If it seems like your children don’t remember long division or how to spell “literature,” they may be a victim of the dreaded summer slide.
Also called summer learning loss, the summer slide can leave children behind at the beginning of the school year and end up slowing the entire classroom down. According to a 2016 study in Teachers College Press, students can forget up to one month’s worth of education over the summer as measured by achievement scores. And it can be even more.
As the new school year kicks off, you might be worried that your son didn’t do any multiplication worksheets or that your daughter didn’t read enough “serious” books. But let’s put that in perspective.
Have your kids been reading anything, even comic books or magazines? Did your teen have a job that taught new skills? Did your grade schooler spend time playing math games on the computer? Did you turn on an audiobook during the family vacation car ride? Your child might not be as bad off as you fear.
Summer learning loss, however, is a very real thing. Kids tend to lose more math skills than reading skills over the summer break, and older kids tend to lose more than younger kids. Kids from lower-income families tend to forget more than kids from families with more resources, studies show.
Meanwhile, children with special education needs can lose more than just academic skills. “Most kids don’t lose fine motor skills or adaptive skills,” says Divya Mathur, a special education teacher in Knoxville, Tenn. “My kids can lose everything. Some kids need a behavior plan, and without structure over the summer, forget appropriate classroom behavior. Kids who need speech therapy lose articulation and other skills over the summer.”
Why Does Summer Learning Loss Matter?
Summer learning loss causes headaches for teachers, parents and students. Teachers can spend weeks re-teaching information that students should already know, preventing the class from moving on to new topics. All teachers expect learning loss and plan for it, Mathur says. “The first two weeks of school usually focus on classroom procedures and review of old information to give students the confidence to move forward.”
Summer learning loss can also widen the learning gap between children from different socioeconomic backgrounds.
Children from higher-income families continue to learn over the summer through camps, learning programs or from their parents. Children from lower-income families, however, may not have as much access to programs — or parents — that can help them continue to learn.
When children come back in the fall, this may result in a widening gap when lower-income kids aren’t ready for the same new material.
How Can We Stop Summer Learning Loss
Unfortunately, many parents don’t have the time or resources to help their child maintain structure and educational opportunities over the summer. In particular, special education students, who may receive counseling, speech therapy or occupational therapy services at school, can miss out on the support they need. Mathur says teachers can help.
“Parents can collaborate with teachers about specific skills to practice over the summer,” she says. “Some teachers provide packets or summer homework that can help.”
Other programs, through both the school and community, can keep children learning year-round. Special education students may qualify for an extended school year to help them keep up the structure, speech therapy services and other support they receive while at school. Many public libraries already offer free summer reading programs that encourage children to keep reading and learning over the summer — so keep these in mind for next year if you’re not already utilizing them. These programs often include special activities that can also help with other learning skills, like hands-on science activities and homework-help programs in math.
Reading just 20 minutes per day can help your child maintain skills at any time during the year. While they should be encouraged to read books on their own, parents can also help by reading to children every night.
Could School Year-Round Help?
Current school years are set according to farming calendars in different communities, making them outdated in most parts of the country. Only about 4 percent of public schools operate on year-round schedules, although studies show that a modified calendar that replaces a long summer break with shorter breaks throughout the year may have benefits for children’s learning.
“I do think it could potentially benefit some kids, especially some of our kids in special education, to have school year-round,” Mathur says.
The studies agree, showing that children from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds and children who typically do poorly in school achieve better scores on a modified year-round calendar. These studies also show that parents and teachers on modified calendars have a positive experience.
School’s back in session, so worrying too much about what your children did or didn’t learn over the summer is moot. Let’s now focus on the school year ahead, get back on track and encourage our kids to want to learn year-round — and provide them with the programs to do so.
The summer slide is cumulative — meaning the lost months add up over time — so the sooner parents address the issue, the sooner children will perform better in the long run and develop learning habits that will last a lifetime.
And hopefully, by the time next summer rolls around, they’ll be more likely to crack a book on vacation.