Follow Us
Style Pinterest
Style Instagram
Style Twitter
Style Facebook

Plug the Summer Brain Drain

Every parent of a school-age child knows the “summer backslide,” “summer brain” and “sun-head.” How did Joey forget algebra in six weeks? Call it what you will, in academic research circles it is known as summer learning loss, “the phenomenon where young people lose academic skills over the summer.”

According to the Johns Hopkins School of Education’s Why Summer Learning Deserves a Front-Row Seat in the Educational Reform Arena, “Most youth lose about two months of grade level equivalency in mathematical computation skills over the summer months.”

Two months of learning lost! That’s your child’s brain on summer break. And there›s more:

According to Education Week, “Teachers spend at least a month re-teaching old material when they return from summer vacation.” So, when you add in an extra month spent re-learning what was lost over the summer, that’s a total of three months of your child’s brain power down the drain. Kiss all those hard-won math facts au revoir.

Here’s the good news: Now that you know the detrimental extent of the summer academic backslide, don’t face-palm, wring your hands and give up. No. Your child is not doomed.  

In All The Places You’ll Go, Dr. Seuss wrote, “Unslumping yourself is not easily done,” but he was wrong, actually.

When it comes to summer learning loss, unslumping is easily done. Parents, create a summer learning toolkit to fix the backslide. The time is now to plug the summer brain drain. Start assembling your family’s warm-weather activities and adventures with learning in mind.

Get the pom-poms. Clap hands! Make it serious fun. Include your child and their interests in your planning. Summer learning: Whee!  Be your child’s cheerleader.

Parents already know that “an education” is not something exclusive to the four walls of a school building during the school year. Learning and curiosity are life-long. They are not passive. Children are still learning this. Model the behavior you want to see. Demonstrate to your children your own love of learning.

Crack open a book. Take up a new language. Backgammon much. Why not play a pickup game at the park? Walk to the local library for their summer reading club? Crown the Summer’s Most Well-Read in your family? Use friendly competition.

Laura Johnson, Vice-President of Communications at the National Summer Learning Association (NSLA), based in Baltimore, says, “The mind is a muscle that needs to be exercised. Remind your children: Athletes work out in the off-season.”

The NSLA website
is a great place to start planning for your family’s great summer unslump. The organization is a resource for data on summer learning loss nationally and information locally about enriching, vibrant, effective community-based programs, summer camps, parks and recreation opportunities, library events, museums and more. Johnson says, “Baltimore has a rich array of opportunities.”

The NSLA has a helpful printable Top Ten Summer Learning Tips for parents of children of all ages. (

The number one tip? Read, read, read. Encourage your child to create a schedule for daily reading and set an example by letting your child see you reading every day.”

When asked how to combat summer learning loss, Vicki McMillan, a veteran third grade teacher at McDonogh School, echoes the NSLA’s top tip. She says, “Read many good books.” Period. Full-stop.

For at-home activities that keep up your child’s writing and reading, McMillan suggests letter writing and keeping a journal. For math: How about following a recipe daily together?

By writing a letter, for example, your child has learned about the cost of stamps (math!), grammar, punctuation (language arts!) and the U.S. Postal Service (history and civics!). In the fall, your child’s teachers will thank you. And how happy would grandparents be to receive a letter from their grandchild? For the win, parents!

This is not rocket science! This is informal summer learning! (And it could be about rocket science, if you so wish. Check out NSLA’s resources for online STEM activities.)

Other tips from the NSLA include limiting TV and screen time, visiting favorite museums, sticking to a sleep schedule and keeping active. “Some children experience unhealthy levels of weight gain during the summer months because they get less exercise when schools are closed. It’s important to help your child stay physically active all summer long.”

Your attitude toward your children’s summer skills maintenance should not be punitive or remedial. NSLA’s Johnson continues, “What summer learning should be is enriching.” Make it fun.

How can Baltimore-area parents achieve this?

Step 1: At the year’s-end parent teacher conference, don’t leave without the summer work packet and book list.

Step 2: “Goal-setting and proactive planning are crucial,” says Matthew Boulay, founder and interim CEO of NSLA. “Identify your child’s summer learning goals.” Set expectations and work with your child’s teachers to define your child’s summer learning plan. “Teachers are information brokers,” says Boulay. Maybe your child needs a little math facts practice?  Khan Academy and are popular; ask which online resources your school rates highly.

Set milestones. For example, a certain number of pages read a night, or a certain number of books read per week.

Tadah! Now that you have a framework, you can move on to:

Step 3: Go forth! Be creative! Tame lions! (Use your math facts to count them first.)

Mother of three Vanessa Sherman says she follows her children’s teachers’ lead, but feels comfortable on her own, “adding on additional math along with reading.”  Play to your abilities as a parent. Track and reward as fits your parenting style.

“Beginning in kindergarten through third grade, I would buy my kids reading and math workbooks for the grade they would be entering in the fall. At that age, the workbooks are fun and really help the kids stay engaged over the summer,” says mother of four, Lisa Budlow.

For younger children, what’s most effective is a highly-structured summer learning plan. Older children may need less guidance. For tweens and teens, summer learning should not be a prescription that you give them, but a conversation they have with you. The summer is flexible. Let them follow their interests. As Budlow’s children aged into the academic pressures of middle- and high school, summer learning for them became more “of an exhale from school-year scheduling.”

Now, she says, in the summers, “We’ll all learn something. Depending on the subject, they often know more than I do!” Her children are preventing their own summer learning loss.

Summer learning can be enriching for the whole family. From day camp to travel adventures, formal summer school programs to nature centers to library reading programs, the fundamental of summer learning is engagement. Keep up the good habits established during the school year, and read, read, read. Algebra for the fun of it. BC


About Elizabeth Bastos

Elizabeth Bastos is a freelance writer mother of two in the NW Baltimore suburbs. Her work has been featured in The Baltimore Sun, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, McSweeney's, and The New York Times. She is at work on a book about reconnecting her children with nearby Nature. When she's not writing, she's hugely embarassing her children by looking for pigeons and animal tracks outside Target.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *