Open up a book you haven’t looked at, or even thought of, after two to three months—finding it difficult to remember where you left off? Imagine returning to six or seven books after a long, leisurely break and you will have some idea what kids go through every September.
For many children, especially younger ones, summer break seems like an eternity—days basking in the sun, jetsetting to extended vacations abroad, not having a worry in the world. Yet, when the summer sun sets and the cool autumn breeze picks up, reality sinks in—it's time for students to return to their desks and dust off their books that may now read more like ancient text. This is what we call "summer slump." This summer slump, usually within the first few weeks of the new school year, is an increasingly well-known phenomenon. But with the right guidance and positive attitude, parents and teachers can help students work through it and minimize the disruption.
“It is a well-known fact that during the summer a child can lose up to 25 percent of their reading and math skills,” says Carol Turner, a teacher at the Canadian International School of Beijing (CISB). From her experience, Turner finds that children lose, on average, more than two-and-a-half months of the previous year’s learning … or about one day of schoolwork for every weekday of vacation. Many teachers have found they’ve had to get used to this reality and plan their lessons accordingly.
This kind of “mental erosion” over the course of the summer doesn’t just apply to math and languages either; it can affect the arts, too. One performing arts teacher at one of Beijing’s top international schools, who prefers to use the pseudonym Jones, says artistic abilities also degrade over time if a student isn’t actively using them. “This is very easy to see in music,” he explains. “I start the new academic year off with music theory and refresh much of what the students should know at their current curriculum level, but I keep it fun”
But even after weeks of freedom and days empty of any thoughts of homework, studying and exams, Turner says managing the classroom and keeping her students engaged isn't that much of an issue. In fact, she finds that her students are usually quite eager to join in on school activities and be with their friends again.
It's normal to assume that some kids might face difficulties switching to school mode once their leisurely summer days are traded in for regimented 9am to 3pm days cooped up in a classroom. However, Michael Oehlschlaeger, a teacher at Beijing International Bilingual Academy (BIBA), was also keen to dispel that myth. “I have never found it difficult to get the kids to settle down after a long summer break. I welcome the enthusiasm and energy the kids bring with them at the beginning of a new school year.” In fact, a break from the norm can sometimes inspire kids with new ideas and perspectives that can promote added enthusiasm to the start of the new year.
At the heart of summer slump is that a lot of kids simply lose a lot of the routine and discipline of the school year. Muhammad Shahzad Khan, a grade ten student at the Pakistan Embassy College Beijing, knows how tough that first week back can be. “Because of summer vacation, I tend to stay up late and wake up late,” he explains. “Getting over this habit is very difficult and as a result, the first week usually goes with severe headaches due to lack of sleep.” He anticipated these challenges ahead of time and was able to prepare in the weeks leading up to the new school year, but it’s not always so easy.
“Studies have shown that the achievement gap between students with similar abilities is almost entirely due to summer learning loss,” says Turner. “During the school year, students of different groups achieve at pretty much the same rate, but the summer months put students who don’t practice and use their noggin at risk of falling behind.” This learning gap can build up over successive summers and put some kids at a real disadvantage. Living by a strict schedule for nine months of the year, only to be suddenly removed from those structures for two to three months, can be a difficult adjustment—two steps forward, one step back. Some of the teachers we spoke to admitted that even they sometimes found it challenging to settle back into the school regiment.
So, how can we win the battle against summer slump? The key is to keep their brains active and recreate a little bit of the structure and routine of the school year during those laidback summer months. It isn’t necessary or desirable to try and totally recreate the school environment, after all, kids need the down time and are going to want to enjoy their vacation. Summer camps are a great way to split up the break, giving kids’ brains a little reminder of the kind of set schedule they had in school, but in a more fun and recreational environment. “I think that children should try and participate in physically challenging activities that encourage teamwork,” says Oehlschlaeger. “This is sometimes lacking in the regular school year when academics and individual achievement is stressed.”
There are other less regimented ways to stimulate a child’s imagination as well. For instance, taking kids to the theater, concert and/or a museum, are great ways to keep the brain juices flowing. Besides enjoying something new, these artistic outings allow kids to do and see something unique, while still unconsciously turning on their brains to comprehend the experience. As a performing arts teacher, Jones affirms that the kids who practice their instruments and stay involved in their extracurriculars over the summer are the ones that seamlessly dive right back in when September comes around and avoid all the frustrations of having to re-learn many things.
But from a student’s perspective, Khan says he finds that organized sports are a solid way to keep him both physically active and mentally stimulated over the summer; thinking strategies, techniques, and being quick on your feet are mental exercises as much as they are physical.
But what can be done to avoid falling under this summer spell? In the weeks leading up to the new school year, it’s more important than ever to ease kids back into a sense of routine; of course, nothing oppressive. Going over some of last year’s material might be helpful but can quickly become tedious and boring, so starting with simple tasks like setting up a time slot each day for reading, or doing some puzzles and brainteasers can help get kids back into the studying frame of mind and back into the school-groove of things. But what works for one child doesn’t work them all, so you might have to think outside the box. Turner suggests a quite unique approach to stimulating the mind: making some delicious treats. “Baking cookies could be used as a math lesson, English lesson, science lesson, sequencing exercise, the list goes on, but it also serve to be motivational, effective and most of the time quite delicious!”
Bottom line is: summer doesn't last forever, so don't let your child fall under the summer slump spell. With a little bit of discipline, a sprinkle of fun, and a dash of creativity, you can help your child get ready to take on school come September. No need to forego fun, intensive 10-hour tutor sessions, or continuous math drills. As long as their brain is active, and they can hold on to a sense of routine, they'll have a real head start when it's time to crack open those books again.
I'm pretty shocked that kids lose so much of their prior learning over the summer. To be fair, I was more of an indoor kid than an outdoor kid so I usually spent my summers reading. But still, I think it's definitely important that parents are aware of this so that they can try to encourage their children to exercise their brains a bit more over holidays.