The Year of Learning Loss – Teach. Play. Love. Episode 28

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How has the pandemic affected children’s learning? Are they behind? What can we do about learning loss? For over a year, child care and school have felt anything but normal — and if you’re a parent concerned about learning loss, you’re not alone. But according to early education experts (and parents!) Rachel Robertson and Claire Goss, we need to think about it differently. On this episode, hear about some of the gains children have made throughout the pandemic, and find out how to approach educational opportunities this summer.

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Resources: The Year of Learning Loss


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It's been a time of all kinds of worries and stress, and one thing that's been a huge concern for many parents is how the pandemic school year has affected their child's learning. Are they behind? Do they need to be further along? Do they need to catch up over the summer? Here are Rachel and Claire to address all of those concerns.

Rachel: Hi, everyone, I'm happy to be back with my co-host, colleague, and fellow parent, Claire Goss. Welcome, Claire.

Claire: Hi, Rachel.

Rachel: Thanks for joining me again, for another hot topic for parents and families. We're going to talk about school and what's going on with learning right now after this time in a pandemic. This is something we're all thinking about. Even if people don't have children, they're wondering about what's going on with schools and children no matter what age. This is a pressing issue on our minds. And no wonder, right? We've been in a pandemic with school and childcare being anything but feeling normal for over a year.

Claire: It's unbelievable. It feels like so long.

Rachel: It's over a year sounds like an amazing amount of time to be doing. What? We've been doing this for over a year. And yet, it does feel like we've earned five years-worth of change, and agility, and adapting, and thinking differently, and being frustrated, and stressed, and worried. We've packed at least five years of all those emotions into this one year. So no wonder because we know some things that we can apply from the brain development and kind of learning sciences about how people react to stress and what makes people struggle with resilience, and it's things like not having the answers, and not having a lot of control. So not knowing what's coming next, not being able to do anything about it sounds exactly like what's happening to us right now. So as parents, as family members taking care of young children, that's a terrible feeling to feel like we can't control what's going on with our children and that we don't have any impact, we don't have the ability to make a change based on what we think is right for our children. That's hard in the best of days. And we've been living with that for a long time. So no wonder we're all worried about it.

And we do want to talk about the things that we should be thinking about, focusing on what we know, what we don't know, what we can predict, or guess, or strongly recommend based on history. We can learn from other events in history or other situations. So there are some things that maybe can reassure us and some things that can help us focus that worry. But, you know, some kids are going back to school, and that feels like a step towards normal. But it's not what it used to be, right, Claire? Your kids are going back?

Claire: Yes. By the time this podcast is released, all my kids will be back in school, in-person, five days a week, which is very different than how the last year of our lives have looked. And it's not the same school that they left last March. It's a lot of new guidelines and protocols to keep them healthy and safe, which I very much appreciate. But there's, again, all that unknown, right? There's the stress, the concern. I can't wave a magic wand and make it look like school used to look, and that causes stress, and the lack of being able to predict what that's going to feel like to them to be back there five days a week, are they going to feel stressed socially, are they're going to feel stressed academically? And there's just so much swirling around them, and me, and everyone in my community, and the communities all over the country. It's just another change that we have to go through.

Something that I'm hearing a lot from parents that I speak to every week is about learning loss in particular. So there's certainly stress about social-emotional development and, you know, activities, reopening. But that learning loss, that academic piece keeps cropping up in conversations with parents. And it's not just parents and families that are thinking about this. It's educators, and it's educational researchers, those poor educational researchers out there who are so used to having copious amounts of data to muck around. And usually, this is prime standardized testing season. It's not happening in our district right now. I'm not sure if it will happen this year. We missed last spring as well. So there's just a big huge question mark, what is going on with learning and these kids right now?

Rachel: Yeah. I mean, I have a senior in high school and her learning has been very different, in some ways very positive. But she's given the option to go back to school and she chose not to do it. She just doesn't want to change again. She doesn't want to adapt to another situation. And I have good friends that have kindergarteners this year. And what a different thing it is to go to kindergarten right now in this model, in what we know about kindergarteners and their attention spans and screentime. So there's a lot of things conflicting. But let me use that comment as a segue way to just challenge the listeners to think about this. Just because it's not what it used to be, or what we experienced, doesn't mean it's bad. In the last couple of decades, we've gotten pretty fixed on defining success by test scores and data. And many, many people that know a lot about this would say that that's a problem. So we already had, you know, when we talked about school readiness, we were looking at academic achievements most of the time. When we were talking about how a child was doing and even equating if they were smart or not, it was related to testing.

