As if parents need one more thing to worry about amid the chaos and expense of summer child care arrangements, along comes summer learning loss.
Also known as the “summer slide,” it’s the loss of learning opportunities over the summer vacation that leaves kids’ skill levels stagnant — at best — or lower than before when they return to school.
There is “compelling evidence” that summer learning loss is real, Paul G. Fitchett, professor and department head of the College of Education at Auburn University in Alabama, told HuffPost. “Some studies suggest up to a month of school year learning is lost over the summer,” he added.
“While the concept has been around for a century, we have started paying more attention to it in COVID-era schooling, due to what many children and educators experienced as the longest summer break of their careers,” Sally G. Parish, associate vice president for educational initiatives at the University of Memphis in Tennessee, told HuffPost.
If you’re thinking, “I don’t want my kids practicing their multiplication tables over summer break instead of horseback riding and roasting marshmallows over a campfire,” then your kids actually aren’t the ones educators are worried about.
Laura Bronstein, dean of the College of Community and Public Affairs at Binghamton University in New York, told HuffPost that “activities that keep their mind moving during the summer” are what prevent learning loss. Any kind of engaging activity that promotes kids’ overall development — such as travel, arts or athletics — will help them build important skills.
It’s the kids who aren’t given these kinds of opportunities that lose out, and these losses compound over the years.
In a research brief for the National Summer Learning Association, Karl Alexander, a professor of sociology at John Hopkins, says his research found that approximately two-thirds of the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged youth in the ninth grade can be attributed to cumulative summer learning loss throughout the elementary school years.
The impact of this doesn’t end in high school. Disadvantaged kids are less likely than their more advantaged peers to take a college preparatory path, and two-thirds of this disparity was also attributable to summer learning loss. In Alexander’s study of about 800 children from first grade into adulthood, 40% of the students didn’t earn a high school diploma, limiting their employment prospects and earning potential for life.
Families should understand that summer learning loss is a systemic issue and not their fault.
The good news is that by getting kids into summer enrichment programs or by providing learning opportunities for kids at home and in their communities, we can halt and even reverse summer learning loss, creating a more equitable education system.
Utilize local resources, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
One of the biggest resources is your child’s teacher, who knows students well after a year of working together. “Our teachers are truly content experts and should be relied upon to know where each child is in their learning journey, and what supports will get them to the next level,” Parish said.
Fitchett noted that his university, like many, offers an assortment of camps and programs for local K-12 students over the summer. Public schools have received federal funding to address the learning loss that occurred over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, and many are using this money to run free summer programs for students.
Bronstein works with community schools in Binghamton that offer students and families wraparound services such as health care, counseling, after-school care and summer learning opportunities.
These community schools, she said, “have shown remarkable success in terms of graduation rates” and as “a way to interrupt the intergenerational cycle of poverty.”
“We work with a lot of families where nobody has graduated high school. And when we talk to these families and we say, ‘What do you want for your kids?’ They always say, ‘I want them to graduate. I want them to be able to go to college ... or at least to have a career they feel is meaningful.’”
“One thing that COVID did do for us was teach us that ... there are ways that kids can keep the learning going when they’re not in the classroom.”
While much of the disparity can be attributed to income, since summer camps and other activities are prohibitively expensive for many families, there are other contributing factors.
“[It] depends on families being able to know how to access those programs, get on waiting lists, fill out applications — if English is not your first language, if you’re not used to being in those realms,” Bronstein said. Some families write off the idea of summer activities due to cost — not realizing that scholarships are available — or because they feel embarrassed to ask about them.
When looking for a program, you want to see that there are goals beyond keeping kids occupied. Does an athletics camp aim to foster good sportsmanship? Is social and emotional learning prioritized?
If there’s a program you think would be a good fit for your child, don’t hesitate to ask about financial assistance. If you live near a university or other institution, there may even be funds set aside for members of the community to participate in summer youth programs. You can also talk to your child’s school counselor about opportunities available in your area.
Low-tech activities can offer high-impact learning.
Whether you’re looking for a summer program or trying to plan your own days off work with your kids, preventing summer learning loss doesn’t need to look fancy. A simple activity like a hike, for example, might just seem like exercise. But Bronstein explains that planning a route, reading a map, deciding what to pack and preparing for the weather all sharpen kids’ thinking skills before they’ve even put their shoes on.
While “traditional academics” like you might see in a summer school classroom can be useful when “kids that need extra support,” Bronstein said, “anything that engages the mind” can help prevent summer learning loss.
“Rather than stressing over additional summer tutors, consider a shared ‘learning’ activity with your kids,” advised Fitchett. Potential ideas include:
- Reading books together
- Listening to audiobooks in the car
- Reading a book, then watching a movie based on it, comparing the two
- Going to the library
- Doing arts & crafts
- Visiting museums (check for days that are low-cost or free).
“As a mom of two school-aged children myself, I cannot emphasize enough the value of your public library as a resource to prevent summer learning loss,” said Parish, who visits her local library weekly with her kids.
Parish recommended “finding ways to incorporate children into daily activities around the home that can incorporate the skills they learned in the classroom.” Calculating mileage for a road trip or measurements for a recipe are two examples. An activity such as planting a vegetable garden requires using a number of important skills.
“I like to think of it as sneaking reading into your summertime activities and just making it a natural part for everybody, because that modeling by the parents is so important,” Suzanne Barchers, chair of the educational advisory board for the app Lingokids, told HuffPost.
She suggested incorporating math or spelling practice into bouncing on the trampoline or passing a soccer ball back and forth — each jump or kick could correspond with the answer to an equation you give them, or the next letter in a word.
Another strategy is to team up with other families and capitalize on your strengths. Perhaps one parent does informal swimming lessons with a small group of kids at the pool one day a week, while another leads a cooking activity on a different day.
“One thing that COVID did do for us was teach us that ... there are ways that kids can keep the learning going when they’re not in the classroom,” Barchers said. Parents can encourage this in their own attitudes towards learning, she explained. “They have to show the kids that they read, that they’re curious, that they find out about things, that they’re willing to put in the time [and] read aloud to the kids, have the kids read to them.”
There is a dizzying array of learning apps featuring sophisticated animation promising to turn your child’s screen time into something more worthwhile. And these can be excellent resources for independent learners — that is, the kids who need them least.
But most kids can’t be expected to remain meaningfully on-task without the attentive presence of an adult. Once their attention starts to wane, or the material becomes difficult, kids will often start guessing answers and clicking at random in order to log “progress” or “completion” of an activity that will show up in a bar graph somewhere but doesn’t correlate to actual learning.
If you have a child savant who wants to use a language app to teach themselves Swahili over the summer, by all means, don’t get in their way. But if your kid needs some basic math practice, taking them with you to the grocery store or making muffins at home with them will probably be more effective than any digital game.