“When we talk about learning and attention issues, we’re talking about disabilities that affect areas like reading, writing, math, attention, processing and executive functioning in students.”
“We accomplish our mission by empowering parents and young adults by transforming schools and advocating for equal rights.”
“When school’s closed abruptly in the spring and students were sent home, that was a major disruption in the routines that they were used to, it was a disruption in the relationships that they had developed with teachers and with other students.”
“Students who didn’t get those required services through their IEP are likely going to be struggling even more to keep up with their virtual instruction, they may not have the accommodations that they need.”
“I definitely encourage parents to pay attention to signs of struggle, and those signs will differ based on the age of your child or the subject that you’re talking about.”
“The important thing here is partnership with schools. It’s really important that parents now in this new role of not just caretaker, but kind of assistant teacher at home that they partner with teachers to really understand what’s going on.”
“I think that the importance of looking at these early signs can’t be understated. The brain is malleable, so the earlier we can identify issues the better, because learning and attention issues are brain-based disorders.”
“So inappropriately placing children into special education can actually cause harm, particularly for students of color, students from low-income backgrounds.”
“So civic participation is at the heart of the disability rights movement, so NCLD has worked to ensure that people with learning disabilities are engaged, informed and prepared to participate in civic life and voting is one part of that equation.”
Q: Let’s start by understanding your organization a little bit and some of the objectives. Can you tell us a little bit more about NCLD?
A: So, the National Center for Learning Disabilities is a nonprofit advocacy organization, and we work to improve the lives of the one in five who have learning and attention issues. When we talk about learning and attention issues, we’re talking about disabilities that affect areas like reading, writing, math, attention, processing and executive functioning in students. If you think about the federal special education law IDEA, there’s 13 categories of disability. We’re often talking about students with specific learning disabilities, which is the largest category. Some of these students have an IEP and have been diagnosed and other struggle without receiving that support in schools, so we work on behalf of all of those students who struggle with learning or attention issues. We accomplish our mission by empowering parents and young adults by transforming schools and advocating for equal rights.
So, in my role as the director of policy and advocacy, I often work with Congress or the Department of Education to influence change. At a federal level, we work to support laws or regulations, identify grant programs that can support students and change policies to increase opportunities for students with learning and attention issues.
Q: The present circumstances we find ourselves in, how is COVID-19 and virtual learning impacting students with learning disabilities?
A: I’ll start by saying that the experience of students will vary from student-to-student, school-by-school and even district-by-district because no two districts are handling things the exact same way, and every child’s experience right now is going to be different based on a number of factors, but there’s three major issues that I often point to to understand what the impact has been for many students with learning disabilities. First, it relates to the social-emotional needs of students, the loss of routines and relationships, and just that general school experience that they’ve been so used to. When school’s closed abruptly in the spring and students were sent home, that was a major disruption in the routines that they were used to, it was a disruption in the relationships that they had developed with teachers and with other students.
For some, school had been a safe place for them and maybe one of the only safe places, and this is beyond just students with learning disabilities, but just all students, so there’s that social-emotional impact that we have to keep in mind. At the same time, we know that this pandemic has disproportionally impacted certain communities. Black communities have had a high fatality rate when it comes to COVID, students may have lost family members. So, there’s this additional processing of loss of grief that goes with that and the stress that has come along with it.
Then, on top of that social-emotional impact, there’s the instructional loss that students with disabilities have experienced. Many students with IEP did not get services for months on end, some did, some did not, so that will vary between schools or districts. So, students who didn’t get those required services through their IEP are likely going to be struggling even more to keep up with their virtual instruction, they may not have the accommodations that they need.
Then the third issue really is around accessibility, where virtual learning is happening and that’s a lot of places right now. We don’t necessarily know that the instruction students are getting is high quality or fully accessible, the software being used, instruction being delivered, and those things may not be designed with students with disabilities in mind. Parents at home may not know how to activate certain features in software, to turn on certain features or make that learning accessible for students, or it may not be compatible with the devices students use. So, it’s really important that we understand not just the social-emotional aspect, but also the instructional aspect and accessibility issues relating to students.
I think most concerning is that for many years students with disabilities have been really far behind their peers. If you look at the NAEP scores that just recently came out, the scores on reading and math have decreased for all students, but students with learning disabilities, 90% of them have been below proficient on math and reading. Then, you add in the instructional loss here, and it really points to the fact that we’ve got to do something different, we really have to rethink instruction and learning because remediation isn’t going to be enough going forward.
Q: So, with students learning from home in so many instances right now, what are some signs that parents can look for that their children might be struggling with a learning disability? Maybe I should clarify a little bit, you’ve mentioned that some are identified and have IEPs and others may not have an IEP or be identified. So, are there some things that parents can look for at home that might signify that some attention is needed there?
