NEW YORK (PIX11) — The COVID-19 pandemic upended the lives of everyone, particularly children, and the full effects may not be known for some time.
After a lengthy period of remote learning, kids returned to the classroom and faced a new set of struggles. Some families may be worried that their child fell behind in learning or wondering whether they should be evaluated for a learning disability or a neurodivergent condition, like ADHD.
New Jersey mom Amanda Grant shared her son’s journey with PIX11 News with the hope of raising awareness. Grant beams with pride as she talks about her 12-year-old son, Isaac.
“He is a person whose natural state is one of joy and happiness. He’s got a great sense of humor, he is an athlete, playing every sport you can think of,” said Grant. “He also has this talent for sort of making connections in the world that you normally wouldn’t think of.”
The sixth-grader is now thriving, but he had hit a rough patch for most of the fifth grade. When the pandemic first started, Isaac was 10 and in fourth grade. He went from being a star athlete who got all As and Bs, to almost failing.
“It was fun; ‘we don’t have to go to school;’ this is kind of cool learning from home and being on a computer all day,” Grant said of the pivot to remote learning in 2020. “It was exciting, it was novel, it felt temporary at that time and I think that’s what made it appealing.”
When Isaac’s New Jersey school initially shut down in March of 2020, mother and son adapted well to being at home. But then remote learning dragged on, and on, and into the following fall. That’s when Grant began seeing the cracks.
Her studious son stopped completing assignments, dropped off Zoom classes, and there was an overall lack of focus and attention to detail. There was a lot of anger and frustration.
“Our relationship started changing,” said Grant. “Isaac and I always had this amazing parent-child relationship full of joy and laughter and trust and open communication and he started to shut down.”
Grant said as she kept asking Isaac why he wasn’t doing his schoolwork, he would always answer ‘I don’t know.’ She would find out later on, he truly did not know, nor did he understand what he was dealing with.
Dr. Marcie Beigel, or “Dr. Marcie” as she is referred to, is a behavior specialist who works with children and parents. She said school provided kids with a set of rules to follow. The sudden pivot to remote learning completely changed students’ routines and created new distractions.
“The conflicts that were happening within homes, everyone was so overwhelmed, having so many feelings about the pandemic that we didn’t know how to talk about and didn’t know to express,” Beigel said.
Beigel added that the disruption in routine presented unique challenges for children who are neurodivergent. Neurodivergence describes is a series of conditions related to the brain being wired differently. However, it’s important to note that it’s different – not deficient. A common neurodiverse condition is Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, ADHD.
“Isaac was in a downward spiral that didn’t appear to have a bottom,” said Grant. “I’m just lost, I don’t know what to do, I don’t know how to help my own child, I can see he’s suffering, and I don’t know how to help him.”
As Issac declined academically, his self-esteem also took a dive. The lack of social contact with teammates and friends due to social distancing also had a tremendous effect. Then the harrowing images of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody and the ensuing protests caused more pain for Isaac.
“Isaac and I are a multi-racial, diverse family. Isaac is Black and the world was going through some real pain regarding the death of George Floyd,” said Grant. “For a Black boy, managing the pandemic, managing what appeared to be indescribable struggles in education all of a sudden, and then having to figure out his identity, it all became very explosive.”
Grant sought the help of Isaac’s school. Educators immediately recommended a psychologist and for Isaac to be evaluated.
“Putting this individual in place to support and talk to Isaac really came at a point of crisis and at a time when Isaac really was shattered in pieces,” Grant said.
A series of lengthy tests determined Isaac has ADHD.
“I don’t think we would’ve recognized Isaac had ADHD or that the signs would’ve been as blatant and painfully disruptive as they were, had the pandemic and remote learning not happened,” said Grant.
The greater question many experts are asking is: Has the pandemic taken a heavy toll on education and children’s mental health? Beigel said only time will tell.
“The truth is we don’t know. My hope is no, kids are resilient and hopefully they’ll be able to roll with it and go back to socializing and be connected in ways that feel good and safe to them.”
Beigel said to keep the lines of communication open with your kids and if you’re not sure if they’re behind in school and experiencing learning difficulties due to remote learning, or need to be evaluated for a neurodivergent condition, ask the professionals.
“If you’re seeing that they’re having a really hard time, reach out to an expert so they can help you decide because parents aren’t trained in child development, they’re not trained in learning differences,” said Beigel.
Beigel’s practice specializes in so-called “parent training.”
“Often a parenting style is just a mismatch for what their kid needs. It’s not wrong or bad, especially if you have a neurodivergent child, they need a different set of tools than maybe what you were taught as a child,” said Beigel.
Advocating for her son made all the difference for Grant. After trying for so long to make sense of why he was struggling, Isaac is relieved to have a diagnosis and he embraces his ADHD like a superpower.
Isaac’s school also provided a tremendous amount of help. The simple change of moving him to the front of the class so he can focus more on the teaching has been beneficial, as has bigger moves like re-training his brain on how to process information. Assignments are broken down into small pieces and he’s learned how to consciously go back and look at reference material. He also continues working with his therapists.
“The resilience Isaac has shown and the cognitive and emotional growth that has taken place has blown me away,” said Grant. “Watching him grow into his own has probably been the greatest success, probably the greatest joy I will ever experience.”