Newspaper article

For Some Students with Learning Disabilities, Distance Learning Has Been a Disappointment

Newspaper article

For Some Students with Learning Disabilities, Distance Learning Has Been a Disappointment

Article excerpt

Isaac Richert has always had a hard time focusing on school. Distance learning has made it even harder.

“I have ADHD and dyslexia,” he explained. “Since school’s been online, it’s been really easy for me to look at my laptop across the room, not pick it up and decide that I want to go outside instead.”

Richert, a Hopkins High School senior, said that in-person learning helped motivate him to keep up with his assignments. Now, with only a few days left before graduation, he’s struggling with low motivation. He’s dropped all but three classes — newspaper, chemistry and creative writing — that he needs to pass in order to earn his degree.

“It’s easier to get stuff done at school because you are in a working environment,” he said.

Before statewide COVID-19 restrictions forced all Minnesota schools to move to distance learning, Richert never thought he’d get this close to not finishing high school. It turns out that in-person instruction was that important to keeping him on track: “When I see other people working around me, I feel like I need to start working myself and I get things done. If a teacher is talking to you and telling you to do stuff to your face, it’s a lot more motivating than when they send you an email.”

Distance learning can be a particular challenge for students with learning disabilities, especially students with ADHD, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, said Martha Moriarty, executive director of Learning Disabilities Association of Minnesota, a nonprofit providing advocacy, assessment, intervention and outreach for children, adults and families impacted by learning disabilities.

Students with attention deficits may struggle more than others, she said. And even though Minnesota schools will soon let out for the summer, many students will continue to face this challenge as summer education programs continue in distance-learning formats.

“The child with the learning disability is going to be at a lesser advantage in distance-learning situations. A child with ADHD who is already struggling with organizing the work online or focusing and completing those tasks is also going to be further and further behind peers who are able to keep up with the distance learning approach.”

Some young people’s responses to baked-in anxiety of the times can actually mimic the symptoms of ADHD, Moriarty added. “A lot of kids, even those without a diagnosed learning disability, might be struggling in school during this moment in time. When you are under stress, your brain’s executive functions are taxed.” Those executive functions can include those that tell the brain how to plan and organize tasks, she explained: “A classic stress response often looks like ADHD.”

When hands-on feels essential

Isaac Richert’s older brother Joe Richert also has ADHD. After high school, he chose to study auto mechanics at Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis because he felt that the school’s style of teaching would best match his interests and learning needs.

“I go to Dunwoody because it’s hands-on,” Joe Richert said. “That’s the entire reason.”

When the college announced in late March that all classes would be going online, Joe Richert said even though he wasn’t surprised by the news, he still felt disappointed and skeptical that a technical college could teach classes like “Transmissions” or “Small-Engine Repair” remotely.

“I’m not going to lie,” Joe Richert said. “I think most of the instructors are doing their best, but it’s frankly kind of insulting to try to talk like this approach really works. It doesn’t.”

Joe Richert was signed up for three courses during quarantine. One is a required humanities course, and the other two are auto mechanics classes. He said he had grown accustomed to being able to actually work on cars during his auto mechanics classes. Being able to get his hands dirty and learn firsthand how to fix vehicles made the school feel like a perfect match for his distinct learning needs. …

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