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How to Battle Brain Drain Over the Summer

School-break strategies for combating the summer slide

Published on: June 27, 2019

summer learning for kids

School’s out for summer! Blinded by sunlight — or dozing away beneath the morning fog — kids everywhere are focusing on not focusing. Meanwhile, as parents unpack those last-day-of-school backpacks, they’re unearthing vacation learning packets along with the half-eaten lunches and other year-end detritus. Or they’re reading that final school email quoting dire summer-slide statistics. But what does that really mean, and what should parents do about it?

“Summer slide” is the term used to describe how students regress academically during extended breaks from school, forgetting a portion of the previous year’s learning. Researchers today still cite a systematic review of 39 studies published in 1996 that indicated students’ achievement scores declined by one month’s worth of school-year learning during summer break, and more recent data shows similar results. And it’s not just reading achievement that is perishable under the summer sun: Math scores take an even deeper dip than reading scores.

“Research has also established a link between socioeconomic status and the loss of reading skills experienced over the summer,” writes Ariel Goldberg in an article for EdSurge, an education news organization, citing the impact of the “faucet theory,” which provides a hypothesis as to why the summer slide hits lower-income children harder. Over the summer, access to learning resources diminishes for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, but not for students from advantaged backgrounds.  

“The summer slump definitely highlights accessibility and equity issues,” notes Jessica Werner, a children’s librarian at the Seattle Public Library. “Not all families have financial access to activities like day camps, or they lack transportation to [attend] free events. A family language barrier can also make summer learning difficult.”

With equity and achievement gap issues in mind, we spoke with educators and local librarians to gather tips for parents that encourage and support learning while school is out of session.

Not all learning takes place in the classroom. Help your child consider skills they’re interested in acquiring.

Take advantage of summer’s unique learning experience possibilities

Before plunking down your credit card to buy flash cards on Amazon, academic counselor and consultant Ana Homayoun suggests that parents first reframe their family’s concept of summer learning.

“Not all learning takes place in the classroom. Help your child consider skills they’re interested in acquiring, such as executive functioning skills of planning and organizing, or navigating friendship, social connection, communication skills or connecting to the community,” says Homayoun. “Brainstorm with them, using a wide lens to ponder opportunities that include these skills.”

Homayoun provides the example of a student who walked back into her office taller — literally and figuratively — after spending his summer months working at a market bagging groceries.

“His dad told me that he’d never seen his son more exhausted or happier than after putting in a full day of work. That job got him to talk to people; and those incremental communication opportunities were exactly what he needed,” says Homayoun. “I think the key is talking with your child to figure out what version of ‘grocery bagging’ they need in their life right now.”

She advises having another trusted adult (or more than one) brainstorm with your child (i.e., without you, the parent, in the room) to come up with ideas. “Every topic they are interested in probably has 10 threads they could follow, thanks to summer’s lack of routine,” says Homayoun.

A project for learning executive functioning skills, for example, is to create a budget and plan a day trip using public transportation, mapping out every detail. If your child wants to work on social skills, volunteering for a cause they love will push them toward building new relationships without the pressure they experience in their school social scene.

Make a plan for completing summer packets

That summer packet lurking at the bottom of the backpack also contains an opportunity to develop executive functioning skills, says Elizabeth Hamblet, author of “From High School to College: Steps to Success for Students With Disabilities.” “I tell the students [whom] I work with that there’s no right or wrong way to get a project done. What matters is how you feel when doing it and how you feel about your results,” she says.

With that in mind (and depending on their age), help your child set goals and make their own decisions about how to get that packet and assigned reading finished. “If rewards work for your child, you can set up rewards along the way and at the end,” says Hamblet. “Some teens may be less interested in rewards but more interested in having a sense of control over how they get their work done. Talk with them about different strategies, such as doing five math problems a week and chunking out the novel reading over the whole summer. Ask them how that sounds compared to what it felt like doing the entire math packet and reading the whole book during the final week of last summer’s vacation. Use their prior experiences to help make them ‘informed consumers.’”

Parents can also support their kid’s management of the workload by helping them set up goals on a calendar, create reminders and establish regular check-ins to assess progress. Another strategy: Schedule family time when you all do work that you’d rather not be doing, such as you working on budget planning or bill paying while your teens read “Pride and Prejudice.”

If they fail to do any work until the last week of summer, have them write a note to themselves (or record a video) about how it felt doing it at the last minute, suggests Hamblet. Save this to pull out next summer. If they really felt uncomfortable doing their work in the final hours, revisiting that reflection could help them make a different choice the next time. 

“That’s how change and intrinsic motivation works — people have to be motivated to change how they approach homework,” says Hamblet, who adds that if the plan for summer homework goes well, these planning skills can be applied to doing homework in the fall.

boy reading a book

Flex brain muscles daily and seek out free experiences

Summer break is about realizing that foundational learning takes place at home, too, says John Hughes, summer program coordinator for Seattle Public Schools. “Parents can extend learning at home and out in the world. You can flex your brain muscles literally anywhere,” says Hughes.

Say you’re watching a show with your children. “Instead of passively watching, ask them what the theme is: What motivates the characters to do what they do? Ask them how they’d feel if what happened on the show happened to them,” says Hughes, who notes that caregivers sometimes miss the opportunities available to spark learning in everyday situations. For example, your kid is going to have to do math when you ask them to make a double batch of brownies and lemonade for their lemonade stand.

Seek out experiences (and many of them will be free) in your local community, too. Here’s the starter list of resource websites that Hughes shares with the families he works with in the school district, each listing engaging and educational programming for kids:

One of parents’ best resources for engaging and inclusive summer learning is their closest public library branch and the librarians who work there. Programs at public libraries are almost always free and thoughtfully scheduled to be convenient for working families. Regional public library systems all present summer reading programs that put a focus on reading and building literacy every day, with a reward system based on the number of hours spent reading or listening to books.

“I tell parents to not only read to kids, but to let your kids see you reading. I also want them to know that oral storytelling activates the same part of the brain that reading does, so tell family stories to your kids,” says Werner.

Programming at public libraries is also designed to combat the summer slide, adds Werner. She encourages families to stop in at their local branch and talk to a librarian. This spring, librarians also spent time visiting schools and letting kids know about all the options available online and at branch locations. Go ahead and ask your kids what they learned from librarians — we’re betting they can teach you how to download graphic novels on your phone. 

For a list of amazing free library services to check out this summer, go here.

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