Exploring Learning Differences during COVID-19

Notes from the Backpack

Episode 30 │Exploring Learning Differences during COVID-19

Wednesday, October 14, 2020



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Amanda Morin

If you’ve noticed your child is struggling with academics more than usual, but you’re not sure if it’s due to the pandemic or signs of a learning difference, we’re here to help. We spoke with Amanda Morin, writer and senior expert at Understood.org to learn strategies for supporting students with learning differences during online and hybrid learning. She offers advice on helping your kids stay organized, read social cues, manage distractions and more.


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LaWanda: Welcome to today's episode of Notes from the Backpack of PTA podcast. I'm LaWanda Toney.

Helen: And, I'm Helen Westmoreland, and we are your cohosts.

We know that parents across the country are doing their best to support kids this year, whatever that may look like for you. Today, we're going to discuss navigating the strange school year with a child who has learning differences. Almost 14% of kids in the United States receive some sort of special education services or accommodations. We also know there are families with kids who may not be identified to receive these services. But, who may be wondering if their child needs them.

LaWanda: Many families are starting to fall into a rhythm managing their kids' education during this upside-down school year. But, for families with children with learning differences, creating and maintaining these routines may present unique challenges. Recent research from Understood, revealed that parents of children who have learning differences are more likely to report that they're struggling with distance learning. So, what are you supposed to do, if your child having difficulty managing new schedules or if your kid can't manage to spend more than five minutes sitting in front of a screen?

Helen: That's right, LaWanda. I am so glad to have Amanda Morin, Senior Writer and Expert at Understood.org here to answer all of our questions. Amanda worked as a classroom teacher and as an early intervention specialist for 10 years, she has been working as an education writer since 2007 and played an integral role in launching Understood, in 2014. She is also the host of Understood's podcast, “In It: a podcast on raising kids who learn and think differently” and, is the author of three books. She is also the mother to three kids ages 10, 18 and 24. Amanda, thank you so much for joining us today.

Amanda Morin: Thanks for having me, every time anybody reads my biography, I feel tired. Especially knowing that I've added two more books to that, since it was written.

Helen: I think you, are allowed to feel tired right now, if that's how you feel. You've done a lot. Well, so tell us, we want to hear actually a little bit about your journey? Like, a bio tells us a little bit, but how did you become interested in special education services and what led you to be part of the team that started Understood.org?

Amanda Morin: You know, I think I was always a teacher and I think that's like teachers know that from the time they're very little, you're a teacher. I was the kid who always had the babysitting ring. I had multiple kids that I was babysitting at a time. And, I worked as a summer camp counselor when I was a teenager. And, then it was just the most natural thing to go into teaching as a career. I got into the classroom, I started as a kindergarten teacher and I realized that the kids who really were the ones that I felt the most affinity with were the kids who were struggling. And, those were the kids who I wanted to spend a lot of time with and really help them thrive.

I then went back and got some certification in early intervention and started working with families and children from ages zero to five, kids who have developmental disabilities, who then transition into school and often have an individualized education program, which is that map of services and supports that they get to have special education and help them really learn like the rest of their peers.

During that same time, I started my own family. As you mentioned, I have three kids they're very far apart in age. I have a 24 year old, an 18 year old and a 10 year old, which is kind of bananas, I think. And two of them were diagnosed with learning differences. So, I ended up  having the personal life that I had also chosen professionally. And, you would think that having that professional training, that I would, automatically know what to do as a parent. Totally not the case. But it made it hard to stay in the classroom, when I was also trying to support my own kids. I didn't want to leave teaching.

[00:04:25] So, what I did was I started writing and I was writing for parents to really decode all of this information that comes at of us as parents, because we don't always know what it means. We're overwhelmed and we're trying to find the right things in the right language. And then, when Understood became an idea, somebody I had worked with before, knew my background, brought me into the project and it has just been an amazingly perfect fit. In part, because it's the project I would have wanted to see when I started this with my own kids, because I needed an Understood and there wasn't one.

LaWanda: You mentioned, kids who  learn differently and having children who learn differently, a lot of our listeners may not have heard that phrase before. I know that a lot of us understand, kids with special needs or special education. But, I really love the way that that Understood.org approaches kids, who learn differently. Can you explain, the word choices there?

