When Monica Beckett’s eight-year-old daughter was learning remotely from home last year, the mother of three from Cochrane, Alta., began to suspect that her youngest child might have a learning disability.
“When she came home to learn during COVID, I got a really clear idea of how she just can’t keep up with the class. She didn’t feel like she was able to be seen when she put her hand up over Zoom and not being able to have her voice in her class was overwhelming for her and so she would retreat into my arms.”
Years earlier, Ms. Beckett’s 12-year-old son had been diagnosed with ADHD. That process had meant waiting so long to see a school psychologist for a psycho-educational assessment – required by school boards for students seeking additional classroom supports – that she eventually turned to the private sector, an option only available to her because it was covered by her husband’s private insurance.
Having gone through that experience once, Ms. Beckett wasn’t going to delay when it came to her daughter. She has scheduled an assessment appointment through the private sector, which has meant facing a wait of only a few months.
“It’s not a fair game. You get a lot more support if you can fund it,” Ms. Beckett said.
Children returning to school have plenty of catching up to do because of disruptions brought on by the pandemic. But students who may have learning disabilities are facing an even greater challenge. Wait-lists to get psycho-educational assessments – which typically lead to schools providing accommodations such as more time on tests or more frequent breaks from class – have ballooned to the point where children in need face wait-lists of up to two years or more in many parts of the country. Parents who can afford the private sector, where assessments cost thousands of dollars, may wait only months.
In Canada, as many as one in 10 children have a learning a learning disability, according to the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada, and early intervention is essential, say psychologists and academics in the field.
“Timely intervention can actually prevent later special education needs by up to 60 per cent,” said Gabrielle Young, an associate professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland whose work focuses on various aspects of learning disabilities.
Krista Poole, chief executive officer of the CanLearn Society, a Calgary-based non-profit organization that provides assessments for children with learning disabilities, said some students who act out in class may have been waiting so long for an assessment and the help they need that their issues have boiled over into something more troubling.
“No Grade 2 student who appears to have a learning disability should get to Grade 4 without an assessment,” she said.
The public system, however, simply isn’t equipped to deal with demand in most parts of the country, said Dr. Mitch Colp, an educational and pediatric psychologist based in Airdrie, Alta. “There’s a triage process that happens at the schools based on need area, which ends up resulting in some schools maybe only getting a handful of assessments each year.”
Resources are directed at children with the most severe learning difficulties; those struggling with mild to moderate issues often wait years in the public system, he said.
Even in the private sector, wait-lists can be years long for families in financial need.
At the CanLearn Society, the wait-list for those requiring donor assistance has jumped to three years, up from one year prior to the pandemic.
“At one point we thought, do we close this waiting list? Because three years, it’s unethical to have families waiting that long. It’s too long,” Ms. Poole said.
The organization ultimately decided to maintain the wait-list because, she said, “kids might not even get an assessment through the school system ever.”
More parents may be asking for appointments after seeing first-hand how their children performed during remote learning last year, said Dr. Karen MacMillan, executive co-director of the Foothills Academy Society, a Calgary-based school for children with learning disabilities that also provides assessments.
“Maybe parents were seeing up-close what they may have not really had that close a look at, in terms of watching their kids struggle,” she said.
Lily Riggs, director of assessment and neuropsychology at Toronto’s Red Oak Centre, said her private practice has doubled its capacity for assessments since the pandemic began: Staff are seeing close to 20 children and young people a month, double what it was prepandemic. Each assessment takes about two to four weeks and costs roughly $3,800.
She worries about children who are languishing on wait-lists, but also others whose learning and behavioural needs haven’t been recognized because of the lockdowns.
“I’m concerned about a lot of kids who are going to fall through the gaps,” Dr. Riggs said. “As far as I know, schools have always had longer wait-lists. Even before the pandemic, some kids were waiting one to two years for an assessment. My concern from this past year is that not only were there not as many kids seen for assessments, but also not as many being referred for assessments.”
Annie Kidder, executive director of the advocacy group People for Education, echoed the sentiment. In a typical academic year, teachers would flag issues with learning and behaviour and may have had informal conversations with parents. With remote learning, those conversations might not have happened, she said, and pandemic restrictions may have exacerbated issues.
“If you think about the last year that kids have gone through and all of the disruptions and all of the uncertainty, one could guess that if you combine that with some sort of learning issue that hasn’t been diagnosed yet, you could imagine it was made worse this last year,” Ms. Kidder said.
Oliver Foese, the head of the Association of Psychology Leaders in Ontario Schools, said that where it was possible, several school boards moved to online assessments, and some allowed for summer assessments if they had the funding.
Psychology departments are not only dealing with a backlog of assessments, but also the mental health challenges that many students are facing after months of disrupted learning and isolation, said Mr. Foese, who is also the chief psychologist at the Halton Catholic District School Board.
And staffing remains an issue at his board and others; Mr. Foese has two and a half unfilled positions in his department. There are not enough psychologists coming out of university programs, and school boards are also competing with private agencies, he said.
The shortages mean that psychologists may not be able to meet the needs of students.
“The worry is that going forward we may fall behind in the wait-list,” he said.
As for Ms. Beckett, while she acknowledges that the system is unfairly tilted toward families who can pay for private assessments, she has no regrets.
“The people we had working for us in the public system really wanted the best for the kids and that’s very apparent,” she said. “They just don’t have the resources the private sector does,”
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