A: Absolutely. Parents who are able to be at home with their kids right now have a unique vantage point. A lot of them have told us, they’ve been able to observe their child in a kind of a different environment, see how the child’s participating in class, how they’re completing assignments, what their strengths are and where they’re struggling. So that’s all really important information to share with your child’s teacher, who now doesn’t get to see that child in the same light. So, learning from home is not going to be the same as in a classroom of course, the kinds of supports or accommodations your child might need may differ. So, I definitely encourage parents to pay attention to signs of struggle, and those signs will differ based on the age of your child or the subject that you’re talking about. You can learn more on our website, we have more of a list of age-appropriate signs and what parents should be looking for in reading and writing, math and attention.
Generally, when we’re thinking about how do we know if a student’s struggling, you can look for things like, is your child frustrated when doing their schoolwork? Are they avoiding certain things, do they avoid handwriting, do they avoid math? And seeing how your student is staying focused, how they’re engaged in virtual classes or if they’re not, and, of course, if they’re completing their work, but they’re not achieving the expected scores that you might anticipate. Those are all signs that you may want to talk to your child’s teacher to see are these new things or have you been seeing them in the classroom before COVID, are they persistent issues? And all of that will help you know if you should look deeper into what’s going on, if they’re new difficulties, or if they’re persistent difficulties, you might take different pathways.
But the important thing here is partnership with schools. It’s really important that parents now in this new role of not just caretaker, but kind of assistant teacher at home that they partner with teachers to really understand what’s going on. Understand what’s expected of my child at this grade level, and where are other students and how is my child comparing or is there something more that we need to dig into here.
Q: Okay. For parents of younger children, we’re talking about recognizing struggle signs and what to look for. Can you tell us about the resources that you recently released to recognize some of these early signs in younger children that might not yet be identified?
A: Yeah, absolutely. I think that the importance of looking at these early signs can’t be understated. The brain is malleable, so the earlier we can identify issues the better, because learning and attention issues are brain-based disorders. If there are challenges and how your brain is working in the pathways that have been developed in your brain, we can actually intervene to change those pathways and help your child do things differently and better handle the tasks associated with reading, math or writing. So, the more we can intervene with those early experiences, the more effective intervention can be. All too often, we take this kind of wait and see approach. We say, “Oh, it’s a normal part of child development” or “Your child will catch up.” But we know that for students with learning disabilities, they won’t do so without intervention. Of course, there are also social-emotional benefits to intervening early, which is another reason why it’s so important. Students who do struggle for a long time might experience higher rates of depression, anxiety or bullying, so it’s important that we avoid those consequences.
NCLD recently launched a new tool called the LD Checklist. We had this checklist that had been created for many years, but we made it interactive, so we launched it on our website just a couple months ago. It lists for each kind of content area or skill area based on your child’s age, all of the signs of LD. You can actually click through and check the signs that you might be seeing in your child and areas like social skills, reading, writing or math, and based on how many signs you check or you indicate that you’ve seen in your child, you can then determine whether further screening or evaluation might be needed, and it will also customize resources for you on those areas that you’ve identified an interest in. So, whether the student is learning at home now, whether they’re at school, parents can use it, educators can use it, pediatricians can use it, and it can be found at ncld.org/ldchecklist.
Q: Great. That sounds like a pretty effective tool. So, students of color are disproportionately impacted by identification for special education. Can you tell us more about this and how schools can prevent this from occurring?
A: Yeah. So, the term significant disproportionality is often used here and that refers to three trends that we see when we look at national data. First, students of color are disproportionately enrolled in special education when you compare them to their enrollment in general school populations. So, in other words, schools are identifying higher rates of disability in certain groups of students, certain racial and ethnic groups of students.
Second, students of color once they are identified for special education tend to be placed in more segregated settings. So, this means they’re spending less time in general education and more time separated from their peers. And then finally, students with disabilities who are students of color, have a higher rate of discipline, and they face harsher discipline for the very same behaviors that white students with disabilities would face.
This is not a simple topic to unpack in the short time that we have today, so I would encourage everyone to read more about it on NCLD website. I won’t do a deep dive into the differing theories on why this is or what the research says, but you can find more information at ncld.org. We have a discussion of the role of income or poverty and identification because we know race and income are highly correlated in our country. We also have a breakdown of data on specific student groups by ethnicity because the same trends are not apparent when you compare across, for example, Asian American students, Latinx students, Black students, right? There’re differences in the trends we’re seeing.
But the major takeaway here is that, while IDEA is a critically important law and it gives students with disabilities essential protections, it gives them access to specialized instruction. It can also be an inadequate solution for students who don’t actually have a disability and it’s not always the right response for those students. So inappropriately placing children into special education can actually cause harm, particularly for students of color, students from low-income backgrounds. Because when you misidentify a student and they kind of enter the special education track, they often are exposed to less rigorous curriculum, lower expectations, and fewer opportunities to succeed and transition to post-secondary education, so those are things we want to guard against.
And particularly right now in light of COVID, as I was talking about the social-emotional effects
we’re seeing on students, it’s really important that we take time and very carefully determine what challenges we’re seeing in our students and whether they have a disability and what setting is appropriate for them. If we know that COVID is adding additional stressors to students that could impact their learning, we need to be vigilant that we’re not just kind of funneling students into special education, but really carefully looking at what’s going on.
