The Winning Strategy to Limit Your Child’s Summer ‘Learning Loss’

Takeaway: After weeks of holiday relaxation, your child will inevitably forget some of what she learned at school over the previous year. But you can limit this summer learning loss by helping her set/track learning goals and find learning moments in daily tasks and activities.

It’s surprising how summer holidays seem to make children forget much of what they learned over the previous year.

Teachers are often surprised by how students regress over the summer holiday. Usually, it’s because children lose momentum and take a while to get back into the habit of learning. But sometimes, they actually forget part of what they learned over the previous year. And there’s data to back this up. A 1996 statistical assessment of collected data in the US quantified this learning loss in terms of test scores – estimating that students lose roughly one month’s worth of schooling over the summer! And it seems to affect some subjects more than others — with a mild effect on reading, a stronger one on maths, and the strongest on spelling.

Researchers use two concepts to explain this phenomenon: the ‘Ebbinghaus Curve’ and the ‘Faucet Theory.’

Hermann Ebbinghaus was a German psychologist who published a theory of ‘learning decay’ in the late 1800s. Based on experiments he ran on himself, he proposed that the brain gradually forgets anything it learns, and the forgetting happens at a predictable rate that looks like a downward-sloping curve on a graph. However, we can reverse the forgetting if we revise lessons at regular intervals. Experts have since criticised the original theory, but the general principle still stands. And it can explain summer learning loss when combined with the ‘Faucet Theory.’ (The Faucet Theory compares learning to water coming out of a tap. The tap is on through the school year as students are supplied with learning opportunities, but is turned off in summer as the learning often stops.) So, the sequence of events is as follows: children learn valuable information during the school year (when the learning ‘tap’ is on), don’t revise or add to it during the holidays (i.e., the tap is turned off), and therefore can’t stop/reverse the forgetting curve – effectively ‘de-training’ themselves over the summer.

Thankfully, it’s not all bad news because there’s a simple fix: set holiday learning goals for your child.

We can reverse the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve by encouraging children to keep learning over the summer. Specifically, we need to have them revisit the basics they learned over the previous year and practise key skills and habits. For starters, it’ll help to brainstorm general learning categories with your child – e.g., academics, physical activity/games, art/creativity, music, etc. After this brainstorming, identify specific goals in each category based on things your child struggles with, is curious about, and/or enjoys doing. For instance, does your child need help with maths skills? Or coping with her emotions? Or getting along with others? Choose goals that will challenge her but interest and excite her, too. And above all, leave enough space for downtime to avoid burnout. It’s still a holiday, after all!

Make sure to write down these goals – perhaps slotting sub-tasks and deadlines into a calendar.

You want to choose clear, specific goals with an end date or deadline. This makes it easier to track your child’s progress, keep her on track, and prevent structured learning from eating into her playtime. Try to set aside time daily to learn something new, review something old, and tie it all together with a learning-based activity. Remember, the activity doesn’t have to be complicated. For young children, it could mean writing a letter to a friend, revising their multiplication tables, or tidying up their room. And for older children, it could be revising a maths chapter, writing a story (or simply a paragraph captioning an unusual photograph), or reading a chapter or two from books on their reading list. Ideally, choose just one task for each day rather than frantically working through dozens of to-dos.

You might even ask your child’s teacher for suggestions.

If you can’t think of things to work on, consider contacting your child’s teacher for suggestions. She might offer pre-prepared ‘review packets’ based on the school’s curriculum. Or she could highlight some foundational skills your child has been struggling with. For instance, if maths has been a problem, a daily goal could be to solve three maths problems from an online workbook. Or, if reading/spelling is challenging, she could learn to spell five new words daily or add prefixes/suffixes to ten she already knows. And if you use a flashcard app like Anki, these daily tasks can become a fun game of recalling and adding to what she’s already learned.

But remember, this isn’t about academics alone. Rather, it’s about creating learning opportunities.

We’re trying to tweak daily activities to challenge children to learn and grow. So, even creative play can be a learning opportunity. For instance, playing with lego can help your child improve her motor skills if you design a complicated structure for her to build. Or learning to play the card game 21 (also known as Blackjack) will have her practising arithmetic, honing her logical thinking, and calculating odds. Even the family classic Monopoly can teach her about number sequencing, probability, and how to handle money. It’s simply about finding depth and insights in everyday activities.

Don’t worry about getting all this perfect, though. You’re keeping your child’s brain active, not trying to match school education.

Children inevitably learn slower over summer than at school, so don’t worry about trying to match their teachers’ skills. Instead, try to minimise summer learning loss while leaving your child enough unstructured time to be a kid. And if you’re worried about her progress, feel free to reach out to us for guidance. The Ed Psych Practice offers face-to-face and online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and universities in London. We have psychologists, paediatricians, and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support. To consult with us or set up an appointment:

Want to see how else you can help your child? You might enjoy some of our other posts.

Image Source: Summer illustration vector created by freepik –

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