With kids returning to school after more than a year of virtual schooling, parents may be wondering how much learning loss their child experienced.

The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) estimates that students lost 25% of instructional time during the pandemic. Keeping this in mind is critical when evaluating the steps schools and parents should take to evaluate for special education.

A loss of instructional time will invariably impact academic performance, but also will affect social, emotional and behavioral functioning. Usually, when a child is evaluated for special education, it is because a disability is suspected that significantly impacts achieving educational goals without specific support — such as ADHD or autism spectrum disorder. If a child qualifies for special education, an individualized education plan (IEP) will be developed to provide support to help a child succeed with educational goals. However, after the last year and a half, a child may be behind academically due to a lack of exposure to educational programming and not necessarily because of a disability.

So how can parents and schools ensure that children who need special education are provided for and not further delayed?

  • If a student is able to meet specific goals when instruction is provided, it may not be necessary to evaluate for special education. However, it is important to monitor progress to ensure that there is not a delay in providing special education services to a child who needs them.

  • Plan for specific social programming. Parents and teachers are noticing that kids seem to lack the typical maturity for their respective grade level as they return to school. This is to be expected, as there was limited access to peers, school routines such as changing classes, and some of the other planning and organization skills that children are able to practice while in school. Steps should be taken to create opportunities for social interaction with peers, as well as to help children to process things that went well or maybe did not go well during social interactions or school day transitions.

  • When evaluating the emotional impact of the pandemic year and the transition to in-person learning, parents and teachers should observe behavior and talk with their children. Children may not always answer direct questions, but may communicate with their behavior. Notice if behavior problems are impeding learning with in-person schooling and take steps such as reminders, praise, and consistent consequences to promote appropriate behavior. Red flags will vary, depending on the child and the typical behavior.

We should expect that students will experience some deficits in academic, social and emotional learning after a year of remote learning. Schools and parents should provide specific support to remediate these skills. If these steps are taken and you continue to notice that a child is not making academic progress, seems to have significant difficulty with social interaction, or has emotional experiences (social anxiety, school refusal) that significantly impact educational gains or behavior concerns that impact learning, then a referral to special education may be needed.

Although we want to be patient and provide support, we also don’t want to wait too long, as early intervention is key. If you are concerned, communicate with your child’s school and work together to meet the needs of your child.

Jessica Glass Kendorski is an associate professor and chair of the department of school psychology at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.