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Academic Setbacks During COVID

Helping kids handle school this fall — without stressing them out

Hannah Sheldon-Dean

If you’re a parent, you’ve probably heard the term “learning loss” mentioned a fair amount since the start of the pandemic. With such major disruptions to school routines affecting kids everywhere, it’s natural to worry about whether your child has fallen behind what’s expected, and what you can do about it.

The research so far indicates that a wide range of students have experienced academic setbacks during the pandemic, with students of color and those from low-income families disproportionately affected. However, it’s hard to know how those broad trends may or may not show up in any one child’s learning.

But one thing is clear: parents are worried. “Parents definitely feel their kids are behind,” says Daryaneh Badaly, PhD, a clinical neuropsychologist at the Child Mind Institute. “It is well-documented in a number of surveys.” That worry can make it feel like academic preparation should be your number one concern, but it’s just as important to help kids relax and have fun. “Kids need to socialize, have fun, play outside, take breaks,” says Jodi Musoff, MA, MEd, an educational specialist at the Child Mind Institute. “Online learning has created this world for many kids that is isolating and uninspiring, and kids are burnt out from it.”

We don’t want kids to go back to school feeling it’s going to be all work and no play. This is true even if your child has lost skills in one or more academic areas. Dr. Badaly notes that when kids are working on catching up, it’s important to set priorities and focus on realistic goals rather than trying to improve everything at once. “Ultimately, even if that doesn’t give you as much as you would love to get, that’s still better than the environment when you are stressed,” she says.

What practical steps can you take — without making a stressful situation even harder for the whole family?

Know where your child stands

Reports from last year’s teachers and your own observations of how school went for them are some of the most important sources of information when you’re figuring out if your child needs extra support now. If you saw your child regularly melt down over math homework or heard from their teacher that they struggled with written assignments, it’s worth paying special attention to your child’s progress in those areas this fall. But there are other signs you can look out for too.

If your child took standardized tests this year, start by comparing their scores to previous years. It’s normal for kids’ test scores to vary a bit from year to year, so a small change isn’t necessarily cause for concern. But if your child has previously had fairly consistent scores and you see a significant drop this year, that may be a sign that some of their academic skills have slipped.

Avoiding using academic skills can also be a sign of trouble. If you pose a simple math question — “We’re on 57th Street and we have to get to 63rd Street. How many more blocks do we have to go?” — and your child won’t play the game, it could be meaningful, says Musoff. “You don’t know why yet, but they’re avoiding academic tasks, either because they feel insecure about them or they really don’t have the skill.”

Set priorities

It’s important to remember that your child may be struggling in one or two areas but doing fine in others. Dr. Badaly notes that getting behind tends to be less of an issue in subjects where facts and skills don’t build directly on each other, like history. She recommends getting a sense of whether your child is struggling in core areas like reading, writing and math and focusing any supports on those areas. “If it’s not something that builds upon itself in later grades, you can probably say, ‘That’s a stress I don’t need to have right now. Let me put that aside,’ ” Dr. Badaly says.

And if you do suspect that your child is off-track in an important area of learning, try to avoid viewing that as a disaster. “Worry is a negative process that isn’t helpful,” says Dr. Badaly, “whereas concern is assessing: Is there a problem? What is the problem? How can I address the problem?”

Start with the school

Because last year was challenging for so many kids, a lot of schools will already have additional supports in place this fall, like assessing for gaps in skills or starting the year with a review period. “The first thing to ask is what your child’s school is automatically going to do,” says Dr. Badaly. If you know that the school is going to be addressing some of the things you’re worried about, then you may decide that you don’t need to take additional steps at home.

If you’re not sure what your child’s school is planning, you can speak with their teacher, the principal, or a guidance counselor. If your child already gets accommodations at school or if you think they might need to, then a learning specialist or school psychologist can also give you information about what the fall will look like.

Get support early for kids with learning issues

If you do have concerns about your child’s learning, late summer is the time to let the school know and make a plan for helping them get back on track. Research has long shown that consistent instruction is key for kids with learning disabilities, so they may be more likely to have lost some academic skills during the disruptions of the pandemic. But targeted support can make a big difference.

Musoff emphasizes that it’s especially important for parents to be proactive this year, instead of waiting for the school to reach out to you if an issue arises. Especially for kids with learning disabilities, “families should be asking for intensive services to make up for lost time,” she says. Once school starts, you can follow up to make sure that your child is getting adequate support. “Ask questions about what level the student is performing at, how the school knows that, what assessment measures they use to identify that, and what the subsequent teaching will be in response to it,” says Musoff.

Another step that parents of kids with learning disabilities can take is starting the IEP process as soon as possible. “The IEP should be updated appropriately based on assessments at the beginning of the year,” Musoff says. Parents can always request an IEP update at any time to reflect new information, and given the past year, there’s plenty of new information to take into account for any child with a learning disorder. “You can call to make sure that what’s documented is actually a realistic picture of the child,” Musoff notes. “If you don’t feel like it is, ask for it to be updated.” And in the event that school goes remote again, IEPs can also be revised to include tailored accommodations for online learning.

Take small steps at home

In addition to working closely with your child’s school, there are also ways you can support their learning at home. The trick is to integrate learning into kids’ daily lives, rather than pushing them to spend more time with their worksheets and textbooks.

“Knowledge of the world is huge and so valuable,” says Musoff. “And because things were so shut down for so long, kids were missing out on that.” Visits to places with fun kids’ programming — the zoo, the science museum, the Statue of Liberty — can be a great way to get kids excited about learning new things. “Parents can intentionally expose kids to information that they know is worthwhile,” she adds. “And that helps build better background knowledge so that they’re more ready to learn in school.”

Dr. Badaly points out that foundational math and reading skills can also be part of regular family activities. “Build fun math into your everyday, through cooking or shopping activities,” she suggests. Asking young kids to measure ingredients or calculate a tip gives them a sense of mastery and reinforces academic skills at the same time. The same goes for simple verbal activities like reading together as a family or writing out a script for a silly skit.

“I don’t think any of this is reinventing the wheel,” says Dr. Badaly. Though the situation is unique, it may help to remember that the strategies that will help kids who are struggling now are the same strategies that would apply in any school year. Creating opportunities to practice academic skills and learn to enjoy using them are still key to supporting kids’ learning at home, pandemic or not.

Encourage positive coping skills — and self-advocacy

Whether it’s a young child who’s self-conscious about their handwriting or a high schooler stressing about college applications, many children and teenagers are just as worried about school this fall as their parents are.

These kinds of concerns can be an opportunity to help kids build resilience and confidence. Start by helping them figure out what’s behind their worries and whether it makes sense to take action. If they’re worried about getting into college, is there a specific reason for that? What would help? If they’re upset about their science grades from last year, maybe they can look into tutoring this fall. If organizing applications is the issue, talking to their college counselor might help.

It’s also helpful for kids of any age to practice advocating for themselves. “Anything that you keep bottled up inside is very anxiety-producing,” says Musoff. She recommends helping your child practice language they can use to tell teachers what they’re dealing with: “I feel like I didn’t get enough practice with multiplication last year.” Talking through their concerns can help kids feel better and also lets the teacher know how to help them.

When kids do run into setbacks this fall, be ready to help them go easy on themselves — and remind yourself to do the same.