstimulating them to the point where they hate school. Also, for teachers, neurodiverse children often have heightened gifts. You can play a role in uncovering them and helping those gifts grow.
Help Them Make Friends, Create a No Judgement Zone
Children and young people with disabilities should not be confined to a limited group of friends. The world is diverse. As much as neurodiverse children need to understand how to thrive in a world where not everyone is like them, neurotypical children benefit from learning to interact with them, too.
The social nuances of a neurodiverse child can be complicated, but a teacher can de-escalate potential misunderstandings quickly if the teacher understands how to “read” the child and communicate that to the students. Educators should ask parents about their child’s social habits—what makes them tick, how they communicate emotions, and so on—so that the teacher can act as a translator and advocate for the child in the classroom. The teacher’s explanations in turn teach students how to “read” their neurodiverse peers.
To ensure full integration among students, every educator must establish their classroom as a “No Judgment Zone.” Being involved and part of a group helps neurodiverse children thrive, and prepares them for interacting with all kinds of adults later in life.