Amanda Morin: Definitely, definitely. And so, The word choice that Understood uses is kids and individuals as a whole, who learn and think differently. Now, we know that everybody thinks differently, which is what makes the world really interesting and wonderful. But, sometimes people think differently in a way that gets in the way of their everyday life. They process information in ways that can make it hard to follow directions, pay attention, read, write, and all of those kinds of things, that can really get in the way of their everyday life. Some of those kids end up having an identification for school services or a diagnosis through their doctor.

Some of them do not, and they just struggle a little bit in the world. So, when we talk about learning and thinking differently, we're talking about both of those groups, because we know, that some kids can and struggle in school without having a formal diagnosis. And, we want to make sure we're catching everybody and being inclusive.

LaWanda: I really like that clarity. Thank you.

Helen: Yeah. I think it can be overwhelming, like you said, when there's so many terms coming at you and so it's good to have that little bit of framing.

I want to take a step back and actually hear how you are doing Amanda, personally. You've got kids at home doing some version of distance learning.

How has it been that experience for you and your children through this lens of, kids who might learn and think differently?

Amanda Morin: Chaotic, is the one word I would use, I think, to start with. It's getting a little easier when this remote distance learning thing first started, I had two kids who were still in public school. My son graduated remotely, last year. And, then my other son is now in fifth grade.

Yeah, it was really an interesting kind of thing and actually my older son had just worked out of his IEP, he'd met all of his goals. He didn't need the services and supports anymore and was really excited to go back into school and advocate for himself and then school closed down. So, it was really hard for him, but he's thriving, he's on a college campus at the moment. He's done a great job of going to disability services and talking to them about what he needs to make the accommodations work for him.

And then we have this 10 year old, who's in fifth grade at home. We are currently in a hybrid learning environment in our school district, which means he goes in person two days a week and has virtual learning two and a half days a week and it's hard. He has attention issues. He has difficulty reading some social cues, and some difficulty with language. And, it's hard for him even just to make the adjustment between virtual and in person and knowing which days are, which. And as a parent, it's been hard for me to step back and make sure that I'm not second guessing the education he's getting.

[00:09:04] And, I say that with all transparency. I worry about my child the same way everybody does. I think this is one of those situations where, being a teacher makes it a little harder for me to step back and I'm trying to step back a little bit. But we need to be communicating with teachers. Parents, especially parents of kids who have special education services need to be communicating often, honestly, frequently, because we now have information about our kids that the teachers may not because we've seen them at home and see what they look like, in this new learning environment.

So, that working together part has been something I'm really focusing on as opposed to being his teacher, because he has a teacher. And, he has a good one. And so, what I want to be is mom and the mom who also provides enough information, that we can really support his learning, because it's hard. It's hard there are things that kids are learning that we never thought they would have to learn. Things like how do you mute and unmute yourself on a call.

Helen: Right.

Amanda Morin: Right. Who do you look at when you're on a video call? How do you raise your hand in a in a virtual classroom? All of these things, that we never even thought were things to teach kids and I think they're a little bit harder for kids who learn and think differently.

LaWanda: Yeah. I totally agree. It is it, there are so many things that we haven't thought of. I have a seven-year-old and having to toggle between tabs, going from the Zoom to the Google classroom to do an assignment. And, what it means to turn it in, like things that I definitely didn't think that I would have to sit down and walk through a Google suite, a classroom suite to be able to explain I'm doing that. So I totally get that. Do you have some other strategies that have been working for you, with your 10 year old?

Amanda Morin: Definitely. So one of the things that we have done is taken his online work, and printed it. And, if you don't have a printer, I think you can write it down as best you can and color coded it. So we have really worked hard with him. He chose, what color is Wednesday? What color is Tuesday? What color is Monday? And he's gone through with a highlighter and highlighted the work that he's going to do in those colors. So he's not overwhelmed by looking at it all at once. The first week I did it with him the second week I watched him do it and now we're on week three and he did it himself.

And that for me, was a learning experience too, is to teach him how to do it. So he can take charge of his own learning. You know, and we'll see how it goes this week. So that's one strategy. Definitely, and we had to set up a learning space too, and I think that's important, because the idea of him learning in his room where he has everything he loves to play with, so distracting.

I think distracting for any child, but for a child like mine who has ADHD, enormously distracting. So, we had to find a space that didn't have his toys in the line of sight. We had to find a space where he, if he wanted to stand up to work, he could do that too. I invested in one of those, I don't know what they are like a trampoline chair, almost.

