Slippery Slope or Much Ado about Nothing?
In case you haven’t heard, there’s this thing called the summer slide – yet another cutes-y phrase to get our parenting worries aflutter. The summer slide refers to the long-researched loss of academic skills over the summer break from school. Some use it to justify year-round schooling. Some dismiss it as an overblown effort to steal summer. So which is it? Is this summer slide phenomenon real, how much does it matter, and should we be giving our children schoolwork over the summer?
So far, my children appear to learn easily and be pretty good students. My rising 4th grader immersed herself into last year’s projects, like teaching herself Italian when she did a social studies report about Italy. When the idea of a summer slide suddenly got my attention, this same avid learner has not accepted my cheerfully offered multiplication worksheets.
In full transparency, some peer admiration may have motivated my sudden interest. At a recent summer block party, famous for large groups of children running barefoot all day house to house, I looked down at a front stoop to see one of my daughter’s classmates doing school work.
What was this magic? I asked her mom, who explained that she had a summer incentive program set up for doing school work. Her 9-year-old daughter had been diligently doing work throughout the summer.
The next day, I fished out the Summer Packet for 2nd graders sent home on the last day of 1st grade. I printed multiplication worksheets. At Sunday night dinner, I explained the new morning routine (this was also part of a concerted effort to decrease the slippery screen time slope).
I’m sure you can guess how this all ended up going down . . . apparently, a 9-year-old and 7-year-old are not moved by the research I cited that you lose what you learned the grade before, and start out behind.
They don’t care of course, but should I?
The Science of the Summer Slide
I had a vague idea that some research backed up this fear of children losing learning over the summer. To settle my own anxiety, I thought maybe I should practice what I preach about evidence-based parenting, and actually find out if this vague idea is true.
Well, readers, it is. (With some caveats.) Research since 1906 supports the idea that our children regress academically over the summer, which is not at all surprising even using common sense. Why and how would they maintain their reading, math, and writing gains when they are not doing it 5 days a week?
In a nutshell, research has found and replicated that ON AVERAGE students lose a month of learning gains over the summer, and these losses look worse in math than reading. Looking more closely, these losses worsen at higher grades. In fact, Kindergarten and 1st grade don’t show losses, but there is greater regression – like up to 50% of skills – after 7th grade.
Across studies, these losses also disproportionately affect lower income students. The most often cited reason for this is the “faucet theory” that students across income groups are exposed to the same faucet “output” during the school year, but children from families with greater resources are more likely to have higher output over the summer to minimize the loss of academic skills.
Okay, so the summer slide is real. Should I start berating myself that it’s now August and I haven’t taken my kids to a science museum or drilled math facts with them for 15 minutes a day?
This inspires the next big parenting question: how much does it MATTER?
Beyond the Science
It was easy to find dozens of articles documenting the summer slide as an evidence-based phenomenon. Besides clear evidence about negative effects of low literacy (again, disproportionately in lower income communities), it was not as easy to find how this actually matters in the big picture. Does the summer slide mean not graduating high school? Earning less money in their future careers?
As I immersed myself in this topic, I also started to wonder what are we leaving out when we think about “learning?” These summer slide studies use achievement scores from standardized tests; these tests have had heaps of criticism.
One education expert, psychologist Peter Gray, has pointed out data within these summer slide studies showing that reasoning abilities actually appear to improve over the summer. He also discusses how a more detailed look at the data suggests that many of the “losses” from summer are gained within the first two weeks of the school year.
Taking a step back, our children’s growth and learning should encompass a whole lot more than reading comprehension and math computation. Maybe we should ask ourselves what other types of learning get to happen BECAUSE of summer break.
My daughter was the only girl at sports camp for a week, where she knew nobody. She got to learn how to navigate an uncomfortable group setting, growing her own confidence and sense of self. At another swim-focused camp, both of my daughters were very disappointed to fail the swim test the first week. They learned to manage this disappointment, set goals to pass the swim test, practice, and achieve it the next week.
We have incrementally given the girls more freedom, encouraged by the slower pace and warmer weather offered by summer. Riding their bikes around the block without us shouting reminders “look both ways!” has to be teaching them something.
At the end of the hot and humid summer day, defining “learning” as math and reading does seem a pretty narrow lens.
The Art of Summer
Just one piece of baggage I bring to this parenting deal is a love of school I hope to pass on to my children, AND a history of very high achievement, possibly bordering on unhealthy, that I do NOT want to pass on to my children. Delving into that would be its own true mom confession for another day, but it’s good to recognize what I may personally be projecting onto this summer slide fear.
Sunday nights out for ice cream. Riding bikes with friends. Marathon block parties. Hours of swimming. Movie nights. Sleepovers. Hunting lightning bugs. Filthy bare feet. Vacations full of new experiences. Summer is like the sweet frosting of childhood. Do I really need to bring it down with academic worries?
Obviously, this does not have to be an all or nothing scenario. I think the art of summer is noticing natural opportunities for our children to use their skills in a way that they enjoy, further instilling what actually does matter most: a love of learning for the sake of learning.
All of my children love books and reading (a part of me I’m glad they inherited!) so they have embraced the summer library reading program, and have always read before bed as part of their routine. I know not every child is a natural reader, but regular activities can incorporate skills practice (like cooking – reading the recipes and recognizing fractions; and of course, doing dishes is always a good life skill!).
My fellow neighbor mom with the studious daughter laughed when I lavished admiration on her stellar parenting. “Well, there’s no incentive big enough to get my other one to do any school work.” Her younger daughter zoomed around the block on her bike, her 7-year-old joy making me smile.
It seems every analysis of most big parenting topics yield the same conclusion: each child is different, and moderation is the best approach.
Based on the data AND Mom common sense, I offer these guideposts for dealing with the summer slide:
If your child is struggling with a foundational academic skill during the school year (eg, teachers express concern), keeping up these skills over the summer is more of a priority.
If your child enjoys the skill practice (my 7-year-old flies through her summer packet, echoing none of the complaints issued by her sister), that’s great! (Here’s a great resource at Education.com, with worksheets and games for K-5th.)
If your child bursts into tears or aggressive acts at the mere mention of multiplication, let it go (I may be talking to myself here).
Reading is good. Practically every study of short-term and long-term good outcomes related to academics includes the importance of reading. Magazines? Cookbooks? Graphic novels? All reading is good practice.
Make sure some feet get filthy this summer – there’s nothing like the barefoot days of childhood summers.
The Effects of Summer Vacation on Achievement Test Scores: A Narrative and Meta-Analytic Review, Review of Educational Research
Facts and Fiction About the So-Called “Summer Slide,” Psychology Today