The New Normal: More Questions Than Answers

By Marcia Eckerd, Ph.D

We keep hearing that when states open up we’ll be facing a “new normal.” But what exactly does that mean? And how might the changes impact your children with learning challenges? For kids with LD, NLD, ADHD and other special needs, the new normal could make navigating school and social interactions even more difficult than it was pre-COVID. As parents, it will fall to you to help those who struggle make the transition to their new normal in order to realize their full potential.

During the school closures, as social pressures have been alleviated, we’ve seen that some of these kids are actually doing better. They can do their work or pursue interests at home without distractions or pressures. Children for whom bullying is an ongoing issue are relieved not to navigate halls, cafeterias, locker rooms and playgrounds—all the places in school where bullies lurk.

When our children return to school or activities, life will not be what it was during the closures, but it also will not be what they left behind when they were sent home mid-way through the spring term.

Uncertainty Abounds

At this point, the one thing we can be certain of is that uncertainty is the order of the day—and will be for weeks and months to come. We don’t know what to expect, what the new rules will be, or even how to define the threat (or lack thereof) in our daily lives.

For children with NLD, this level of uncertainty may be problematic. Kids with NLD tend to be black-and-white thinkers who need clarity; they require clear expectations to navigate the world successfully. Likewise, kids with ADHD do best with structure, clear rules, and explicit feedback.

Parents will feel differently about what it means to keep their children safe, and that unease will be picked up by their children. Different families will abide by different rules, which are likely to change frequently depending on the information they hear. With no consensus regarding objective facts, what people think is wise depends on who they listen to. This fluctuating landscape is hard for kids who thrive on consistency.

NLD children get upset when others don’t follow rules, and they are truth tellers. They might give blunt feedback or become resistant if they feel others are endangering their lives. How will kids with ADHD handle a new set of rules? Will they be able to control the impulse to break rules despite their parents’ preferences? And when kids with NLD or ADHD struggle socially with the new norms, who will handle the flare-ups? Will it be up to the children, or will parents speak to other parents, or will they be expected to engage the school?

Other children will not be more or less tolerant of kids with differences than they were before. It’s a time to be aware of social media and the issues of bullying and isolation that probably existed before, but may be exacerbated by the fact that everyone is stressed.

Opportunities to Participate & Shine

Although we know teaching will take place, we don’t know how schools will manage socially distanced classrooms. And what about the other activities your child enjoys? Will they still be there or will they be put on hold due to social-distancing mandates? Sports, band, scout meetings, or other group activities may not be an option for some time. Older children may have other opportunities that have to be cancelled: Will adolescents yearning to drive even be allowed to take their driving test?

Such considerations are especially important for kids with special needs because they have difficulty with change, and they undoubtedly had to work harder than others to find opportunities where they could shine.

Will states that are strapped for money cut benefits that many depend on? Will the special education department and services critical to IEPs such as resource rooms and aides be cut? The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPPA) is fighting to keep special education intact; parents might consider joining or supporting them.

The Pathway Through

We can make it through tough times and help our children do the same. It will take reaching out and self-advocating effectively. It may involve finding allies to help with advocacy, perhaps with group discussion and effort.

No one family or child needs to go through this alone. There may be SPEDNet (Special Ed Network) groups in specific towns. Our organization, Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities provides expert guidance for families with kids with LD, ADHD, NLD, and other learning differences. The Asperger Autism Network (AANE) has resources for parents of kids with NLD; CHADD has resources for parents of children with ADHD.

This is a good time for families to reflect on those practices that work best for their children and themselves when dealing with difficult feelings. Do sensory tools work? How about listening to music, taking walks, or just talking? Remember that for yourselves and your children, when you’re upset is not the time to talk logically. Emotional arousal takes the thinking part of the brain offline, so when your child is upset is a good time to understand and soothe or give space but not a great time to talk through problems and strategies. A strategic time out isn’t a punishment, it’s recognition that we all need time to process.

Marcia Eckerd is an evaluator, consultant, and therapist who specializes in working with children with NLD and autism-spectrum disorders.