[00:12:40] So, he can sit in that chair and bounce back and forth while he's working instead of like jumping. And I know that not everybody has that kind of space and availability, but even if you can just find sort of a small corner, it was really helpful for us to find his own space that was dedicated to learning.

Helen: Yeah.


Helen: I want to talk a little bit about some of the research Understood, has done around families experiences during this pandemic year. Could you tell us more about what you've been learning?

Amanda Morin: Sure. So Understood did this research in conjunction with YouGov and we talked to, about 2000 parents about distance learning and what they're seeing. And, in part of an initiative that we developed with the American Academy of Pediatrics called, Take N.O.T.E. And N.O.T.E, stands for notice, observe, talk and engage.

So it's a memory device, to help parents sort through what they're seeing now that they may not have seen before or what they're just starting to notice. So they can start having conversations with the people in their children's lives like pediatricians and teachers and their child themselves about the things that may be different, that they hadn't seen before. And, some of the research showed that parents are noticing more than ever, that there are things that they didn't think about, that might be a little concerning to them. Things like trouble paying attention, things like trouble with reading and, and they're worried, they're worried about distance learning and how that's going to play out for their children this year.

And, it turns out that while 70% of parents are worried about that only about 28% of them are having those conversations with their pediatricians and other people in their children's lives right now. And so, one of the things we're really hoping is that, this Take N.O.T.E. Initiative, will help people figure out how to make sense of what they're seeing, figure out how to keep track of it, because one of the things that Take N.O.T.E. has, is like a pattern tracker And, then start those conversations, it's really key to have those conversations, because if we don't, I feel like there are parents like me who feel really alone, and really isolated. Especially now, that we're actually physically isolated in some ways.

And, one of the other things that we learned is that parents of kids who already have an identification or an individualized education program are feeling like they're having difficulty communicating with teachers more than they did before getting in touch with them. They're worried about accommodations being put into place in this virtual environment, because it's much harder to do something virtually than it is to do it when you're in person. So, across the board, people are concerned.

And as a former educator, I think I would just say flat out, I think teachers are concerned too. And that, that's something that we needed to keep in mind is that's why we should start having these conversations.

Helen: Yeah. You mentioned the parents are worried about accommodations. I'm curious, what do special education accommodations look like in a virtual or hybrid environment? Are kids getting those services that they need

Amanda Morin: The first answer is, kids are definitely entitled to those accommodations, regardless of the learning environment. It's the law and they should be getting them.

The second answer to that question is, they also have to be adjusted to the environment to some degree because some things that would work in person, don't work virtually. For example, if you have, what we, in the education world is kind of a, the lingo is proximity. Basically, it means you come closer to a kid to get their attention. It doesn't work as well online as it does in a physical space. So, you have to be thinking through and talking with teachers and kids about what's the alternative, how can I get your attention, virtually when I could in a different way? Is it, there's a certain word that I say as a teacher that you clue into? Is that I send you a private chat note through the box, right?

So, some of those accommodations can translate easily., some of them are a little more difficult. Some of those services and supports like occupational therapy and physical therapy, they don't translate as well. And, what people are doing is the best they can to provide teletherapy right now, some people are doing in person.

And it means that parents and teachers have to be really partnered. And when I worked in early intervention, that's what we did a lot of is we taught parents how to follow through because when I saw a kid for 45 minutes a week, there was the rest of that week that the parent was then taking charge and helping that child learn those skills. And so, that ability to really have parents be part of the process. And that puts, I think to be honest, it puts a lot on parents in it it's hard, but I think the more we can work together, the more likely kids are to get those services and supports. And also things like I, you know, I wrote a piece for Understood on virtual accommodations. And, what it did is took some common accommodations that are made in the classroom and mapped them to what they can look like virtually in various virtual environments like Google classroom or, Microsoft teams, education classrooms.

I would recommend that if you come across something that's going to help the teacher help your child, share it. Definitely share it, have that on hand. Teachers would love it. They would love to know what you're thinking too. I've yet to mention the trampoline chair. I may have to do that too.

LaWanda: I think I need the trampoline chair,

Helen: We all need it.