So we knew that. Educators knew that was a problem, and not accurate, and not reflective, and not really good for students. That's already something we need to fix with our educational system, mindsets we need to fix. It's understandable. It's concrete information in front of us. But we do have an opportunity and really a need right now to not take different to mean bad and not try to get ourselves back to what was happening before the pandemic because that wasn't always what was right for children. There's a lot of innovation going on around schools and different thinking going on. I hope that saying that out loud and hearing that kind of relieves a little bit of the pressure, like, okay, there's a bunch of loss, and there's a lot of things off track. But test scores and data, it's relevant. It tells us something. It just doesn't tell us everything.

Claire: That's right. Yeah. So I poked around a little bit. Like I said, there's a huge deficit in data for the past year, for obvious reasons, the kids haven't been in school to test. I did find some data from a New England assessment company. They analyzed scores from grades kindergarten to fifth grade in fall 2020 and compared them to the fall of 2019 scores. And what they found is that the math scores were at 67%, and reading scores were 87% of what their grade level peers had learned the previous fall. So, you know, what that means on average is that they lost a couple of months of learning in both math and reading. But what I want to point out, and just echoing what you said, Rachel, what I want to point out here is that that definition of learning loss comes from the world of testing. So that means that two comparable tests were given, and an increase in correct responses is a learning gain, and a decrease in scores is a learning loss. And that's what learning loss means in this context. So that's just a very, very narrow definition of learning loss. And as you said, a lot of people who know a lot of things about kids and education have always had a problem with just that one cross slice of, like a snapshot of how kids are doing.

Rachel: Yeah. And I think you mentioned this when you were explaining that, but I'm just going to build on it for a minute is that it's a loss in learning time, not a loss necessarily in learning. One of the things tests measure a lot of is memorization. You can cram for a test all you want, and you know a lot of stuff, and we've all had this experience that a week later, we're like I couldn't tell you any of that that was on there. And that's a loss of memorized facts, that's not a loss of learning. So some of the tests is measuring that, a difference in retention. Some of the summer slump testing tells us that kids didn't retain information, not necessarily that they lost their learning. So it was a loss in learning time, right? They're not where they would have been if they were in school on those testing data points. That's a trajectory. That is a construct. It's not like children are born and oh, by 11th grade, all brains are ready for calculus, therefore, we must teach calculus then. It was decided what grade those things happen in, and therefore what we should test them in. Sure, it's aligned with children's capacities and development, but they can still learn those things, and they can learn other things. And so it's a misconception to look at that data point and think it tells the whole story. It tells a piece of it, might not even tell us that the children have actually lost any learning. It tells us that they're not where they would have been if schools would have been open on those certain data points.

Claire: That's absolutely right. And I love that idea that it was lost time. It is something that I like to reinforce with the families I speak to which is was there really no learning happening? I think if you got out of that test score mentality, or, "I wanted my child to be fluently reading this such and such level by the time they got to first grade..." again, you're talking about constructs. These are just data markers that we have. And there is reason for them because we do have to figure out how certain schools, and certain districts, and certain administrators and teachers are doing. There is a use for them, but it's not telling the whole story. Like, let's talk about some other things, what other kind of learning has not been lost?

Rachel: Yes. And so much and some gains in children's skill, development, and learning that they wouldn't maybe not have had. Just think about the person you are, as a working adult, and thinking about the skills you need all the time and definitely the skills we've needed this year. But just all the time, you have to figure out how to collaborate, you have to listen to other people's ideas, you have to give and take, you have to think about perspective, you empathize with people, communication skills, you're negotiating, you adjust how you talk about something depending on who you're talking to, writing skills, creative problem solving, flexible thinking, all of that is important long-term skills, no matter what the future holds because the future is gonna look different than it does now. Pandemic or no pandemic, innovation is changing the world. So the jobs of the future that these kids are going to have, most of them don't exist right now, or at least a big chunk of them don't exist right now.

