The pandemic has taken a devastating toll on our children. Most kids are still falling behind either socially, emotionally, or educationally, experts say. Absenteeism in school is up, and behavioral issues and mental health problems among kids abound.
The research backs this up. A study out of the Brookings Institute revealed that test scores over the length of the pandemic have dropped significantly in math and reading, comparably worse than for kids during other school disruptions like after Hurricane Katrina. And in the later years of the pandemic, the numbers got worse, not better. Other research has shown that kids are struggling with their mental health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 5 children now has a mental disorder such as anxiety, depression, or an eating disorder.
But even through all the doom and gloom of the past three years, summer gives parents an opportunity to help their kids regain some of the skills they’ve lost. Experts contend that there’s a lot parents can do to help build math and reading skills over the summer months while also boosting kids’ social and emotional learning and creating a mental health sanctuary at home.
Here are four ways parents can support their child’s social, emotional, and learning growth this summer.
Stave Off the Summer Slide
A large body of research shows that the impact of summer learning loss builds up over the years and can permanently stagnate a child’s ability to catch up, says Kathleen Lynch, Ed.D., an associate professor of learning sciences at the University of Connecticut. Some research has even found that inequities in a child’s summer experience are linked to educational attainment such as graduating high school or college, she adds.
“It’s important to remember that summer learning loss isn’t something that your child will necessarily make up in the next school year,” says Lynch.
Educational opportunities over the summer make a big difference, and they don’t have to be expensive or time-consuming. For example, parents can help kids find math in everyday activities like converting measurements while baking, calculating discounts at the store, or computing sport statistics while watching the big game, Lynch says. Some card games and board games also involve math skills, and kids won’t even realize that they’re learning.
The single best thing that parents can do to support summer learning is participating in school and local library summer reading programs, Lynch says. “Giving kids access to a supply of books that they’re interested in, whether purchased or from the library, has been shown to boost kid’s reading skills.”
When kids don’t want to read, encourage them with books about things they love. From space to dinosaurs to monster trucks, if kids are interested in the subject matter, they’re much more likely to open a book. What’s more, kids love contests, so signing your child up for a summer reading contest, where they get prizes for reading the most books, is another carrot to help them get going.
Avoid “Rescue Mode”
Kids universally experienced some period of isolation from either quarantine, social distancing, mask mandates, or virtual learning. This summer is the perfect opportunity to fill in these social lapses, says family therapist and emotional learning expert Kelly Oriard.
But as kids socialize this summer, Oriard warns parents not to always jump into “rescue mode” when they notice their child experiencing a social problem, but rather to help kids solve their own issues. “Asking your child to explain the situation and how they felt not only offers them the space to reflect and problem solve, but it also helps them to trust their inner voice when things feel uncomfortable,” she says.
During moments of heightened emotions, she says, show your understanding. For example, “I can see that you are very mad and frustrated that we have to leave the park. I know it can be hard to leave somewhere when you are having fun, but we cannot scream when we are frustrated.”
During the summer, finding opportunities for your child to socialize is really important, Oriard says, especially after kids lost so much of that during the pandemic. But it doesn’t have to be expensive. While preschool, daycare, camps, or karate can make a big difference, so does the local library, local youth programs such as the YMCA or The Boys and Girls Clubs of America, or even going to the playground. “These shared experiences can help even the most anxious child open up,” she says.
Help Process Their Emotions
If you notice that your children are struggling, it’s important to give them permission to feel, says family therapist David Kalergis, founder and owner of Lowcountry Family & Children. “Our kids haven’t done anything wrong. They’re the victims of circumstance, and parents need to remember that,” he says.
According to Kalergis, the most important thing that parents can do is to remind kids that while they have permission to feel, they don’t have permission to act on those feelings.
“All feelings are allowed, but all behaviors are not,” he says. “I tell my daughter that she’s allowed to be so frustrated with me that she wants to take the coffee mug and smash it on the wall. But she’s not allowed to pick up that coffee mug and smash it against the wall.”
Parents should teach their kids to use clear and concise wording to convey their emotions, Oriard says. If your child isn’t a fan of hugs from friends and family, for example, teach them to express that clearly while also providing an alternative. For example, they can say, “I’m not a fan of hugs, but I love high fives and fist bumps.”
Parents can also use the summer to instill the importance of empathy. You can’t expect your child to be empathetic if you’re not. “If we can regulate our emotional responses and be the calm in the midst of the chaos, we are not only modeling regulation, we are offering a safe space to land,” Oriard says.
Rebuild Family Connections
The last few years have created a lot of disconnection between parents and children, Kalergis says, because parents have been trying to work and take care of their kids at the same time. Because of that, summer should be a time to rebuild family connections.
Using the summer to build family rituals can go a long way in giving kids a sense of belonging so that when times get tough, they don’t feel as isolated. Try something as simple as “upside down breakfast on Saturday” where kids get to eat their breakfast underneath the table one day a week. Tuesday can be taco night, or you can eat sundaes on Sunday.
Other ideas to help build family connections include an adventure jar where kids can put their favorite adventure ideas in, such as camping in the backyard or going on a seashell hunt. Parents may also consider making a gratitude jar where they write down when their child does something great, and then at the end of the week read all the good things out loud to their kids. “It’s mainly about taking time to do things together and having an adventurous spirit about it,” Kalergis says.
In the end, he says, it’s important to remember that kids are resilient, and parents are often doing a much better job than they give themselves credit for. So, in those moments when you do lose it, don’t beat yourself up. Be honest with your child about your mistake and apologize. “Kids need to know that it’s okay to make mistakes, and the most important thing is that we learn from them and move on.”