LaWanda: I'm gonna go look for it.So Amanda, we created, a couple of scenarios because we know that a lot of our parents have concerns, and they don't know how to address them.? We're gonna go through some of them and then see if you can give us a solution

Amanda Morin: Ooh, it feels like a game show, but definitely, I'm on board I will see how I can help.

LaWanda: Let's give it a whirl. Okay.

LaWanda: So here's the first one. I have a second grader with attention issues and I'm struggling to create a learning environment that's supportive, but not too distracting. Any tips?

Amanda Morin: So, the first thing I would recommend to this parent is to really observe and see what is the distractio,? What is most distracting in that environment? What is it that your child is having trouble paying attention to? Because, to some degree , a tool like Take N.O.T.E. Is really helpful for that, because you can take down patterns. Is it something that's happening during learning?

My son, I realized he was very distracted by seeing different faces, pop up on the screen when people talked. So, we had to talk to the teacher about whether he could turn the computer away and just listen to the voices for awhile. And then when we did that, we realized the next thing that was distracting him was where all the posters and books and stuff near him, in his room, so we had to move him away from that.

The second thing to do, is to figure out when they happen. Is your child's sitting for too long of a timeframe and trying to find a way to keep themselves invigorated and energetic. And, if that the case I would definitely, put into place some brain breaks, which I love the phrase brain breaks, 'cause it's literally just giving your brain a break, but you can stand up, do some movements, those kinds of the things to get yourself back in gear, to sit down again and learn.

LaWanda: Yeah. I like that. I like the idea of brain breaks. I think we all need that.

Amanda Morin: Oh I need them all the time, we all need brain breaks. No, and there's science behind it too, that says when you, kids who take two to three minutes of a brain break, it really shifts what they're thinking about. It engages their brain and makes them ready to learn again.

Helen: Yeah. Well, and especially if your child is online for a good portion of the day, many parents worried about screen time before and now it's like, all right, well now my child's on a screen for eight hours. So, that's a really great way to help them focused and keep everyone in the family, on the same page.

Amanda Morin: Totally.

Helen: I have another scenario for you.

Helen: A parent says, my fifth grader has a tough time reading nonverbal cues and practicing social skills. Remote learning has made this even harder. What can I do to help?

Amanda Morin: I feel like I may have written that one. Kidding. I'm just kidding.

What I would say is, the first thing is to recognize that there may be some advantages to remote learning for social skills and nonverbal cues that we don't think about because, when kids are in person right now, they are in person masked. So you can't see all the facial expressions. They are farther away from each other and the teachers. So you can't actually read the body language as easily. So there are some advantages to the remote learning that we don't see. The second thing I would say is. Definitely speak with the teacher and make sure they understand that this is something that is difficult for your child or teachers, if there are multiple teachers. And, then work out with your child where they’re struggling, is it they can't understand the tone of voice very well? Is it that they don't know what the facial expression is? Look through and find what those problems are and kids are really good about telling you that kind of thing. I think we under utilize our children as their own resources. And I think they're really good about telling us those things.

One of the things that we have taught our fifth grader is if he's not sure, to ask the question, I can't quite read what your face is saying right now., it's helpful to actually ask that question and we found that it helps other kids in his class too, when he speaks up and asks that. And I think, in a remote environment it's perfectly okay to say it's really hard to see on the screen, I'm not quite sure what I'm seeing, can you explain to me, is this a quiet moment? Is this a louder moment? Is this a sad moment? Are you angry? To be able to ask those questions so you can start matching it up with the body language.

And if you also, on the other side, have a good relationship with a teacher to have that conversation. Many teachers will start prefacing that. It's funny because my colleagues see me do this on meetings and it's totally inadvertent, but I will often say what you see is my thinking face.

And, it's because I'm so used to doing it at home, that I do it on meetings now. But, it's actually really a really good skill to be able to say, this is my thinking face, or I'm just taking a moment to process this. Or, I'm not making faces at you, something just flew past my window and it distracted me. To be able to do that think aloud, is something that you can encourage teachers to do too.

Helen: That actually strikes me as like a really great teaching technique for everyone in the class, as we think about, you know, building socio-emotional skills and other things and you’re right, like, it's, it's a little harder for everyone to do that, if you're in a remote learning environment, but especially if your kid struggles and, and there is this sort of window now to be more explicit about that.