So those are the skills they need the most for learning success. They need knowledge, but they can find a lot of knowledge. They need to know how to find knowledge. They need to be resourceful, synthesize information, take a nugget of information and come up with a different solution. They've been working like crazy on developing those skills during the pandemic. No matter their situation, no matter what's going on at home, kids have been challenged. They've had to figure out how to deal with stress. They've had to watch their parents deal with stress, maybe for good or for bad. They've had to do a lot of things that they wouldn't normally have had to do, take on responsibilities. And they've learned a lot from that. We've talked about this, Claire, too, a lot about our own kids and how we worked on that before the pandemic. But I didn't have to work on that during the pandemic. This moment in time did offer those opportunities abundantly.

Claire: Oh, yeah. And it's something I've heard you say before, especially our younger kids, the parents of kids who probably is listening to this podcast, those early elementary school kids who are still working really hard on building those empathy skills and building up their feelings vocabulary. What a great lesson and learning a lot. What huge gain they've probably made in that ability to say, "Well, the reason your dance class was canceled is because we have to think about the whole community. And we have to be good citizens. And we have to think about keeping other people safe and our own family. But we're doing this..." I mean, that's astounding. I can tell you, when my teenager was in kindergarten, that is not a lesson that she gained at that age. And in some ways, I think this whole crop of kids, they're going to be off the charts with their empathy skills and their ability to take other people's perspectives and think about what's good for my community. They've had to do it for the last year.

Rachel: Exactly. And, you know, we know from history. No one looks back at times in history and say...we're not looking at 9/11, or Hurricane Katrina and saying, "Oh, my gosh, the children lost a year of school. They must all be behind." That's just not part of the story. The story is the tragedy, the stress, the trauma, and overcoming that. So there have been major incidents long back in history that we can look at and say, "How did children do during this time?" Change in the school system is not going to set this generation of children back in terms of their life success and career success. We do fairly have to recognize that there's a variety of ways children have experienced this pandemic and families have experienced the pandemic. And some children and some families have had an incredibly difficult time.

And we've talked about this in a podcast a couple of times ago. We talked about the different kinds of stress. And if you're worried about your family being at that level, I highly recommend you listen to that podcast. And we also refer you to some resources because there's something called toxic stress, if you or children are at that level of toxic stress, so not having basic needs met, being in fear, neglect, any kind of being harmed in any way. If that's happening, yes, this pandemic is having a different effect on you, and it absolutely affects learning. It affects learning on the best of days. We're all in the same storm, but we're in different boats. And so we don't want to propose that one person's experience as just like another's. And there are some kids that are going to need a lot of support. They're going to struggle. They're going to need different help.

Claire: And for those of us who have been in bigger boats, with a little more privilege and a little more stability, of course, those ideas about learning loss, you're imagining your kindergartner heading to first grade in the fall and what is the teacher going to do with this child and these children who haven't had a normal year now in so long?

Rachel: There's a wide variety of teachers out there, but teachers are teachers because they love working with children and they adapt and they meet children where they are. They are not going to just say, "Oh, how are you not on track? What are we going to do with you?" They're going to adjust. The whole system will adjust. Teachers will adjust. They do all the time already. That is something teachers do. So we're not trying to say not to worry or not to think about this, unless, of course, again, there's a specific reason to do it. The most important thing you can do with the summer is let normal come back. Let your children play. Let them get out there. Let them start to socialize with other kids again and other people and be in the community. It is not to spend the summer tutoring to get caught up to that grade level construct we're talking about. So be really thoughtful about that.

We've talked about this too, Claire, is the thing people are really missing about school, sometimes they talk about it in terms of the classes and the subject, but it's those intangibles that we didn't recognize that were so important before but are so important. It's the senior friends in the hallway. It's the going up to your teacher and asking a question that can be so nerve-racking for some kids. It's dreaded group projects, where you have to do a lot of collaboration, taking your turn doing things. It's planning ahead. It's all those social, emotional, non-academic cognitive skills that are so important, that's what we miss. That's what we want our kids to have. Childcare is providing that when kids are coming back to Bright Horizons. We see them really thriving because they're getting some of that routine, and ritual, and rich relationships happening again. That's very valuable for kids. And so it's okay, if they're going back to school and their test scores aren't going up. They're getting all this other really great stuff. And that's a good thing to do over the summer. Talking about getting ready for the fall, that's a great thing to be focusing on.

