During summers before the pandemic, I was delighted to let my 7-year-old explore different sides of himself than what he focuses on during the school year. This might have meant more time in nature, doing fun coding projects, binge-reading age-appropriate spy series or spraying his little brother with the hose.
I saw it as enrichment, but not the intensive parenting variety in which each and every activity must fit inside a neat trajectory leading to college acceptance, leading to an impressive degree, leading to a top-notch resume, leading to an impressive job. Instead, I wanted him to discover new interests and have a good time.
This summer, with a pandemic-disrupted semester behind us and a pandemic-disrupted one likely in front of us, feels different. These days, I’m getting tempted to trot out the worksheets. Will he forget how to write an upper-case “Q”? How division works? What a topic sentence is?
I had heard about the summer slide, or the way children can academically regress over the summer break, and I wondered what this would mean for our education-deprived children this year.
The pandemic will likely have a negative impact on the education of millions of children throughout the United States and around the world, particularly those families without internet access or a caregiver who can oversee their education.
Whether this means that I need to push math problems on my kid this summer is another question. Newer research on summer learning loss shows that taking a summer-length break from academics isn’t an inevitable setback for kids, regardless of their socioeconomic status. Also, the break from prescriptive academics could give families a chance to focus on social and emotional learning, teaching our kids much-needed coping skills in these scary and unpredictable times.
The summer slide is not ubiquitous or inevitable
The original research on summer learning loss from the late 1990s found that students can lose roughly one month of learning over the summer, and that the loss was worse for children from low-income backgrounds. But more recent studies and scrutiny of those earlier studies have cast doubt on these findings.
Today, there is evidence that summer learning loss isn’t as bad or common as previously thought, and that goes for students of all socioeconomic backgrounds. For those students who did experience loss, the evidence showed that race, ethnicity and neighborhood poverty levels were only minimally associated.
“Summer learning loss is one of those things that we, as a society, have an idea about, but the research is less consistent than people think,” said Megan Kuhfeld, a research scientist at NWEA (Northwest Evaluation Association), a not-for-profit K through 12 assessment provider. “Also, we don’t have a good sense of why some students lose ground and others don’t.”
Experts are still invested in better understanding summer learning loss, and how to make best use of the season to help reverse educational inequities.
But the fact that the research is inconclusive, and far less ominous than originally thought, does leave room for parents to assess their children’s summer needs on their own terms.
“Parents should remember that there is a lot of variation across individuals in terms of what they learn over the summer. Some learn a lot, some lose, some stay flat,” said David M. Quinn, assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California.
You might be inclined to enroll your kids in an academic program this summer or take them on an educational excursion to the zoo, aquarium or museum — should they be open. Those can be wonderful, but they aren’t necessarily connected to academic gains. (Reading and math programs can help, but research shows that those who don’t particpate in such programs can make similar gains to those who do.)
Should you arrive at the end of the summer and your child seems a little behind, it’s no reason to fret. Summer learning loss doesn’t necessarily mean your child will stay behind the whole year, research has shown. Many catch up. (As a point of comparison, students who go to year-round schools and have shorter summer breaks don’t necessarily make more academic gains than students who have longer summer breaks.)
Overall, it’s important to remember that the research on summer learning loss mostly looks at standardized tests assessing reading and math skills taken early fall, after the break.
As essential as these subjects are, there are so many other ways to grow and learn. Studies show that both test scores and social skills matter in predicting future life outcomes, Quinn said, with some economists arguing that social skills matter more.
“Summer is important for developing interpersonal skills, but that is not what is getting measured when we look at the summer slide,” Kuhfeld said.
Don’t forget emotional intelligence
Today’s students are learning social and emotional skills at school, which help them develop responsibility, social awareness and self-management. As parents think about filling educational gaps created by the summer and distance learning, they should keep these less data-driven lessons in mind as well.
Emotional intelligence can take place within the context of an academic project, said Marc Brackett, founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and author of “Permission to Feel.”
If your child loves robots or oceans or clothing, you might consider having him take up a research project on the subject. Perhaps you even work together on it. He’ll get a chance to learn more about something he’s passionate about, as well as the relevant social and emotional skills required to collaborate, and manage and complete a task.
However, if kids seem anxious or depressed, Brackett said “parents have to work on that first.”
Don’t start by asking kids how they are doing, which will more often than not result in a blank stare — especially if they are having new, uncomfortable feelings.
Instead, parents should role model effective strategies for dealing with their own anxiety, Brackett suggested. This could involve talking about labeling feelings, discussing them honestly and in detail and finding ways to deal with their own fear and sadness. Over time, a child will recognize the same feelings in him or herself, and get a sense of how one might go about discussing and dealing with those feelings.
Brackett also encourages families to sit down and discuss how they want to feel as a family, and ways they can get there. This teaches kids that resilience isn’t up to the individual — an oft-touted idea in educational circles — but the community, and we have to find our way through difficult moments together. The fact that we are in, for many, a uniquely difficult moment makes this a particularly rich moment for such a lesson.
If this is all a child learns over the course of this particular summer, it is, very likely, enough.
There’s no universal summer curriculum
Children, it needs to be said again and again and again, are all different. What is right for one can be counterproductive for another.
If you are worried about your kid’s progress in a particular subject, and you have found a way to engage her in this subject over the summer without adding unnecessary stress, that’s great.
Overall, it never hurts to get your hands on books that your kid would like. One idea: We recently posted on a neighborhood listserv asking if anyone had kids’ chapter books that were gathering dust, and received boxes of them. Let her play some of those video games that also teach math, if that’s her thing. If worksheets are exciting for all, do some worksheets.
Or, give your kid as much space as possible and allow him to find his own way through the summer, possibly discovering new and exciting skills and interests that aren’t measurable on standardized tests.
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This summer, we’ll probably do a mix, and, like everything else right now, it will change day to day, feeling to feeling. Some days learning will be reading, some days it will be Legos and some days long heart-to-heart conversations at sunset.
I can’t promise I won’t trot out a math worksheet at some point, but I can sincerely say that, at this point, I am not planning on it. When school returns, he might forget that upper-case “Q,” and how division works, but that’s OK. When the time is right, he’ll learn that, too.
Elissa Strauss is a regular contributor to CNN, where she writes about the politics and culture of parenthood. She is writing a book about the power of caring for others for Simon & Schuster. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Glamour and Parents. Follow her on Twitter @elissaavery.