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The Summer Brain Drain: What to Believe, Who to Blame, and How to Keep Your Child on Track

Posted by Dr. Meg English

I am guilty, again. In this case, guilty of harboring a romantic notion that summer vacation from school is actually good for all children. As a novice teacher and young parent, I used to believe that all children who experienced the “glorious” freedom from demanding teachers and confining classrooms would benefit. Somehow given such freedom, children would explore and determine their own unique learning experiences with little guidance. Yes, I was indeed misguided.

As I became a more experienced teacher and my children grew, I eventually joined the real world. I began to realize that the long summer break represents some profound challenges for parents and kids. Most kids need some help structuring their time when they’re away from school. I began to appreciate what is meant by the term “summer brain drain.”

“Summer brain drain” refers to the idea that kids forget what they have learned in school during the summer, and that without educational activities they are unlikely to recover the lost ground easily and quickly. The problem is not new.

Studies (and there are a lot of them) dating back over one hundred years indicate that kids forget what they have learned during the school year. In fact, most kids lose about two months of mathematical computation skills over the summer. Children who lack amenities such as summer travel with their families, tutors, summer camps and proper nutrition are significantly less likely to regain the lost skills; low-income kids lose out most when it comes to the “summer brain drain.” Another thing to keep in mind: most children gain weight more rapidly during the summer break — this is especially true for children inclined to obesity.

When you think about it, the idea of year round schools makes a lot of sense. So why do American schools continue to adhere to the nine-month school calendar? Many people accept the excuse that the agrarian calendar is to blame.

William A. Fischel, a historian and economics professor at Dartmouth College disputes this claim and suggests that throughout America, planting takes place before school traditionally dismisses. Harvesting occurs in mid to late fall some time after school begins. In fact, Fishel points to widespread literature indicating that schools were typically in session during the June, July and August. The nine-month school year probably had more to do with formally grading children by age and achievement. Once the practice of grading based on age became common, school calendars had to be coordinated. Americans were becoming more mobile in the 19th century and were migrating west. For practical reasons, most families made these moves during the summer.

Perhaps the best reason for sticking to the nine-month calendar is that many parents and experts continue to believe that children need the downtime that summer offers.  Their view is that children are likely to experience exponential growth from certain activities only available in the summer. Certainly, for children whose parents are able to hire expensive tutors, provide horseback riding lessons and take the family on a trip, a long summer vacation can indeed be a rewarding educational experience. But in these tough economic times, most of us simply can’t afford to do that.

While changing the school calendar overnight may not be an option,  you can still do things to help to assuage the effects of “summer brain drain.”

Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Ask your child’s school counselor for summer program opportunities. Many communities provide summer camp scholarships and free meals. You might be surprised at what is available.
  2. Consider the importance of routine physical activity. Physical challenges such as learning to ride a bike, a skateboard or catching a baseball are extremely important for self-esteem and confidence-building, and may transfer to academic challenges. Most communities offer opportunities for children to participate in team sports or similar activities. The local parks and recreation department will probably have a variety of possible activities.
  3. Most public libraries sponsor activities and reading events. You may want to suggest that your child participate in learning about banned or challenged books.
  4. The Khan Academy provides a plethora of free math activities for children and teenagers at all levels of expertise.

There isn’t much any one of us can do to change the academic calendar, at least not in the near future. However, as parents and grandparents, we do have the power to do our best to help provide our kids with meaningful summer experiences.


About Dr. Meg English

Meg English is a career teacher. She has taught International Baccalaureate classes, college composition and specializes in non-traditional gifted learners. She has written extensively on education, schools and parenting. Meg has an Ed.D. in Educational Leadership and an M.S. in history. She and her husband, author John English, are the parents of two adopted boys and several foster children. They live in Belle Fourche, South Dakota within a few hours of their 6 grandchildren.

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