How to Avoid the Summer Slide

The “summer slide” and “brain drain” are terms that both refer to the learning losses kids experience over the summer months when they are not engaged in educational opportunities.

The National Summer Learning Association reports that most students lose approximately two months of grade-level equivalency in math skills over the summer. Some students also experience a similar loss of reading skills, although studies have shown that varies based on socio-economic levels—and that some students in higher-income families actually make gains.

Is the Summer Slide a Big Issue?

“In our area, the summer slide is not as prevalent as in others because our parents naturally program in something,” says Dr. Sue Kick, elementary school principal in Wilmette District 39. “They read to their children, take educational trips and might go to museums or see events that are educational.” 

The summer slide may also be less detectable among kids who are already doing well in school.

“Kids tend to slide at things they don’t like, or where their skills are weakest. They’re going to avoid that subject over the summer,” says Carrie Conover, who taught elementary school for 10 years in the Chicago Public Schools and is now a School Partnership Manager at eSpark Learning. “A student who was above grade level may slide over the summer but still do well. Although there may not be a visible drop in grades, it is still important to keep kids engaged over the summer.”

Summer learning is important to mom Jackie Thursby of Golf, who says it helps foster her elementary-age son’s curiosity and desire to learn. “If we did not make such an effort with our summer reading, I truly believe he would have to catch up and work to get the wheels turning in the fall,” she says.

Strategies for Fighting the Summer Slide

Kick suggests that parents make the decisions about summer learning—don’t leave it up to the children—and that doing so early on means not as many fights later.

Thursby has found that to be true in her own family. She says that while her child is initially “not anxious to have reading interfere with his fun,” they have a routine that they established in kindergarten. When they return to the program each summer, he quickly gets back into the swing of it.

Another way to lessen the friction is to focus on reviewing what students have already covered in school. “Summer math shouldn’t be new learning, just review of facts and key concepts, the most common things in the grade level,” Kick says.

Conover also says, “Telling your kid to do times tables by themselves won’t work, but sitting side-by-side with them and helping them choose their learning path keeps them more engaged.”

One possible learning path can be the use of technology. Conover suggests that parents propose the kids spend an equal amount of time on apps that are purely fun and apps that are educational.

“Technology is everywhere in these kids’ lives. If you leverage it in your home over the summer for learning, it can be powerful,” she says, noting that there are over 100,000 educational apps in the App Store. She recommended this list of best middle school apps and best kindergarten apps.

Striking a Healthy Balance

Fighting the summer slide does not mean hitting the books all the time. Kick advises that parents not over program their kids and stressed the importance of children having time that they, not adults, structure.

“Play is essential for our kids, and summer gives the opportunity for kids to play,” Kick says. “It builds their problem-solving skills, teamwork conversational skills, [and helps them] get along in a group, and [with] negotiations.”

Northwestern University’s Center for Talent Development (CTD) recognizes that as well in their summer programs. Cassie Sparkman, Evanston Campus Program Coordinator for CTD, explains, “CTD purposefully includes a social component through daily activities to give students the chance to achieve a healthy balance between academic achievement and social life, or play.”

There is no specific formula that parents should follow when deciding what activities or camps are best, according to Kick, because each student needs something different. Taking each child’s strengths, weaknesses and interests into account will help parents find summer activities that are both mentally stimulating and fun for the whole family.