How to stop your children's learning regress this summer

·9-min read
On a family walk, talk to your children about what they see, hear and touch - Getty
On a family walk, talk to your children about what they see, hear and touch - Getty

I’m loath to be the bearer of bad news here, just as parents turn their pockets inside-out to pay for holiday camps, and grandparents gird themselves to step into the childcare breach, but have you considered your strategy for combatting the summer slide?

Otherwise known as “the summer slump”, “brain drain” or (more prosaically but no less depressingly), “summer learning loss”, the summer slide describes the way in which the hard work put in by teachers during term time is undone over the long summer break. Unless the adults in charge do something about it, little brains will atrophy. Not only do they stop learning, they unlearn.

All of which makes my heart sink. At eight and 11, my children have spent the last term bogged down in LIs (learning intentions), SCs (success criteria) and SATs (standard assessment tests).

At home each evening, our family has hunched over the kitchen table, bending four brains to the probability of Hannah eating two orange sweets if there are “n” sweets in a bag and... we’re all frazzled. Thank God for the summer holidays and the chance to throw the books down, take the pressure off, and be spoilt at their grandparents’ house for a couple of weeks.

But are we being a little rash? The seminal study of summer slide dates back to 1996. It found that the average student’s attainment scores dropped over the summer holiday by an amount equivalent to a whole month of term-time learning. The decline appears worst in maths and spelling. In fact, all this aimless August lolling could be so detrimental that the Welsh government is looking into reducing school summer holidays from six weeks to four.

Too much summer down time can impact students' academic performance - Getty
Too much summer down time can impact students' academic performance - Getty

“The literature appears to suggest that summer learning loss impacts children across all school years, but it’s particularly noticeable in that important transition from Year 6 (end of primary) to Year 7 (start of secondary),” says Matthew Hood, co-founder and principal of Oak National Academy – the online classroom that came to the rescue during homeschooling lockdowns.

My 11-year-old son falls into exactly that group. Should I be cancelling trips to the park and booking tutors instead? Steady on, suggests Hood. The majority of studies into learning loss come from the US, where summer breaks can stretch to 12 weeks, double the UK average. Still: “We do know that we forget new things if we don’t revisit them,” he explains.

Come September and the start of the new school year, “some teachers recap important topics. But teachers don’t have time to recap everything, so parents can be a real help.”

Hood recommends regular sessions of 10 to 15 minutes to “keep reminding children of what they’ve learnt and help to strengthen those long-term memories. If you can, check with their teachers – what are the key skills and bits of information that are going to really help them in their next year? Knowing the times tables by heart is a great skill. And reading is always a winner.”

We can all manage a few minutes of times-tabling and reading each day. But what of older children, whose curricula are more complex and confusing to parents and grandparents alike, and who are typically harder to cajole (and more expensive to bribe) into study?

“You might be super lucky and have a highly motivated teenager who wants to do more academic work, but that won’t be everyone’s experience,” says Hood. “That’s very normal and totally fine. Switching out some normal TV or car radio for documentaries and podcasts, particularly where you know it relates to the curriculum, is an easy thing to do.”

I buy a times tables colouring book and a stack of classic children’s novels. Maybe we can slip these under the learning radar, I think...

Parents or carers can find ways of exploring all sorts of skills by play or by stealth, says Mike Grenier, a housemaster at Eton, and the next expert I seek out. “Trying to make sense of the syllabus and assessment objectives is likely to cause anxiety for both parties.”

Reading is always a good way to keep children engaged with schoolwork - Getty
Reading is always a good way to keep children engaged with schoolwork - Getty

Grenier also stresses the long-term impact of the pandemic. “Many adults and children are suffering directly or indirectly from physical or mental ill-health and getting the balance right is crucial,” he says. “Pupils returning at the start of the school year need to be fresh and re-energised.”

Grenier is not – my children will be sad to learn – suggesting a summer spent slumped in front of screens. “I think getting children to spend more time together, both socialising outdoors and relearning how to interact after many months of disruption over the past two years, is crucial.”

