6 Ways to Help Your Child Catch Up On Learning

After an incredibly frustrating year, you may be wondering about the long-term impact on your kid’s learning. But experts say it’s worth keeping things in perspective and that there are ways to support students this go-round (without having to supervise their classwork).

As schools throw open their doors and kids return to answering word problems and math equations, the question on most parents' minds appears to be: Are they ready for academics?

It is understandable to be worried that your child didn't learn as much as they should have last year. In our 2021 Back-to-School Survey, 36 percent of parents expressed concern that their child wouldn't meet grade-level expectations this year. And disparities across the country were stark: Some kids were in the classroom all year, while others received little live instruction and lacked access to technology. Still, others lost loved ones, suffered from housing or food insecurity, and wrestled with anxiety or depression.

After Alyssa Hanada received repeated warnings from the teacher that her third-grader was watching YouTube instead of paying attention in class, her two sons returned to school in Portland, Oregon, for a few hours a day in the spring. "I heard people say, 'My kids are thriving online, 'but it was very hard to keep my son engaged with Zoom," she says. "I threw up my hands and said, 'This year was a wash.'"

A report by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company estimates that, on average, students had lost five to nine months of learning by the end of June 2021. And research from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania calculates that the lasting effects of learning loss from school closures on the economy, including lower productivity and lower wages, will reduce the U.S. GDP by 3.6 percent in 2050.

But despite such predictions, many educators on the ground are more optimistic. The nonprofit Collaborative for Student Growth at NWEA found that students, particularly those in third to fifth grades, fell behind in math but appeared to stay more or less on track with reading. Especially in early elementary school, kids have time to master reading and math fundamentals, says Emily Levitt, vice president of education at Sylvan Learning. Because math tends to build sequentially, not grasping a key concept—like graphing or subtracting three-digit numbers—last year does make it harder to advance, but kids will have opportunities to review the material this year and fill in gaps as they move ahead in school.

Teachers do say that third grade is a particularly crucial year, Levitt points out. "By the end of third grade, you're no longer learning to read, you're reading to learn." Students need to be able to comprehend information from textbooks and solve word problems. So the parents of third and fourth graders may want to be especially vigilant. In general, though, rather than focusing exclusively on learning loss, both parents and teachers should reframe this year as an opportunity for a fresh start, suggests James S. Kim, Ed.D., professor of education at Harvard Graduate School of Education.


6 Ways to Catch Up for Free Online School

Get ready, get psyched.

Above all, it's important for returning students to think of school as a positive, welcoming place to be. "During the pandemic, some kids became isolated and detached from school," says Matthew Kraft, Ed.D., associate professor of education and economics at Brown University. "We want to make sure that they reconnect with their learning environment, which will foster long-term success."

To best help your child, "plan, don't panic," says teacher Tina Athaide, one of the founders of a charter school in Menifee, California, and author of the picture book Meena's Mindful Moment. Think of the new school year as if you're taking your child to a foreign country—one that they've never been to or haven't visited for a long time, Athaide suggests. "Students need to learn the language of school again." You can establish—or re-establish—your routines at home, such as setting aside a regular time and place for completing homework and reading. Create a station for incoming and outgoing paperwork, since kids will likely be bringing papers home again after submitting most work digitally last year. Set up older students for success by buying them an academic planner to help them get organized.

These steps will not only smooth your child's transition back to school but also build a strong foundation for learning—and catching up. There's more to being a good student than knowing how to, say, calculate fractions, says Jimmy Halpin, an elementary-school teacher in New York City. "It's about organizational and time-management skills and self-motivation."

Give them time to settle in.

Students, especially younger kids, will need to relearn—or learn for the first time—the fundamentals of classroom behavior, from raising their hand in class to working collaboratively with their peers on small-group projects. Wait a month or two before getting too concerned about whether they're on par with their classmates, Athaide says. Students who fell behind only slightly last year will likely make quick strides, picking up forgotten skills with a little review. "Once a child is back in the routine, the learning will happen," Athaide notes.

During the first few weeks, teachers will likely do assessments to determine whether your child is meeting grade-level standards. Tests help teachers see what most students in the class learned and retained last year, and they also identify individual students who need extra help, Dr. Kim says.

Share information with the teacher.

