The past year-plus was like no other in schools across the United States, and experts are just starting to get a handle on the academic toll the rollercoaster of COVID-19 disruptions took on kids. A recent New York Times report suggests, for example, that most children in this country are behind in reading and math — by about four to five months, on average — and within that, there are significant racial and economic disparities.
It’s unsettling news if you’re a parent who wants the best for your child and who has witnessed firsthand just how disruptive this time has already been — with another potentially strange academic year looming just around the corner.
With that in mind, HuffPost Parents spoke with several experts about what learning loss is (and isn’t), and what parents can do to help their kiddos now.
Myth #1: Learning loss is easy to spot and easy to define.
Learning loss is a fairly broad term that can be measured using many different tools and standards. And it simply hasn’t been that long since the previous academic year wrapped up, so there isn’t a broad consensus on exactly how far “behind” America’s kids are at this point.
“Learning loss can be defined in many ways but, in general, it addresses the decline in learning outcomes for children over defined periods of time,” said Alicia Levi, president and CEO of Reading Is Fundamental, a nonprofit that works to promote children’s literacy.
“In a school year, we’re supposed to see growth,” added Lisa Collum, a teacher and owner of Top Score Writing.
So when experts talk about “loss,” they’re generally talking about a lack of growth, she explained.
And there are other types of loss, too, that are more difficult to define but can be just as meaningful, if not more so — like social, emotional and developmental setbacks.
“There have been social, emotional and behavioral regressions that took time away from learning,” said Dr. Malia Beckwith, section chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics with Children’s Specialized Hospital in New Jersey.
Myth #2: Experts have never dealt with this kind of learning loss before.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly taken a toll on kids’ learning, educators have ample experience helping kids catch up.
“We do this all the time. We deal with kids who come in, who are way behind. We deal with kids that come in who don’t have the resources at home or outside of school that some other kids do,” said Collum.
“Remember: There are a lot of experts whose sole focus right now is helping kids readjust and learn.”
Summer learning loss is a well-known issue that educators grapple with every year.
“We’re just looking at this on a broader scale,” Collum said. So teachers may have a pretty big group of children who are behind typical benchmarks in their class next year, she said — instead of, say, only three or four children. But the strategies teachers use to help students catch up are likely to be similar to what they’ve used before, just with more kids.
“We’re going to have to adapt the strategies and resources that we use with a small group of kids [to] our whole class,” Collum said. “We may not have a whole-group structure this year. We may have more of a small-group structure because we’re going to have kids at different levels. But we do that, as educators, anyway.”
Ultimately, Collum said, it’s important to reassure parents that while the past year was unprecedented, teachers and schools have experience helping kids get caught up once they’ve got a sense of where they are. She told HuffPost that she hopes that knowledge will help alleviate some of the stress parents might be feeling as we head into the next school year.
Myth #3: Learning loss doesn’t matter.
While teachers like Collum do not want parents to feel stressed, they also emphasize that learning loss is something that needs to be taken seriously.
“You can’t look at starting fresh in the next grade and next chapter if kids don’t have certain foundational skills from the year before,” Collum said.
“We’re just going to have to be open, as parents, to hearing: ‘My kid is a level behind, and I need to do this,’” said Collum, who is herself a mom of four.
Be open to collaborating with your child’s teacher and school to determine what you can do together to help them out, and try not to get defensive, she urged.
And there are kids who have been hit really hard by the disruptions and trauma of the past year, like kids who attend low-income schools and others whose special education programs were thrown into chaos.
“I haven’t found much research specific to kids with special needs or kids with autism, but my anecdotal take has been that the impacts have been greater,” said Beckwith, who works with children on the autism spectrum. Many of her patients really thrive on routine, she said, which made the past year-plus especially difficult.
“What I saw with my patients with autism was the presence of new, challenging behaviors when they were trying to encounter this new scenario, which really limited their ability to focus,” Beckwith said. “If we’re working on managing a tantrum, that might take two or three hours of the day that they might otherwise have been working on reading comprehension.”
“Find a few minutes for reading at the breakfast table, on the camp bus, at the pool and at bedtime.”
Myth #4: There’s nothing parents can do.
Learning loss is a complex issue that should not (and does not!) fall squarely on parents to address. Still, there are steps parents and caregivers can take to help children in the weeks before the new school year begins — and beyond.
“In these last weeks of summer, we encourage you to make reading an everyday habit with your family,” said Levi. “Find a few minutes for reading at the breakfast table, on the camp bus, at the pool and at bedtime.” Try and work reading into relatable, daily activities, like reading a recipe and cooking together, she said.
Also, think broadly about how you can create what Levi called a “culture of literacy at home. Create a cozy reading nook, she suggested, make sure kids are surrounded by reading materials, and model reading yourself. (Reading Is Fundamental has a helpful list of tips about reducing “summer slide.”)
It might be helpful to prep children for the next year by taking them back to their school if they haven’t been there for a while, Beckwith added, and just reminding them of what that physical space is like. “If you’re able to, go on the playground take a lunch and have a picnic,” she said.
Have them talk about what they remember from going to school prior to the pandemic. Really, you’re helping children get emotionally primed for the year to come so they’re in the best possible position to soak up new information.
And remember: There are a lot of experts whose sole focus right now is helping kids readjust and learn. Collum pointed to the significant federal funding that now exists to support learning recovery across the country. Many children will have access to programs and assistance in a way they didn’t before.
“There are tons of free resources now,” she said, “and there’s just going to be more and more throughout the year.”