This weeks question is from Nida,
“One of the things I’m struggling with right now is whether to focus on academics with my daughters this summer. Both of them are in elementary school and have some learning challenges. It has been a real struggle to help them focus and benefit from the virtual learning situations this past year. I’m feeling a lot of pressure from the school and my family to try to catch up with academics before the next school year, but I really feel like we all need a break from it. I am conflicted and wondering if you have an opinion on this.”
In this episode, I will address the dilemma parents are facing with feeling like their child may have fallen behind this last year in school. I’ll give some insight on whether or not summer school might be a good option for your child and how to enjoy the summer while also best preparing your kids for the fall of 2021 school year.
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Did changes in the learning environment this last year (2020) negatively affect children?
- According to the data that is coming out, overall, children did not fall behind during the pandemic
- Even children with chronic illnesses that are not able to attend school for an extended period of time and were not able to do the normal number of hours of education, still, on the whole, were not behind when they were well enough to get back into school
- However, some kids, particularly those with more significant special needs, certainly have not received the help they needed or would benefit from throughout this entire experience
Concerns Around Learning Loss/Falling Behind
- As long as kids have some learning stimulation during breaks, there should not be a concern for learning loss
- For the vast majority of kids, the worst thing that we can do is spend the summer in full-time school academic catch up mode
- In the current situation, many kids (and parents) are burned out and needing a reset, so forcing any intensive academic programs during this summer may be more detrimental than helpful
Benefits of Summer Academics
- Consider summer programs that offer in-person, project-based learning
- Consider stress levels, length of the program, and if the child needs social acclimation after this last year prior to the start of the new school year
- In most cases, academics should not be the bulk of the summer or the main focus for children
- A child in high school may need to take summer credits to graduate or get additional tutoring in areas they struggled in the previous year
How to Effectively Use the Summer to Prepare for the Fall School Year
- Prioritize opportunities for physical movement, getting outside, and engaging kids in everyday kinds of activities such as doing chores, cooking, and grocery shopping
- Incorporate non-academic thinking and problem-solving skills that are critical for school success such as counting money, getting directions, or organizing lists
- Kids should be reading every day or at least several times a week; reading or being read to is critical for academic success
- Get them acclimated to being around people again by engaging them with peers, family members, and the public. As always, go slowly and be patient if the child has any anxiety.
- Get back into healthy routines for sleep, meals, and boundaries around digital devices
Addressing the Social Pressure Around Summer Academics
- Remember, you will never go wrong when you prioritize what is best for you and your family; you know what is best for your kids whether that is additional support or time during the summer to mentally reset
- Try to set aside what other people are telling you because they are not you, even when they have the best intentions. They are not the parents to your kids
Episode Intro … 00:00:30
Listener Question … 00:00:58
Learning Loss Concerns … 00:02:30
Benefits of Summer Academics … 00:09:02
Using the Summer to be Ready for Fall 2021 … 00:10:45
Social Pressure & Summer Academics … 00:15:02
Episode Wrap up … 00:16:26
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Hi everyone, welcome to the show, I am Dr. Nicole, and on today’s episode, I am answering a question from a listener. I get so many questions each week, and this provides a great way to give you answers that many of you might find helpful. If you have a question you’d like me to consider answering on a future episode, email it to firstname.lastname@example.org and you just might hear it on an upcoming show.
Now, onto today’s question, and this question comes from Nida, and she writes: “One of the things I’m struggling with right now is whether to focus on academics with my daughters this summer. Both of them are in elementary school and have some learning challenges. It has been a real struggle to help them focus and benefit from the virtual learning situations this past year. I’m feeling a lot of pressure from the school and my family to try to catch up with academics before the next school year, but I really feel like we all need a break from it. I am conflicted and wondering if you have an opinion on this.”
Well, Nida, I think this is something that many parents are struggling with right now, so it’s a great question. Let me dig into some things to think about around this. And I’ll preface this by saying that most of you know that I am a clinical psychologist now, and that’s my focus area with kids and families, but you may not know that I am also a former teacher and educator. So I have a lot of experience in my first career with teaching both general education and special education, doing program administration, those kinds of things. So, I’m going to answer this question through the lens of education, through the lens of my work as a psychologist, and also through the lens of being a parent of four kids because I get it. Nida, you’ve got two kids in elementary school. Mine are older now, but I have two high schoolers and two college kids who have been trying to do school and just dealing with all of this throughout the pandemic. So let me give you my thoughts on this:
First of all, let’s talk about this idea of learning loss, because this is something that has been thrown out there a lot. The data shows that the significant majority of parents, in the US at least, are concerned about the quality of education their kids received during the pandemic, particularly the virtual learning kinds of stuff. Many, many parents are concerned about whether their kids are going to be ready for the grade that they’re going into next school year. So this is on a lot of people’s minds, but here is the good news: While there is all this talk about learning loss and “Oh my gosh, kids haven’t gotten what they needed”, the data that’s coming out is actually showing that most kids did not do poorly during this last year. Not only that, but the majority of kids moved forward with their learning. And we know that now because there have been multiple rounds of state-wide and nation-wide standardized testing that has gone on. So we are getting data coming out of that that shows that the majority of kids did move forward and did have academic growth. So that’s the good news, it’s not as clear cut as “Wow, school didn’t happen like it normally would for the last year and a half, therefore all kids are in a bad situation with their learning.” Not true at all, and in fact, some of you may be thinking, “Wow, the pandemic really provided an opportunity for my kid to do better.” Some kids really thrived in this virtual or hybrid environment, so certainly some of you were like, “Wow, this was a great opportunity for my kids.” But for those of you who are worried about this learning loss, it’s not a cut and dry or a given that your kids haven’t been having any learning opportunities.
