Dr. Jennifer Hartstein on Fighting Summer “Brain Drain”

We’re in the dog days of summer and, if you’re a parent of school-age kids, you might worry that they’re not getting the mental stimulation they need to be ready for the challenges they’ll face when the school year starts up again. Summer “brain drain,” also known as the “summer slide,” is real and it refers to the loss of academic knowledge when school is out of session — on average, students lose 1-3 months of math and reading skills over their summer vacation! Fortunately though, the folks at Sleep Number have some  great tips to combat brain drain and Dr. Jennifer Hartstein filled me in on what every parent needs to know to make sure their kids are prepared when the school bell rings. Read our conversation below…

Katie Couric: What exactly is summer brain drain? Does it affect kids more dramatically than adults?
Dr. Jennifer Hartstein: Summer brain drain, or summer slide, refers to the loss of skills and academic knowledge that occurs for students over the summer months. Generally, it puts young people at an overall disadvantage and delays classroom progress. In some cases, teachers need six weeks to review/reteach what was done the previous school year. On average, students lose 1-3 months of math and reading skills in the summer. It seems that the loss of math skills is worse than for reading and that the loss is larger in higher grades. Additionally, it is worse for disadvantaged groups, especially in reading.

I do think it impacts children more than it does adults, as adults don’t tend to have the same kind of break in activity or work as students do. The ongoing stimulation keeps adults more on task. That being said, being a parent of kids who need help with activities and focus could just create exhaustion and frustration in general.

Katie: Do you think it would make more sense to have a year-round school schedule to avoid this learning loss?
Jennifer: There is something to be said for having year-round schooling, with breaks along the way, to help prevent this. One of the main arguments for year-round school is that it will be less disruptive to the learning process and help students retain what they’ve learned more easily.  There is not enough evidence overall to know if this benefit is accurate, however. I can see how a year-round schedule could have a lot of benefits to many, especially those who have a harder time with child care, for example. However, I do think that year round schooling prevents students from accumulating excellent experiences that they can get in the summer.

Katie: Some rest and relaxation can be good for kids’ brains though, right? What’s a good balance, in your opinion, between staying stimulated and also having a restorative summer vacation?
Jennifer: Rest and relaxation is absolutely good for children’s brains, although not all summer breaks need to be solely rest and relaxation. Summer vacation can provide amazing opportunities to engage in extracurricular activities that might not be possible during the school year (chances to go to summer camp, get a job, travel, play sports). It’s important to encourage some balance of activity and relaxation. This is true regardless of what age you are. We all need time to regroup and refocus, students are no different.

Figuring out the balance for that will be different for everyone, similar to adults. Some children will need more down time, as they spend so much time during the school year working to succeed. Others can jump into the next activity and need the ongoing action. Spend some time to focus on  your child and talk with them about what they may want and see how to create a balance.

Katie: What are some tips that parents can use to help their kids keep their brains stimulated and sharp?
Jennifer: Although summer is a break from school, it doesn’t have to be a break from learning. There are lots of things that parents can do in the summer to help prevent some of this slide…

Elementary school:
PLAY!!! Play is a great way to learn so much about the world: it teaches creativity, helps to combat boredom, encourages sharing and collaboration. All of these are important skills for school.

PLAN TRIPS: Even if you aren’t going on a trip right now, spend time with your child planning one. You may learn that your child wants to go to Africa. In the planning process, you can choose which country and then learn together about that country. Math can be incorporated as you see how far it is away, how long it would be to travel, and what the budget would be to go there.

WRITE LETTERS: Even if you’re just staying home, write letters or postcards together to send to family members. Especially for little ones, this helps with penmanship, grammar, etc.

READ: Incorporate reading into the daily routine. Maybe even have a book club with your child. End it with a discussion.

Middle School:
BE CREATIVE: Middle school is often a time of great transition, and they are smart enough to know when you are sneaking in learning opportunities. Be creative with how you do that. If they don’t want to read a book, what are they willing to read? Can you read some newspaper articles together and then discuss them? Find ways to incorporate reading in different ways

TRY SOMETHING NEW: New things are coming at your middle schooler all the time. Spend some time with them to identify something new that they may want to try. Having time in the summer allows for that kind of exploration.

TEACH BASICS: You have the time, and they are often responsible enough, to teach them the basics of things like: cooking, laundry, self-care, etc. Middle school is a great time to start to teach things that will foster independence and it can be done in a fun way.

High School:
GET A JOB OR VOLUNTEER: High school is stressful and summer is a great time to build life skills. Having a job or volunteering helps in a multitude of ways, and is life education, not just academic education. It teaches appropriate socialization, working with others and interacting with adults.

FIND AN INTEREST: Maybe you can’t travel to Paris, but you can learn about it anywhere. Encourage exploration of far flung interests that can be explored where you live, online or in the library.

RELAX: High school students are putting so much pressure on themselves that they forget how to take care of themselves. Encourage them to spend time with friends, sleep late, and have some fun. Encourage this one or two days a week, as they do need it!

Katie: So what would you offer as your main takeaway for parents as this summer kicks into high gear?
Jennifer: Learning does not have to be academic. We are learning all the time. Grab any moment that you can as a teachable one. If you can, everyone benefits…even you!

Katie: That’s great advice! Thanks so much!