Amanda Morin: Absolutely. And I think that, I would add to that. The majority of good teaching practices are practices that are going to help all students. You're helping the entire class learn things, explicit instruction that like walking through things step by step by step. I also think things like feelings charts are super handy in those situations, the faces that have what the feeling matches up to, you can actually put that up in your child's learning environment so they can try and read some of those cues on their own before they ask too.

LaWanda: Hm. I like that. You're doing great with our scenarios. Here's the last one. My eighth grader is struggling with trying to stay organized and she's falling asleep during classes. She's trying very hard, but virtual learning has been tough. Any recommendations for what we can do?

Amanda Morin: First of all I feel for her, I can understand that like urge to fall asleep.

So I think those are two separate issues. The organization is tough, especially because when you're organizing virtually, it's very different than, if you have a system on paper, or folders or things like that. But, I do think that there are ways you can set up correlating, virtual options, depending on how your desktop is set up. Your child could probably set up folders for each class and then drop the work into those folders on your desktop. You can even color code them if you need to.

The other thing is to ask for printed materials, if it's needed, the school might be able to print them out and send them to you. And, I think that's important to ask for if you need it. I think the one thing about using technology right now, that's super helpful is it has built in things like planners and calendars and alarms and those kinds of things that we may not use on a regular basis. it's the perfect time to teach them how to use it and to set reminders for themselves.

As to the falling asleep. The first thing I would say is, check into your child's sleep patterns and see that they're getting enough sleep. This pandemic has upended everything. Kids are not sleeping well, adults are not sleeping well. So, making sure that they're getting enough sleep and if they're not sleeping well to talk to your pediatrician or healthcare provider, and have that conversation to see how you can help your child get more sleep.

The other thing is, are there times of day when your child just learns better? You know, I don't know about you, but three o'clock in the afternoon is not my best time. I am dragging by three o'clock in the afternoon. If there are times of day where your child is just shutting down and sometimes when you see kids falling asleep it’s because their brains are just so overloaded, they've just shut down. They're just done for the day. It's probably worth talking to your child's teachers about what are the options for learning asynchronously. And that just means, not in real time.

So, are there ways that your child can tune in at times when they're much more awake or are there ways that you can reorganize their schedules so that they're doing that subject is hardest for them that they're tackling at a time when they're most ready to learn. And also, I just think eighth grade is a tough time, anyway. Kids are growing, they're changing, they're tired. And, I think just making sure that you can support that the best that you can. You know, maybe virtual learning is the perfect time to bring back naps. I'm not sure, but it feels like it should be to bring back naps.

Helen: My partner and I have actually started napping when my two year old naps on the weekend. And same as you said, like we're sleeping at night, but just we're tired.

Amanda Morin: Well you have a two year old, which is tiring.

Helen: Bring back nap time

Amanda Morin: I feel like that's a slogan.

LaWanda: Yes. It needs to be a movement.

Amanda Morin: I'm in.

Helen: Well, Amanda, thank you so much. Your advice has been incredibly helpful. We're really just honored to have had you on the show today.

Amanda Morin: It's just been such a pleasure and I love what you're doing. I hope that we can make sure that that parents have the tools they need to make it through this year.

Helen: Yeah, absolutely. So on that note, we want to give you an opportunity for a final word. If there's a piece of advice or a resource you want to plug, what would you like to share with our listeners?

Amanda Morin: I would definitely like listeners to check out the Take N.O.T.E. Initiative, from Understood. And, it's just that u.org/takenote, where you can find free digital resources to help you start making sense of what's going on with your child and start having those conversations with the other people in their lives, pediatricians, teachers, even your child themselves.

So it's again, it's u.org/takenote.

LaWanda: Amanda, are there any social media handles? Where can listeners go to learn more about you and your work?

Amanda Morin: Me I'm @amandamorin on Twitter. Understood is, @understoodorg on Twitter. Understood has a Facebook page as well, we're on Instagram and Pinterest. My own work, you can find me at amandamorin.com.

LaWanda: Awesome. Thank you so much. This has been a great conversation. Lots of resources and tools that I think all our families will benefit from.

Amanda Morin: Well, thank you so much for having me.

LaWanda: And, to our audience listening, thank you for joining us for more resources related to today's episode, check out notesfromthebackpack.com. See you next time.


Notes from the Backpack: A PTA Podcast is made possible by funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.