The goal is to get the right supports to students. If they need special education services, we should get that for them, but there may be other things we can do before we identify them for special education, so that’s kind of the impetus for releasing these documents. It’s been a long-standing trend in special education that we see students of color treated differently and identified at higher rates. Now I think is a really critical time, particularly in light of the systemic racism and racial injustice issues we’re really examining as a country. I think this is an important time for schools to also look at the steps that they can take to address these problems and these trends in our schools.
Q: Yeah. It sounds like what you’ve just described feeds into the opportunity gap issue that we see in students of color, so it further exacerbating it in other words.
Q: So, the election has recently occurred and in the 2016 election, only about half of eligible individuals with disabilities voted, we know that from the data from that election. Can you tell us about the Our Time, Our Vote campaign that NCLD organized this year and what’s that about?
A: So civic participation is at the heart of the disability rights movement, so NCLD has worked to ensure that people with learning disabilities are engaged, informed and prepared to participate in civic life and voting is one part of that equation. As you said, only about half of eligible voters with disabilities participated in 2016, and half of those who didn’t actually attribute it to their disability, that was kind of part of the reason why they didn’t vote. We know how powerful that collective LD voice can be, and we need more champions at all levels of our government to understand disability and keep disability at the forefront when we’re making decisions about our country.
We developed Our Time, Our Vote as a way to ensure that voters with learning disabilities had the resources, the information and the tools that they needed to vote. So as part of it we created resources to ensure that voters with LD know their rights. They know that they have the right to ask for accommodations at the poll, they have the right to have somebody accompany them if needed. We created voting guides for individuals with disabilities and voting guides for organizations who support elections because oftentimes LD is not part of the conversation or the types of disabilities you think about when you talk about accessibility at the polls. Not everyone understands, you may need the ballot sheet read out loud to you if you have a reading disability. So, our goal was to really make sure people understood the needs of LD voters, that LD voters were informed, empowered, and that we came together as a community to take action and exercise the right to vote this year in a particularly important election.
Q: Yeah. Absolutely. With making voting accessible in other ways and attending to those additional layers of need, potentially. Addressing the school leader perspective, how can school leaders and community members advocate for individuals with learning disabilities? What’s a way that they can jump in and make a difference and contribute to those advocacy needs?
A: There’s a range of ways to get involved in different places where you could step in. One of the biggest challenges I think the LD community faces is stigma. Part of the solution to eliminating that stigma is to get informed, no matter who you are, you can start by learning. The first step I would say is to get formed and help change those expectations, whether it’s in your local community, whether it’s in the workplace, it’s something we need to join together and really push for.
Importantly, I think there’s other small ways that you can take action. Special education is underfunded and it has been underfunded for decades. COVID-19 is making the budget crisis even worse at the state and local level for schools in general. So, without enough funding, none of our students are going to get the supports and services that they need. You can send a letter, you can make a phone call to your state or federal representatives. If you’re in a position on a school board or in the administration at a district level, you can also share your opinions there and make sure you’re talking about student groups who might need the most support during this time and how to prioritize funding for students with disabilities. In organizations like NCLD have standard letters that you can send by just clicking a button. So, there’s lots of easy ways that you can make your voice heard.
If you are involved and you want to advocate even more, we have tool kits that you can use to set meetings, to have conversations about specific things that states and district leaders should be doing right now to support students with LD. You can talk about the kinds of professional development that educators should receive, how funding should be allocated, how to address things like the school to prison pipeline. There are so many ways and so many issues you can get involved on and connecting with organizations like NCLD or even local organizations are a great place to start to begin pushing for change and supporting efforts wherever you might.
Q: So, I was going to ask you where listeners can find more resources and it sounds like it’s your website. It sounds like your website is chocked full of a lot of great resources and just information. So can you say your website one more time for us?
A: Yes. To learn more or to get involved, you can visit our website at www.ncld.org. You can find our latest research reports, you can find updates on policy, tools for advocacy and you can also find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Meghan Whittaker, Esq.
Meghan Whittaker is the director of policy and advocacy at the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD). She leads the development of NCLD’s policy agenda on issues critical to the success of students with learning and attention issues and their families. Meghan works closely with the public policy and advocacy team to generate, develop, and implement federal policy initiatives that protect the rights of and advance opportunities for individuals with disabilities.
Meghan previously served as NCLD’s policy and advocacy manager, where she worked with her team to implement NCLD’s legislative strategy in Washington, DC, and advance government policies that support the success of individuals with learning and attention issues in school, at work and in life. She supported advocacy campaigns and engaged with NCLD’s grassroots network of committed parents.
Before joining NCLD, Meghan completed her law degree and her master’s degree in social work at the Catholic University of America. She has dedicated her career to advocating for children and families on various issues. She has worked with the DC Public Defender Service in their Juvenile Services Program and with Children’s Law Center’s Guardian ad Litem Project. She also has worked as a therapist for children with behavioral and emotional challenges, and served as an educational surrogate parent for a student with a learning disability.
Meghan earned her undergraduate degree in psychology and criminology from Stonehill College.