Few families will have breezed through lockdowns completely untroubled. Recent research carried out for the Department for Education shows that pupils remain behind in their reading and maths, compared with pre-pandemic achievement levels. Secondary school pupils have been put back 2.4 months, while primary school kids are just under a month behind pre-pandemic standards.

So with a little money saved, but far from infinite resources to throw at the problem, how can I try to keep further slide to a minimum? I call Natalie Costa, a former teacher who now runs Power Thoughts, a coaching service that aims to build childhood confidence and resilience.

Whatever their age, “explore activities that are new, perhaps slightly out of their comfort zone, where they will be encouraged to grow their confidence muscles while learning new skills,” she suggests. “These also provide a great foundation to help develop their resilience too.”

A young client of hers has signed up to a sailing club this summer, for instance, and Costa sees myriad benefits, “from making friends, meeting new people, making mistakes along the way but using them to help him grow and learn”.

Sure, it can be difficult to motivate older children and teens, so whatever you do, don’t book a course without involving them in the conversation.

“Talk about the summer holidays,” says Costa, “explain that you want it to be enjoyable but also productive. Ask them: What are some of the things you might be interested in learning or exploring?”

Activities like climbing provide a chance to get children out of their comfort zone, building their 'confidence muscles' - Getty
Activities like climbing provide a chance to get children out of their comfort zone, building their 'confidence muscles' - Getty

If parents draw a blank, grandparents – innately less embarrassing and annoying – might have better success drawing teenagers out. If they need extra encouragement, Costa suggests employing a little amateur life coaching, or (if they are crafty) a mood board. Ask them what they want the next year to look like, she suggests, what experiences they want to have, what they want to accomplish. It might throw up some ideas for summer learning, and build motivation.

Costa’s approach appeals to me, especially given the ever-narrowing focus of the school curriculum, towards “core” subjects and away from creative ones. It’s also supported by research. A study published this year in BMC Public Health showed that among UK children, both verbal cognitive ability and mental health worsened over the break, for both seven and 14-year-olds. Prosocial skills appeared dented too for those aged 14. The study doesn’t mention screens, but 14 is the peak of screen obsession for many.

Costa assures me that I don’t have to sign up to expensive clubs to counter these effects. There are plenty of low-cost and free activities that parents and grandparents can organise, with huge positive impact: “See if you can bring the mental maths and reading into everyday life – encourage children to help with the cooking, measuring the correct ingredients. A family I work with built a new chicken coop and the children had to help with the building and assembly. And don’t forget the positives attached to just allowing the space to “be” – having a pyjama day with no agenda but some activities to choose from that don’t need screens, like solving a puzzle or making something.”

Grandparents, she points out, are often ideally placed to sneak in this “secret learning”, since everything is more fun in the company of grandparents.

So A-star to Alice Cooper, who had it right – school is out for summer. But Pink Floyd, I’m afraid, get a C-minus. We do need some education, it turns out, even during the holidays.

Five ways for parents and grandparents to fire up brains this summer

Stir it up: cooking is an easy way to incorporate some maths skills into a fun activity - Getty
Stir it up: cooking is an easy way to incorporate some maths skills into a fun activity - Getty

Young children

Grow your own flowers

Gardening gets children outside and gives them new skills. Let your child choose a plant to grow. Encourage them to explore how to care for it properly. This helps to build their sense of independence.

Young children

The five-sense game

When children are outside, ask them to notice five things that you can see, four you can hear, three you can touch or feel, two you can smell and one you can taste. They can draw or write about their findings.

Tweens

Adopt a country

Have a themed day or week, giving children the opportunity to learn about a new country. Explore its food, traditions, art and famous places. Then bring that learning to life by cooking some recipes, practicing a traditional dance on YouTube, or even learning a few words in a new language.

Teens

Tune in to top content

Try any of the BBC nature series with Sir David Attenborough, or science with Sir Brian Cox. And when you’re in the car, the You’re Dead To Me podcast with Greg Jenner is great.

Teens

Time it right

Choose the right time of the day and make it an activity that involves their friends or a group. Do it by stealth, not bribery, then follow it up with a social occasion.

How will you be keeping the kids engaged this summer? Let us know in the comments below