As Connecticut public schools returned to in-person learning last year, early childhood education Commissioner Beth Bye was “blown away” by the gaps in the earliest grades. Of the 15,000 students who didn’t show up for class, 8,000 were preschoolers and kindergartners—and students who did show up showed significant delays in school readiness.
“But that was really the tip of the iceberg. Parents often don’t know what’s typical or atypical [child] development. So for those two years when parents were holding their young children out, they weren’t just missing out on peer experiences and preschool experiences, they were missing out on that early-childhood specialist who is just there to coach parents,” Bye said. “So we knew that because fewer children were in preschool, fewer children were with teachers who were trained to recognize issues and we were going to have a big problem in Connecticut.”
The Nutmeg State, which last year launched a statewide, app-based screening tool to help parents identify potential red flags in their children’s development and behavior, is far from alone. Schools are struggling to separate students with true learning disabilities from those with delays caused by pandemic-related stress, disruptions, and social isolation. Moreover, limited access to early special education services in recent years means students who do have disabilities are often coming in with higher needs.
The number of young children who received special education services dropped 40 percent nationwide during the pandemic, with 320,000 fewer children ages 3-5 served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 2021 than in 2018. As those toddlers come of age to enter elementary school, schools are playing catch-up to identify and serve students with disabilities while also coping with broad school-readiness delays that complicate identification.
While there are no national data so far this school year, Gracie Branch, the associate executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, said principals report more students with delays in language and fine-motor skills entering preschool and kindergarten this fall.
“Most of the schools I know of have hired extra interventionists or social workers to work with families to accommodate the growth in students who seem to have been impacted by trauma,” Branch said. “They are seeing some fairly significant [numbers of] students with special needs coming from the lower grades.”
Technology support for special education screening
Connecticut’s Sparkler app connects parents to special education referrals as well as therapeutic activities they can begin with their children at home.
Moreover, the program sends data to local school districts and special education providers to help educators prepare for incoming students’ needs. As of this spring, Connecticut schools saw more than 1,200 students referred through the app, with nearly 700 deemed eligible for special education services—a 130 percent jump from before the pandemic, Bye said. More than half of students referred for special education services this year were identified as having school-readiness skills 2 standard deviations lower than typical for their age, with communications and gross-motor delays the most common problems.
Cheshire, one of the first districts in Connecticut to pilot the new screening tool, has been “bursting” with new special education referrals, said Jennifer Buffington, a special education teacher and the director of early intervention for Cheshire. Across three towns, “we really are working more hours in evaluations, ... but we are trying to be very creative, too.”
Young children may not understand what a pandemic is, but they know that they weren’t allowed to go outside and play with people, and it wasn’t safe to touch anyone because there was a superbug. The messages that they received are that the world is not a safe place and others aren’t safe to be with.
“We get a steady flow of communication delays, but what we’re seeing that’s changed is around the social-emotional piece and behaviors that parents struggle with,” Buffington said. “When [students] can’t communicate as well, you can become frustrated, and we definitely see the levels of frustration becoming more intense; we’ve had quite a few [students] coming through with head-banging and other self-soothing behaviors. So self-regulation is a big piece.”
Specialists see a direct connection to what children experienced during the pandemic.
“Young children may not understand what a pandemic is, but they know that they weren’t allowed to go outside and play with people, and it wasn’t safe to touch anyone because there was a superbug. The messages that they received are that the world is not a safe place and others aren’t safe to be with,” said Maggie Parker, an assistant professor of counseling and human development at George Washington University, who has studied the pandemic’s effects on young children. “And so then you throw them into a school setting where you’re sitting at a desk and expected to engage with others and sit in a circle and trust other people and work with other people, and it goes against everything that they’ve been taught or experienced in the world thus far.”
Donna Volpe, the director of special services for the Ramsey, N.J., school district, said she also has seen more special education referrals in kindergarten for self-regulation problems. “We’re seeing academic behaviors missing in a lot of our students, [such as] the ability to sit in a classroom, the ability to have impulse control, the ability to socialize and follow directions—not to mention skills like reading,” she said.
But because so many students may be delayed due to missed schooling rather than particular learning disabilities such as autism, “we’re trying to be more creative and give students the support they need without necessarily classifying them. If the students don’t make gains with those supports, then we have to take a minute ... and determine whether or not it’s a disability versus just because they weren’t exposed to things like those soft preschooling skills,” Volpe said.
The Ramsey district is training teachers to do more “soft starts” in kindergarten. “So, instead of starting the day with academics right away, the kids get like 15 minutes to just come to school and do what they prefer to do: maybe lay on a bean bag, maybe play with some toys just to decompress,” Volpe said. “It’s been built into our schedule for the students to be able to just take a minute, and we’ve seen an impact in students’ readiness to be educated.”
NAESP’s Branch cautioned that educators and administrators should take care not to overemphasize academic interventions for their youngest students with learning delays.
“The numbers of students that have been impacted by this traumatic situation with COVID just grew the numbers of students who need some special interventions. Not all of them need to go into special education classes, but we’re really looking deeply at interventions, whether that’s to help them with emotional outbursts or their academic skills that they might need extra supports with,” Branch said.
“With this higher sense of urgency that principals have—because students certainly have some deficits in their academic learning—we don’t want [educators] to overreact and forget how children in the early grades learn best,” Branch said. “We want them to let [students] play and to focus on content but do it through increasing more playful learning opportunities for pre-K through 3rd grade.”
Coverage of students with learning differences and issues of race, opportunity, and equity is supported in part by a grant from the Oak Foundation, at www.oakfnd.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the October 26, 2022 edition of Education Week as Young Children Were Massively Overlooked for Special Education