COVID Pandemic Learning Loss Is Real: Here’s How to Help Kids Catch Up

The NAEP Report is in — here’s what it means for our kids.

Every June, my school district warns parents about the “summer slide” phenomenon, where kids experience learning loss over the summer. When my kids return to school in the fall, they spend weeks covering review material just to catch up to where they left off the previous year. But now with the COVID-19 pandemic, my kids — all our kids — have experienced a major disruption to their learning, like they would with an earthquake or a hurricane, and that disruption far outstrips any learning loss in summer.

The question to ask is, how long will it take our students to recover academically from the COVID-slide?

Let’s look at some numbers. The latest Nation’s Report Card, a national assessment of student’s reading and math skills in the 4th and 8th grades, shows a significant decline in scores from 2019, the year before the pandemic, to 2022. The average math score for fourth-graders fell five points, while the average eighth-grade score dropped eight points. Both scores dropped by three points in reading. Additionally, across the board, more students are performing below the NEAP basic level. Some experts estimate this equates to students, on average, being around 5 months behind in mathematics and four months behind in reading.

That’s a BIG learning gap!

Your Teen spoke with Dr. Sherry Kelly, a former educator and licensed clinical psychologist with more than 30 years of experience in the field of child development, to chat about the COVID learning gap. She gave us some simple, purpose-driven tips on how to get our students back on track. Here’s what she told us.

The learning gap is real. Now what?

COVID carved out a gaping hole in our children’s education. Now students are tasked with getting their learning back on schedule, which can feel daunting for students working alone, and especially for those struggling with mental health.

Kelly encourages parents to help, and she says effective help starts with gathering information about where your student is compared to where they should be. She offers these simple ways for parents to stay focused and informed.

  • Ask for grade-level benchmarks and goals for each semester.
  • Take advantage of school resources.
  • Identify your student’s particular learning needs.
  • Ask your student for a snapshot of their school day.
  • Use a wall calendar to track assignments.
  • Help your student clarify the purpose of each assignment, and discuss how it ties in with semester and benchmark goals.

Below, you’ll find more details that explain Kelly’s tips.

  1. Ask teachers and the school district about grade-level benchmarks and what their goals are for each semester. Kelly encourages parents to ask questions like, “Where should my student be? What are the benchmarks? What does my child need to achieve? What are you hoping they will learn?” Once you have this information, you can begin guiding your student towards those goals. 
  2. Take advantage of free resources and extra help that many school districts offer, like summer school, after school tutoring and support, as well as at home programs that reinforce concepts students are learning at school. 
  3. Check in with your kid, every day if you can. On the way home from school, Kelly suggests asking your student for a quick snapshot of their day. Try a simple question, like: “What did you learn? What was challenging today? What did you want to learn, but didn’t?” This check-in gives you a glimpse into your student’s day, and keeps you abreast of the topics they are studying, just be careful not to overwhelm them with too many questions. Try asking just one.
  4. Provide your student with a home environment that puts learning first. Talk to your student, notice their behaviors. Try to understand how your child learns best. Do they need to be alone in a room with no distractions? Do they need to be at the kitchen counter so they can ask for help when needed? Help them figure out what allows them to succeed, then do your best to provide that ideal learning environment for them at home.
  5. Plot school assignments on a wall calendar. All students can benefit from a boost in time management and organization skills, and it can be especially helpful to see assignments and due dates plotted out. Kelly encourages families to hang a wall calendar where your student can see it, and only put school assignments on it. That way students can visualize what they are working toward, and which projects are due when. Plus, it helps reinforce how day-to-day assignments fit into the larger picture. 
  6. Help your student understand the purpose of school assignments. How many times have you heard your child say their teacher is torturing them with assignments that are dumb and a waste of time? Kelly says many students don’t realize that assignments serve a purpose that ties in to a greater goal. A great way to help our students become invested (and stay invested) in their education is by helping them clarify what their teacher expects from them, and why.

Kelly recommends asking our students a question like: “What do you think is the purpose of this assignment?” “What did you learn today at school?” “What is this unit about?” “Can you see how doing this homework will help you understand the material better?” “How can you prove to your teacher that you know the material?” Whether assignments are meant to hone skills or memorizing concepts and vocabulary, it’s important for students to understand how smaller assignments tie in to larger goals so they can study purposefully and stay focused. Here again, remember not to grill them. Just choose one question to get the conversation started.

It’s not essential that you follow through with every single one of Kelly’s suggestions. Try a tip and see if it helps your student improve their academic performance. If it works, great! Maybe now it’s time to try adding another. If it doesn’t work, see if you find another tip more useful. You can also use these tips as inspiration to develop more ideas that suit your student and your family better. Our best advice is to talk to your student about how you can best support them, and be patient with their answers. Catching up on so much work can feel overwhelming and they might just need you to acknowledge it’s hard and that they’re doing the best they can.

How to help your student improve their math scores.

Across all states and ethnic groups, 8th grade math students saw their scores decline. The concern? If students haven’t mastered eighth grade math skills, they can’t move forward in other subjects like science and geometry. Kelly further explains, “if a student’s math scores are super low, for example, these students will be lost in high school physics because they don’t have the requisite mathematical foundation.”

Here are some free online math resources that you might find helpful:

Kelly says you can go to those sites, “print off quizzes and math facts, and have students practice them on the way to and from school.” She says to try making a game of it, and doing a few quizzes with them.

How to help your student improve their reading scores.

Kelly says you can help your student hone their critical reading skills at home when you:

  • Ask them basic straightforward questions about their reading material.
  • Show them how research gives context.
  • Encourage your student to dig deeper.

Ask the right questions.

Have your student start by finding out when a book was written, who the author was, and what the book is about. “It seems straightforward,” Kelly says, “but you wouldn’t believe the number of students that think The Crucible was written during the Salem Witch Trials.” Have students identify main characters, setting, and protagonists and antagonists, and central conflicts to make sure they have a grip on the main ideas in a text.

Practice pre-reading and researching.

Reading Romeo and Juliet? Google Shakespearean England, Shakespeare, and the basic plot of the story. “Many students think this sounds like too much work, but I try to remind them that it will make reading easier,” Kelly says.

Dig Deeper.

The heart of critical reading is understanding the why of a story, not just the what. It’s the kind of reading that helps prepare our students for college and beyond. Kelly says, “Encourage your students to find out why the author wrote the book, what the secret meaning is, and what they are really trying to say.” 

Closing the COVID learning gap is possible.

“Kids really want structure,” Kelly says. And what we saw in the early days of the pandemic is that education had to shift and adjust rapidly and students were under a lot of pressure to learn how to adapt when school structures and routines changed. Our kids are still learning how to adapt. It’s going to take time for them to bounce back.

Right now, it’s important to remind our students that what they are learning is important and then let them know why. Also, make sure they know they have control over their learning. Kelly says, “We need to keep reminding them that knowledge is something no one can ever take away from them.”

Our kids are smart and resilient. Our job is to keep reminding them that we have confidence in them, and that they have our support.

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