ADHD News & Research

Study: COVID Disruptions Contribute to Misdiagnosis of Learning Disorders in Children

Learning disorders are missed or inaccurately diagnosed because of pandemic-related educational disruptions and diagnostic criteria unchanged during the pandemic, according to researchers.

April 25, 2022

Educational disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic may contribute to inaccurate or missed diagnoses of learning disorders in children, according to a new report in Nature Reviews Psychology that argues such errors may delay or deny necessary interventions and educational support. 1

Since COVID-19 lockdowns began in March 2020, millions of children have experienced school closures, virtual learning, reduced or eliminated access to support services and interventions, and psychosocial adversity (such as the death of a loved one or decreased social support). The pandemic has also strained students’ mental health (increasing depression and anxiety) and diminished learning gains (especially in math and reading).2

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) a learning disorder diagnosis may only be made when “difficulties in learning and using academic skills must have persisted for at least six months despite intervention and cannot be accounted for by psychosocial adversity or inadequate instruction,” of which there has been plenty during the pandemic. Adherence to this strict DSM stipulation may result in false negatives — the dismissal of legitimate symptoms of learning disabilities due to ongoing psychosocial adversity.

In addition, the authors continued, “some schools have changed their curriculum, making it difficult to discern whether observed learning difficulties and low achievement scores reflect an underlying learning disorder or lack of instruction. This difficulty is confounded if standardized academic assessments use pre-COVID-19 normative data to assess COVID-19 era progress.” 1
This scenario may lead to false positives — the diagnosis of learning disorders in children whose challenges are better attributed to other underlying causes.

The authors recommended that the diagnostic criteria for learning differences be modified to reduce the risk of misdiagnosis. “Without a holistic and integrated approach to diagnosis, psychologists risk failing to identify children who have learning disorders during crucial intervention windows or misattributing the effects of attenuated learning gains due to COVID-19 disruptions to a learning disorder,” they wrote. “Such errors will only compound the disproportionate effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the most vulnerable children.”

Approximately 10% of children and adolescents in the U.S. are diagnosed with a specific learning disorder, which can impair reading (dyslexia), math (dyscalculia), or writing (dysgraphia). 3

View Article Sources

1Colvin, M.K., Reesman, J. & Glen, T. (2022). Reforming learning disorder diagnosis following COVID-19 educational disruption. Nature Reviews Psychology.//

2 Colvin, M. K. M., Reesman, J. & Glen, T.(2022).The impact of COVID-19 related educational disruption on children and adolescents: An interim data summary and commentary on ten considerations for neuropsychological practice. The Clinical Neuropsychologist,36(1), 45–71. //

3Altarac, M. & Saroha, E. (February 2007). Lifetime prevalence of learning disability among US children. Pediatrics. 119 (Suppl 1), S77–S83//org/10.1542/peds.2006-2089L