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Summer Break: Time to Learn or Time to Let Kids Be Kids?

Credit: U.S. Air Force

For most school-aged kids, summertime means vacations, swimming at the pool or the shore, trips to amusement parks, and a much needed break from school work. More frequently now, summer is becoming a time during which certain children are prone to experience summer learning loss — the loss of academic skills and knowledge over the summer months – and parents are desperately fighting to prevent their children from falling behind.

More than 40 studies over the past century have found strong evidence of a pattern of summer learning loss. Researchers have studied the impact of summer learning loss on everything from test scores to overall academic achievement and have identified marked differences in the amount of knowledge lost over the summer depending on the subject (summer learning loss tends to be greater in math than reading), or the child’s socioeconomic status (reading scores and achievement levels have been disproportionately worse among disadvantaged and poor youth).

While research proves that summer learning loss is indeed real, it is still unclear what, if anything at all, parents should be doing to prevent this loss for their children.

Martin Franklin, PhD, an associate professor of Clinical Psychology in Psychiatry and director of Penn’s Child and Adolescent OCD, Tic, Trich, and Anxiety Group (COTTAGe), is a researcher whose work has centered on the study of anxiety and body-focused repetitive behaviors in children and adults. When it comes to keeping their kids academically focused over the summer, Franklin says some parents might be overdoing it.

I spoke with Franklin about the validity of some parent’s fear of summer learning loss and how anxiety might play a role in a parent’s overreaction to this academic concern.

Q: What are your general thoughts on summer learning loss?

A: I think the collective conclusion of the research is logical if not self-evident: when you stop doing something every single day you will lose some of that capacity. On the other hand, it usually takes students only a bit of time to regain that capacity once they start doing the action every day again, which, in terms of school work and learning, they will do in September. There is no real reason to get alarmed about it, in other words, unless the child or teen had been struggling significantly even during the school year because of learning issues.

Q: What if the child has a learning disability? Which students should be on a summer learning plan?

A: Kids who have struggled during the year with specific learning problems, time management issues, etc., could be encouraged by their teaching teams to develop strategies to pursue to help them maintain gains made during the year. It would be wise for parents to start thinking about having these conversations in April or May rather than on the last day of school; and parents and kids should discuss what role the parent might play in that process rather than setting up a negative dynamic of avoidance on the kid’s part followed by nagging on the parents’ part.

Q: Could some parents’ fear of summer learning loss be fueled by anxiety?

A: Absolutely. We live in an increasingly competitive culture in which fear of not getting into the best colleges or high schools prompts anxious responding from overly invested parents, who hear of such things as summer learning loss and take that all the way out to the worst case scenario. This then fuels efforts to alleviate their own anxieties by imposing work on kids who may very well benefit from a relaxing of structure rather than its maintenance or increase.

Q: How can parents find the medium between fun and learning for their children over the summer?

A: Recognize when your own anxieties are driving unnecessary and possibly irrational efforts to avoid unlikely occurrences (e.g., my child will be shut out of every college because of a summer lag due to inactivity). Engage with your child around topics of interest to them and pursue those because they might be fun rather than because they might give your child a competitive advantage over other students. This kind of comparison rarely motivates kids to want to do much of anything, and the tension resulting from these differing views can compromise relationships and the pursuit of interesting and stimulating things to do over the summer.

Q: What is your advice to parents who fear their child will suffer summer learning loss?

It depends largely on your kid: if the fear is convergent with consistent evidence that academic work, or certain kinds of academic work, are problematic, then working out some kind of a plan to maintain gains made during school makes sense.  If your kid was doing fine, however, and is not actively seeking more work for the summer, your best bet might be to step back, acknowledge your own anxieties, and gently encourage reading and thinking over the summer without pushing it excessively. The best way to do that is likely not to extoll the benefits of that or, worse yet, the horrors that might occur if he or she does not engage actively in academic pursuits over the summer, but to model intellectual curiosity by reading yourself, talking about what you are reading, offering opportunities to visit museums or other intellectually engaging activities, and to help them foster their own interests in reading what they find engaging rather than assigning the “Great Works” to them over the summer and then doggedly pursuing evidence of progress. Most kids will find this off-putting on a good day and the strategy may backfire.

Another important thing to note, and as a parent myself, I can say that the vast majority of things that we tend to worry about don’t actually come to fruition, and as our children grow we need to accept a less active role in organizing their day, telling them what to do, and telling them repeatedly all of the grim outcomes that could occur if they fail to follow our sage advice. At some point most kids will dismiss this kind of “hair on fire” approach from parents, and you will be tuned out even more than might be expected, especially by our teens. At a certain point we are relegated to an advisory role, and it is wise to understand this and act accordingly. Don’t burn the bridge you are standing on: your relationship with your kids is more important than quelling your own fears. So, unless you have clear evidence that things are not fine, you should share your confidence with them that you think they are fine and offer advice when solicited.  

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