Chances are, you already have an inkling if your child is significantly behind, because last year's teacher will have let you know. But all parents should think about what did and didn't work for their child in remote learning. "You've had a direct window into your child's struggles and achievements and can provide valuable insights," says Parents advisor Patricia Edwards, Ph.D., professor of teacher education at Michigan State University College of Education. Just as doctors collect medical history, teachers want to know these types of details.

Once the school year starts, you can observe and collect more specifics for the teacher. Can your child finish homework by themself? If they are struggling to read, which words make them stumble? Which words do they mispronounce? What kind of books do they prefer? You can discuss this information during your first parent-teacher conference, but if you have concerns and the teacher hasn't contacted you within a few months, don't hesitate to reach out. "If your child cries because they get so frustrated doing homework, you need to share that with the teacher," Halpin says.

Related: How To Ease Your Child's Fears About Going Back to School During COVID-19

Develop a plan together.

Now more than ever, parents and teachers have to work hand in hand, Dr. Edwards says. Teachers should inform parents about their lesson plans and how they can support the curriculum at home. During the pandemic, Sa'iyda Shabazz, a mom of a 7-year-old in Los Angeles, attended regular online parent workshops led by her son's first-grade teachers. It helped her see what he was learning and how she could assist him. "They'd share the screen and say, 'Here's an exercise you can do, here's a math game you can play with them,'" she says. "It kept us in the loop, especially because we had to pick up the slack at home."

You should expect that kind of partnership to continue. It's not so much about buying flashcards or workbooks for your kid, but knowing how to reinforce what they're learning in class. For instance, teachers stress that it's not your job to tutor your child to advance from one reading level to the next. Rather, you should read to them and encourage them to read books at their level and discover books they enjoy. Listening to audiobooks, sharing silly puns, and baking are a few fun ways to review and practice reading and math skills at home, Athaide says. Especially for kids who are only a little behind, this will build their confidence and prepare them to make the next leaps in learning.

Consider using a tutor.

Not all parents can afford to use private tutors—nor should they be expected to. But if your teacher suggests it, know that research has shown one-on-one tutoring to be one of the most effective tools for helping students who are behind. Ask if your school provides group tutoring or even individualized tutoring with a specialist, which schools may be offering with the help of federal funding. "There may be additional opportunities for students to be tutored by volunteers and college students," Dr. Kraft says. Kids can't hide in a one-on-one setting, and it'll allow them to focus on building the specific skills they missed.

Last fall, when Melissa LaFreniere saw her 11-year-old daughter struggling to finish her math homework, she used the family's stimulus check to hire a tutor through Sylvan Learning. The tutor helped her fifth-grader solidify the skills—some dating back to third grade—that she needed to catch up with her class. "She's in a much better place now," says LaFreniere, a mom of two in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Remember the big picture.

As much as Alyssa Hanada worried that her third-grader had fallen behind in math last year, she was even more concerned that he was missing out on interacting with other students and making new friends. "School is more than just academics," she says.

Now that kids are back in school, relish the time they'll have to connect with peers, learn to take turns, speak in front of an audience, and work together on a project—all the elements that are now possible because they're together in person. "We've come together as a community and have weathered a once-in-a-century pandemic," Dr. Kraft says. "Let's celebrate all that we've survived and support those who need the most support."

Students with learning disabilities or special needs were disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Jamie Davis Smith, a mom of four in Washington, D.C., worries that she lost valuable time helping her 6-year-old son, who'd been diagnosed with dyslexia during the pandemic but couldn't get the proper support. "The message to parents has been, 'Everybody is in the same boat,' but we're not."

Most schools struggled to offer support services during the past year, and it has exacerbated inequities that were already hurting students of color with disabilities, according to a national analysis by The Civil Rights Project at UCLA.

Now that students are back in school, it's an opportunity to revisit your child's individualized education program—and work with their teachers and special-education specialists to identify the support your student needs.

An influx of federal funding is expected to provide schools with more resources, and some may have already begun using it by offering summer school. Heather Clarke, a disability advocate and adjunct professor of education at The City University of New York, encourages parents to band together to advocate that schools use those funds to adequately provide support for students with disabilities or special needs—services that are mandated by law. "These are things that students need to thrive and that directly affect them both inside and outside the classroom."

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's September 2021 issue as "Your Child Will Catch Up" 

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