Now, that being said, some kids certainly have not done well with this. Some schools have done a much poorer job of providing learning opportunities. Some kids, particularly those with more significant special needs, whether that is significant learning disabilities or things like Autism Spectrum Disorder, more severe and profound cognitive impairment, those kinds of things, certainly have not gotten what they have ideally needed or would benefit from throughout this entire experience. But even for those kids, I’m not significantly concerned that we’re going to have this massive group of kids who are going to start school in the fall and not be able to get back into learning or not be able to progress. We know that educators are aware that this is an issue, there is going to be a review of things, so I really think that schools and teachers recognize this and are going to work with this. Also, I want to give a little perspective for some of you, if this is helpful. Back in the day, when I was doing my pre-and-post-doctoral training, I was in a pediatric inpatient hospital setting as part of my work, and we had many kids in some of those clinics, particularly the oncology clinic, some of the chronic illness kinds of clinics, kids who were not able to attend school for extended periods of time because of their medical conditions. So, these kids would receive a couple of hours a week of what we would call home-bound instruction, or a tutor, or somebody from the school would come into the hospital setting to work with the kids, or they would do some things virtually. What I found with these kids is, they really on the whole, were not any worse off when they were well enough to go to school. They didn’t get anywhere near the normal number of hours or type of instructions, and yet, they were able to go back into the mix of things and really do okay. And on a personal note, I had a situation with one of my kids a few years ago where we needed to pull them from their school environment for a period of time. Didn’t do any formal schooling or instruction during that time, and my child was able to go right back in the fall to the next grade and really pick up where they left off. So I tend to not get too worried about kids being able to continue on as long as they’ve had some kind of stimulation, learning along the way, which Nida, I’m sure is true for your girls as for probably any of you who are listening. So I don’t have this huge concern that if kids don’t spend their entire summer doing academic “catchup” that there’s going to be a problem.
And in fact, I actually think that for the vast majority of kids, the worst thing that we can do is spend the summer in full-time school academic catch up mode. I really think that’s going to be detrimental for virtually all kids. I think there are maybe a couple of exceptions and I can talk about what those are, but overall, I think kids need a break. It has been an incredibly challenging year and a half for them with school and with everything. I’m seeing in the clinic that kids are just burned out, they’re needing a break, parents are burned out and needing a break, and I actually have a concern that if we focus the summer on academic stuff and try to force the issue of them continuing in virtual learning or going to some sort of intensive in-person summer school program, that they’re going to be worse off in the fall because they won’t have a chance to reset. And so they will continue with the heightened stress level, they’ll get more and more frustrated, will continue to have more stress in our homes and in our family systems, and then when we embark on the start of an entire school year ahead of us in the fall with things — not going to be in a good place. So, I really am advocating for families to take a step back, even if you have academic concerns for your child, even if you have concerns about what might be going on in the fall. Really stop and think about the benefits versus the risk of forcing a lot of time on academics this summer. Because we know that when kids are in a stressed out state, when they are anxious, when they are burned out, when they are frustrated, their brain is not in a place where they can learn well. And my concern is if we spend the summer continuing to have them churn away at this stuff, they’re not going to be in a place where they can benefit from starting fresh at the start of the new year and really benefiting from the academic instruction.
So, there are a couple of exceptions. I think that some schools are offering some cool in-person summer opportunities that are more focused on things like project-based learning or maybe some remedial kinds of work for kids with special needs, learning disabilities or young kids who need some of that instruction, and they’re doing it in-person in a way that is more fun, more hands-on and it’s not the entire day. If that’s something you have the opportunity to do and you feel like your child really would benefit from that, either from the academic support, or just maybe getting acclimated to being around people again and back in more of a social environment, and it’s not something that’s likely to cause a lot of stress, then I think that could be something to consider. The other thing to consider is if you have a high schooler who maybe was not able to receive credit for a class they need for graduation because of the instructional situation or maybe as is sometimes the case in math, they really struggled this year and did not do well with the math class and you know next year they’re going to need to have the foundation of what they were supposed to learn this year in order to continue on, that may be a case as well where you look at some tutoring or maybe doing something like Khan Academy online this summer or something to help them fill in those gaps and prepare for what’s coming next year. But again, that should be only one small part of their summer. Maybe a little bit of time each day or a couple of times a week, it should not be the bulk of the summer or the main focus.
