By Amanda Morin
We’re living in extraordinary times. I’m not by any means the first to say it, and I won’t be the last. The coronavirus pandemic has turned all of our lives upside down in what seems like just a minute.
And yet, to me, a piece of this feels familiar. Not in an “I’ve lived through a pandemic that brought the world to a standstill” kind of way, but in a “people are starting to understand a little bit better what my family life is like” kind of way.
Right now, everybody is my family.
At Understood, we aim to help families like mine. Families with kids who learn and think differently. Families in which working adults have disabilities and need accommodations at work. Families that include educators like me who are working to support all learners.
We know that 1 in 5 people have differences in how the brain processes information — differences that can affect things like reading, writing, math, focus.
Here’s how that works:
We all take in information through our senses. Our brain processes it and we take action in response. When the brain doesn’t process information effectively, or the resulting action isn’t an appropriate response, it can make it hard to function in everyday life.
That’s what I mean when I talk about learning and thinking differently — those differences get in the way of functioning.
What does that look like?
Some people struggle to focus, stay on task, or even know how to get started in tackling a task. Some have trouble managing their emotions or dealing with changes in routine. Others may struggle to find the right words to express what they want to say, either in writing or out loud.
Some people who learn and think differently may lose their train of thought. Or they may lose track of something they had in their hand just a minute ago. Still others may have difficulty reading or making sense of the words on a page.
And yet, that describes almost every child I know right now in the uncertainty of a world changed by the coronavirus. Their schools are closed. Their routines have changed. They’re worried, distracted, and having trouble managing their emotions.
Every child is the 1 in 5 right now.
It also describes many adults.
In the age of COVID-19, many of our brains are overtasked. We’re experiencing anxiety and feeling a lack of control. There’s too much information to process and we’re having trouble thinking. We’re having trouble learning.
Where does Understood fit in?
As it became apparent that the landscape of parenting and teaching has changed drastically, Understood has had to think about where our expertise, knowledge, and resources plug into and shape this new world for difference. Parenting and education organizations everywhere have put together great resources.
So, do we jump into the fray? Or do we stick to what we’re known for and do exceptionally well?
Do we focus on providing resources specific to families whose kids learn and think differently? Do we continue to focus on helping educators learn ways to support all learners — ways that are especially helpful to those who learn and think differently?
The answer is “yes, and.” Yes, and those resources are going to help everybody.
In this new world, many parents and caregivers are now like my husband, who himself has ADHD and a learning disability. He’s suddenly tasked with teaching our child, who also has ADHD. He’s not equipped to teach. And he’s not the only one.
For one reason or another, not just because they have learning differences, many parents aren’t equipped to be teachers. They don’t know how to do it. They also may not have the resources — financial, emotional, or physical. They’re not teachers, they’re parents. And that’s OK.
Parents aren’t the only ones having to figure things out. In this new world, many teachers are suddenly teaching in ways they never have before. And many of their students are going to be struggling with focus, anxiety, and managing their emotions — experiences similar to those of kids who learn and think differently. All students need accommodations and specialized instruction to learn in this new environment.
Remember, every child is the 1 in 5 right now.
It’s funny — just before the world turned upside down, I gave a lunch and learn for the Understood team to talk about learning and thinking differences. It must have been just a few weeks ago, but it feels like another lifetime. A few things I talked about seem oddly prescient:
- The challenges we associate with learning and thinking differences can be signs of other things, too. The example I gave was trauma. I mentioned that it can affect focus and working memory (along with other things). We don’t consider trauma a core learning and thinking difference, I told the team, but the resources we provide are going to be helpful to families and educators in supporting kids who are experiencing those struggles because of trauma.
- Disability and difference in many ways is a social construct. In the social model of disability, I explained, it’s not the learners’ variability that causes a person to be seen as disabled. Systemic barriers, attitudes, and society failing to proactively include all people regardless of difference creates disability. When a difference interacts with the environment in a way that makes it difficult for people to function, that’s viewed as a disability.
I also explained that it doesn’t have to be that way. I reminded the team that this is one of the things Understood is working to help people understand. We provide resources for educators to build classrooms that take into account learner variability from the outset. We help families learn to support and celebrate their kids and see difference as just a part of life.
We’re all trying to adapt and manage challenges.
Right now, parents are struggling to figure out how to be teachers, and teachers are struggling to figure out how to accommodate differences in their new learning environments. We’re all trying to adapt — and to manage challenges that look like learning and thinking differences.
The resources Understood provides may be geared to supporting people who learn and think differently, but they’re going to help everybody.
Because right now every child is the 1 in 5. Right now, we’re all having difficulty functioning in our environment.
When all of this is over, some of us won’t have those struggles anymore. We’ll regain our ability to focus. We’ll be less anxious and more able to figure out how to start and complete tasks. We’ll be better able to manage our emotions.
But my family will still be my family. My husband and kids won’t outgrow these struggles. Because for them, they’re lifelong. I’ll still be working to support all learners. And Understood will still be here, helping families like mine and educators like me shape the world for difference. Hopefully, you’ll still be there with us, because for a brief time, you were my family. You were all the 1 in 5.
Amanda Morin — education expert at Understood, author, speaker, podcast host, former classroom teacher, early intervention specialist, special education advocate and exhausted.