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Worried Your Kid Is Falling Behind? You’re Not Alone

The other day my mother gave me a book called “What Your Second Grader Should Know.” A quick flip through it revealed that a few weeks from now, my son would need to label an insect’s 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 we’d done all summer had been a contact-free library pickup of the latest “Captain Underpants.” I suddenly wished we’d done a little more.

If you’re 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 Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, said that may not be the right question to ask. “I think a more useful one is, ‘How do we ensure that our children get the best possible opportunities to learn under these challenging circumstances?’” 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, “they’ll be expected to wait their turn and share materials, and many aren’t getting the opportunity to practice that right now.”

At home, board games are an easy way to reinforce turn-taking etiquette, said Jones. Parents can also work on delaying gratification. “If your child asks for a snack, stretch out the time between them asking and you giving it to them,” she said.

To gauge potential gaps in learning, said Britt Menzies, a preschool teacher in Atlanta, Ga., scatter informal tests throughout the day. “Have a child count their peas while they’re eating dinner,” she said. “See 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.”

But don’t stress over hard-hitting academics for the pre-K set, said Emily Levitt, vice president of education for Sylvan Learning. “Do work sheets, sure, but don’t do them all day,” she said. Instead, weave in playful learning activities, like “baking sheets filled with lentils to give kids a multi-sensory way to trace shapes and numbers,” she said. “Or add letters to a Twister board, so you’re saying, ‘OK, left foot to C, right foot to O.’”

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Updated 2020-07-31T05:52:19.095Z

When preschoolers do get back to the classroom, said Levitt, “they’re at the age where they’ll likely bounce back very quickly.”

But with online learning often difficult for young elementary school kids, the stakes may be a little higher — 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., won’t flourish academically with remote instruction. “She can’t read yet, so she can’t get through the computer work without assistance,” she said. “She zones out if I’m not sitting next to her. And I can’t sit next to her all the time because I have three other children who need me.”

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. “Something as simple as talking about measurements and the effects of different ingredients while baking muffins can be educational,” she said. But with many families currently feeling the crunch of work and child care, “parents shouldn’t feel guilty that they aren’t doing enough,” she said. “Schools are going to have to adapt to meet children where they are.”

That’s what Greg Korchnak, a teacher at Summers-Knoll School in Ann Arbor, Mich., plans to do. “There are parts of school and our education system that don’t make learning accessible for all students,” said Korchnak, who directs the school’s remote learning program. “This moment is an opportunity for school systems to be reflective, scrap the parts that don’t work and find new ways to reach students beyond the traditional model of education.”

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.

“Affluent parents are better situated to help or hire help for their kids working online,” she said. “Children 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 that’s already there.”

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 don’t 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. “We’re working to get teachers the training they need to design lessons and interact with students in more constructive ways,” she said. “The benefit to pivoting to distance learning officially is that now districts can help teachers do a better job.”

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. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education. When parents lose their patience or don’t listen, said Dr. Fuller, children can start to shut down emotionally, in turn disengaging from reading and rich conversation inside the family.

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“Children’s cognitive learning is built on a secure emotional foundation,” he said. “If they continually see their parents unhappy or anxious, it can start to inhibit their own development. That’s 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.”

That rings true for Lindsay Williams, an interior decorator in Madison, Wis., who said she’s dreading the pressure that comes with teaching her 6- and 9-year-old herself. “I’m terrified I’m going to screw my kids up, because I get so easily flustered and frustrated,” she said. “There’s a deep-seated vulnerability that I’m just not cut out for this.”

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.

“Being part of a supportive, engaged network can cut down on anxiety for parents,” he said. “And when you minimize those stressors, you give children a healthier and more stimulating learning environment.”

As for me, I’m 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, they’re from a video game called Underworld God Simulator 2, but at this point, I’ll take the wins where I can.

“Kids are resilient and they’ll undoubtedly get the content knowledge they need,” said Estes. “Right now, our main focus should be making them feel loved, secure and safe amidst these disruptions. Learning can’t occur until those things are in place.”


Holly Burns is a writer in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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