So what should kids be doing instead, and how can we best prepare them to hit the ground running in the fall? Well, I want you to be thinking about engaging kids in everyday life activities and learning opportunities. I want them to have opportunities for lots of physical movement and activity, getting outside, doing physically active things. We know that during the pandemic, the majority of kids became more sedentary, and that is not helpful for them being able to engage in academic learning when they start back to school. So use the summer months to get them active outside and moving. Engage them in the everyday life kinds of activities like chores and cooking and shopping with you, and doing all of those things that work on the non-academic thinking and problem-solving skills that are critical for school success. Those are all really important things for them to be engaged in, and you can work academic skills into that stuff: Writing a shopping list, reading instructions for how to put something together, or how to make a recipe, doing math by counting change or figuring out how much money is going to be needed for something, figuring out elapsed time: If we leave the house to go to the park at this time and we spend an hour there, what time will it be when we leave? Those kinds of things. If you have some concerns or you want to give your kids opportunities to kind of brush up on some of those skills, incorporate them into everyday life activities, a much better way to do it. And of course, I’m always a proponent: Every kid should be reading every day or at least several times a week. That is pandemic or not, reading or being read to is critical for academic success. So you know, you reading a book to your child this summer, even older kids benefit from being read to or taking turns with reading, or having your child read some things to you. That’s a really productive way of focusing on those skills, much more so than trying to sit them down in front of the computer to do some kind of reading instruction or something like that. So engage them in real-life activities. If you want to embed some of the academics in that, do it. Get them moving, moving, moving. Get them outside. And the other big thing that I think is going to be important to focus on with kids this summer is helping them get back into the normal world, as things are opening up more, they need to acclimate and adjust to being out in public more, to doing the kinds of activities and things with other people that they haven’t been able to do, especially if you have a kid who is anxious. Getting them slowly, week-by-week, acclimated and out there doing more things, engaging them with peers, with family members. Helping them just get used to spending more time around people again, and playing games and doing activities with peers and playing at the park with other kids. Those things are all going to serve them so well when they get back to school in the fall. And by acclimating and working on that now, you’re helping them to hit the ground running with school starts. So these are all the things that I think we should be prioritizing to set kids up for a successful next school year.
Also keep in mind getting back into good routines. A lot of the routines went out the window during COVID, during the pandemic, or routines needed to shift because of online learning or parent work situations, or whatever it might be. So now is the time to be thinking about getting back into good, consistent meal routines, sleeping in bed time routines, getting back into better routines and boundaries with use of digital devices and all of those things. Using these summer months to reestablish those kinds of good, healthy, brain-boosting routines that, again, are going to serve our kids and ourselves so well in the fall.
So those are the priorities in my opinion, and Nida, I hope that’s helpful to you in weighing pros and cons and thinking about this, and I just want to touch on the piece that you said, that you’re feeling a lot of pressure from the school and from your family to do all of this catchup virtual academic stuff over the summer. And I get it. That’s tough when you feel like people are judging you, where everybody’s got an opinion. You know your kids best. You know yourself and your family situation best. If you prioritize what you know is best for you and for them, you will never go wrong. And it doesn’t matter what your child’s teacher thinks, it doesn’t matter what your extended family members think. You can rest easy knowing you are doing the right thing for your girls, for yourself. So it’s tough, I get that, but try to set aside what other people are telling you because they are not you. They are not the parents to your kids. They don’t know what’s best for them. And people may have good intentions with the advice that they’re giving, but they don’t know your situation, and you’re saying that you really, in your heart, feel that your girls need a break, you need a break, you need a reset, honor that. You’re not going to go wrong with that, and just know that by doing what you know is best for your kids, you’re doing the right thing and they will be ready then, if you keep some of these things in mind that I’ve talked about, they’ll be ready to get back into it in the fall and actually be better prepared to benefit from the instruction and from the school experience that they’re going to have.
So, I hope this is helpful, Nida, for you and for any of the rest of you who are wondering what might be best to focus on with your kids this summer, and trying to make a decision about summer school and summer academics. Remember, if you have a question you would like to hear answered on a future show, email it to email@example.com. You can put “Podcast Question” in the subject line, that will help our team sort through that. Thank you as always for listening and for being here. I value you all so much, and I will catch you back here next time.