As kids start school with more online learning, parents wonder whether theyâll ever catch up. Hereâs how to set them up for success.
The other day my mother gave me a book called âWhat Your Second Grader Should Know.â A quick flip through it revealed that a few weeks from now, my son would need to label an insectâs thorax, know the names of a dozen Greek gods and discuss the role of Dolley Madison in the War of 1812. In the wake of some serious distance learning burnout, the most educational thing weâd done all summer had been a contact-free library pickup of the latest âCaptain Underpants.â I suddenly wished weâd done a little more.
If youâre concerned that remote learning may have set your child back academically, brace yourself: It probably has. When students return to school, research shows that most will be behind where they would have been if classroom instruction had continued as normal. And with an increasing number of districts announcing a return to online learning, the collective angst in my own parenting circles has reached a fever pitch. The question comes up constantly: When do we need to start panicking about our children falling behind?
Deborah Stipek, Ph.D., a professor at Stanfordâs Graduate School of Education, said that may not be the right question to ask. âI think a more useful one is, âHow do we ensure that our children get the best possible opportunities to learn under these challenging circumstances?ââ she said.
For preschoolers, that starts with prioritizing the crucial social-emotional skills that form the building blocks of learning, said Elisabeth Jones, a preschool teacher at the Child Development Center at Texas State University. When kids go back to school, she said, âtheyâll be expected to wait their turn and share materials, and many arenât getting the opportunity to practice that right now.â
At home, board games are an easy way to reinforce turn-taking etiquette, said Jones. Parents can also work on delaying gratification. âIf your child asks for a snack, stretch out the time between them asking and you giving it to them,â she said.
To gauge potential gaps in learning, said Britt Menzies, a preschool teacher in Atlanta, Ga., scatter informal tests throughout the day. âHave a child count their peas while theyâre eating dinner,â she said. âSee how many letters they recognize on a billboard. Ask them what shapes are in that picture they drew. Try not to prompt them, so you have a clearer picture of what to work on.â
But donât stress over hard-hitting academics for the pre-K set, said Emily Levitt, vice president of education for Sylvan Learning. âDo work sheets, sure, but donât do them all day,â she said. Instead, weave in playful learning activities, like âbaking sheets filled with lentils to give kids a multi-sensory way to trace shapes and numbers,â she said. âOr add letters to a Twister board, so youâre saying, âOK, left foot to C, right foot to O.ââ
When preschoolers do get back to the classroom, said Levitt, âtheyâre at the age where theyâll likely bounce back very quickly.â
But with online learning often difficult for young elementary school kids, the stakes may be a little higher â particularly for those facing learning challenges. Jennifer Carlin, a stay-at-home mom in Sandy, Utah, said she knows her 6-year-old, who has A.D.H.D., wonât flourish academically with remote instruction. âShe canât read yet, so she canât get through the computer work without assistance,â she said. âShe zones out if Iâm not sitting next to her. And I canât sit next to her all the time because I have three other children who need me.â
Dr. Stipek said that parents of elementary school kids should look to their schools for resources and guidance, and, as much as possible, supplement school learning with reading, games and activities. âSomething as simple as talking about measurements and the effects of different ingredients while baking muffins can be educational,â she said. But with many families currently feeling the crunch of work and child care, âparents shouldnât feel guilty that they arenât doing enough,â she said. âSchools are going to have to adapt to meet children where they are.â
Thatâs what Greg Korchnak, a teacher at Summers-Knoll School in Ann Arbor, Mich., plans to do. âThere are parts of school and our education system that donât make learning accessible for all students,â said Korchnak, who directs the school’s remote learning program. âThis moment is an opportunity for school systems to be reflective, scrap the parts that donât work and find new ways to reach students beyond the traditional model of education.â
In addition to students with learning disabilities, children from low-income households may also be at greater risk of falling behind. Though Dr. Stipek is confident that teachers will do everything they can to help kids catch up when they return to school, she is concerned that the lack of in-person instruction may increase the achievement gap already prevalent between socioeconomic groups.
âAffluent parents are better situated to help or hire help for their kids working online,â she said. âChildren in economically disadvantaged families are less likely to have consistent access to the internet, and their parents have fewer resources to provide additional support. This situation can exacerbate a problem thatâs already there.â
Amy Estes, a teacher in Sacramento, Calif., said her public school district is preparing to expand its tech offerings and paper materials to kids who donât have access, as well as ramping up resources like meals, counseling and home visits. In addition, Estes has spent the last month helping the school draft a rigorous online curriculum that includes ways to meet the diverse needs of non-English speakers and special education students. âWeâre working to get teachers the training they need to design lessons and interact with students in more constructive ways,â she said. âThe benefit to pivoting to distance learning officially is that now districts can help teachers do a better job.â
Regardless of socioeconomic status, a household filled with anxiety and stress can be a major driver of kids falling behind, said Bruce Fuller, Ph.D., a professor of education and public policy at U.C. Berkeleyâs Graduate School of Education. When parents lose their patience or donât listen, said Dr. Fuller, children can start to shut down emotionally, in turn disengaging from reading and rich conversation inside the family.
âChildrenâs cognitive learning is built on a secure emotional foundation,â he said. âIf they continually see their parents unhappy or anxious, it can start to inhibit their own development. Thatâs worrying, because this is a really stressful time for parents. It can be hard to maintain a calm and attentive climate for kids when parents must take over schooling.â
That rings true for Lindsay Williams, an interior decorator in Madison, Wis., who said sheâs dreading the pressure that comes with teaching her 6- and 9-year-old herself. âIâm terrified Iâm going to screw my kids up, because I get so easily flustered and frustrated,â she said. âThereâs a deep-seated vulnerability that Iâm just not cut out for this.â
To ease the burden, Williams is thinking of forming a neighborhood learning co-op, so that she and a few other families can share the duties of teaching the material provided by the school. Meeting regularly with a small, safe group of peers can be beneficial for the social-emotional health of both children and parents, said Dr. Fuller.
âBeing part of a supportive, engaged network can cut down on anxiety for parents,â he said. âAnd when you minimize those stressors, you give children a healthier and more stimulating learning environment.â
As for me, Iâm going to stop panicking about when I should start panicking, and instead focus on creating fun, low-key learning opportunities for my kids whenever I can. Step one is to shelve the book that launched a thousand anxiety attacks until second grade gets well underway. Step two? Revel in the discovery that my son does know the names of some Greek gods after all. Sure, theyâre from a video game called Underworld God Simulator 2, but at this point, Iâll take the wins where I can.
âKids are resilient and theyâll undoubtedly get the content knowledge they need,â said Estes. âRight now, our main focus should be making them feel loved, secure and safe amidst these disruptions. Learning canât occur until those things are in place.â
News – Worried Your Kid Is Falling Behind? Youâre Not Alone