A Plan for Preventing Summer Learning Loss

Parental perspective on summer time, screen time, and making up time.

GUEST COLUMN | by Niyoka McCoy

As we steadily approach another school year, I am reminded of the day my daughter finished preschool. It was my first graduation as a parent, and I couldn’t have been prouder. I also couldn’t help but think about what was to come – in kindergarten, and in those long summer months before classes began again.

My daughter had built up all this great momentum in preschool, and I couldn’t help but worry about how best to maintain it. I wanted nothing more than for her to hit the ground running in September. I soon realized that if that was going to happen, it was going to be up to me.

‘I soon realized that if that was going to happen, it was going to be up to me.’

As my daughter gets older, this has become something of a yearly ritual – and it turns out, I’m not alone. As an educator, one of the most common questions I hear from parents during this time of year is to best prevent learning loss – and for good reason. A recent study finds that first through eighth graders lose 17 to 34 percent of the previous year’s learning over the course of summer break. That’s an alarmingly high figure that equates to cutting an entire three months of class time from the academic calendar.

Here in 2022, the alarm bells should be ringing even louder. We know we’re already up against an epidemic of learning loss created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Math scores are down. Reading scores are down. And the losses are disproportionately impacting students in high poverty areas the most. If ever there was a summer when parents need to take charge and help their kids not just lose ground, but actually make some up, this is it.

The good news is that I believe parents actually can make a difference. The studies that track learning loss find a great deal of variation from student to student – and those variations are not easily explained by cultural, racial, or socio-economic differences in student demographics. This tells me that it’s primarily about the level of support students are receiving at home – and that we parents have a lot more power to curb summer learning loss than we might think.

So, what should we be doing with that power? As a parent who also works in education each and every day (and who’s now seen a few summer vacations come and go), I’ve developed a few strategies that have worked for our family and may work for yours too.

1. For younger children

For preschoolers, kindergarteners, and kids in first and second grade, it’s all about finding ways to wrap learning into the daily activities they’d be participating in anyway. For example, parents can activate the closed captioning during screen time to help younger students hone their reading skills. They can emphasize the scorekeeping element of board games and outdoor sports to keep math top of mind. With a little creativity, learning can be infused in just about everything young kids are doing. And don’t forget to stay vigilant with school-year routines that sometimes lag in the summer months, such as reading at bedtime.

(For working parents who might not have much time at home – try asking your younger kids to record themselves reading and send you the file via an iPad or other device.)

2. For elementary school students

For kids in grades three through six, technology can be a parent’s best friend during the summer months. There are a myriad of free sites that offer lessons in math, reading, science, geography, history, and more. And, best of all, many of these sites have “gamified” their lessons in ways that make learning fun and feel like less of a chore. YouTube is also a great repository of content that can introduce new concepts, review old ones, and keeps kids engaged as the summer months wear on. And parents can play word games on their phones against their kids to help teach new vocabulary and spelling skills.

(For parents who want to limit screen time in the summer – try asking kids to handwrite a letter to a pen pal, or turn family meal prep into a learning opportunity in which kids can learn fractions and measuring, among many other things.)

3. For junior high and high schoolers

When older kids want to be more social and spend time with friends in the summer, parents can use those instincts to their advantage. They can help organize hangouts or meet-ups around a science experiment or a project that might require more advanced math concepts (such as using geometry to plot a garden). They can also help organize a summer book club that boosts reading comprehension. Or they can even make summer classes more enjoyable by signing kids up in pairs or encouraging groups of friends to enroll together.

(For parents with kids sixteen and older – asking the kids to run errands or buy a few groceries at the store can help them further develop the organizational and budget skills they’ll need in college.)

There are no wrong answers

If there’s one thing for parents to know about combatting summer learning loss, it’s that there are no wrong answers or approaches. As long as you bring a little creativity and discipline to the effort, you will help your kids take ownership of their learning and lean into it in ways that make summer an accelerator of their progress, rather than a drag.

Niyoka McCoy, a parent and former teacher, is Senior Vice President of Academic Services and Chief Learning Officer at Stride, Inc., a learning company. Connect with Niyoka on LinkedIn.

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