Claire: That's such a great point. I have big plans for my own kids this summer, lots and lots of fresh air, sunshine, and safe outdoor socializing with friends because even as an educator, it still gives me a little pang of, "Oh, gosh, I hope it's like riding a bike." I hope being in a classroom for my kids again, even though it's gonna look and feel a little different still for a while yet, that I know that their teachers will meet them where they are academically, so I have to just let that worry go, and then it's a matter of getting back on that bike socially, emotionally, and being resilient. That's been the name of the game for the last 14 months, and it continues.

Rachel: Yeah. It's a good point I think. It's hard. It's hard not to feel like we're losing out or our kids are missing out. We probably all heard the terms of tiger parenting or helicopter parenting and kind of standing back. And we've had to because we're working, and we're juggling a million things while our kids are in the other room, and kind of standing back and letting them be responsible, letting them manage the stress, and the new schedule has been good for them, and without us hovering over them and fixing it for them and doing everything. Just in my personal life, both of my girls played sports, and there's a lot of pressure to put them in private lessons and do special workouts and oh, if they're going to take the summer off, they're going to get so far behind. It didn't happen, took the summers off, just fine. No problem. Of course, that's a personal story.

But I made that choice because of what I know about education and resilience, and the likelihood that they wouldn't really get that far behind and how good it would be conversely for them to learn other skills and take a break from some of that and not have so much pressure. I think applying that kind of thinking to what's going on with schools and children in the summer can be helpful too. And I guess the last thing we should talk about as just a few little quick tips is you don't have to just choose. You don't have to say, "Okay, they're saying let's just have a fun summer and socialize and have fun. But I'm still really worried about my child in school. And they really haven't learned all that much this year."

There's a lot of things you can be doing in their life with you as a family member, a parent, or looking for camps or activities to make sure that are part of it, that are not sitting down and studying all day and memorizing things, but can be really rich, authentic, meaningful learning. Things like...of course, depending on the age of your child, but you can be working on vocabulary, and spelling, and letter identification, and phonics and all that stuff when you're in the grocery store looking, reading brand names, or every day you have a story time, and every day there's a story that they have to read to you, even if it's invented storytelling or even if they're struggling through words. That's really great language learning right there, and you don't have to create a situation for it. What other things have you done?

Claire: I definitely will ditch the flashcards this summer. It's just all that everyday learning that happens with preschoolers, toddlers and preschoolers, and pre-K kids heading to school, the big elementary school for the first time. Taking a walk in your neighborhood, right? How many blue cars do you see? Let's stop and count. How many windows are on the front of that house? Let's do some counting. Let's do some sorting. Let's go pick all the flowers in that field. Okay, now let's sort them by color. Those are all basic math skills I'm talking about. And it's fun, and you're outdoors, doesn't have anything to do with memorization. If anything, you're teaching them how to apply math skills in real-world situations. These are all really great activities. And we have a ton of them on our World at Home website, for anyone who is interested in doing some really great hands-on learning with their kids at home this summer. It's all with materials that you should be able to find around your home, and they all promote some really good learning. And they're consistent with the curriculum of Bright Horizons. They're just great. Great for preschoolers, toddlers, school-aged kids, all around. Lots of good learning.

Rachel: Really good stuff, gardening, cooking, art, activities, all full of math, science, language, all the academic stuff just built into those really great experiences in a fun way. So, you know, Claire, another thing I just want to stress to families too, this is true for a lot of things but definitely true for when we're talking about school and learning is don't share these worries with your children. Don't say to your children, "You're behind. You're missing. We're going to have to catch you up." They've done a lot of work this year, whether or not that schooling is going to have the long-term impact you want it to have had or whether it was as effective as when they were in a classroom. They've worked hard. It does them no good to think that they didn't succeed or achieve to meet some standards. So I hope that this conversation has helped you think about what learning loss truly means, what to focus on for your children in school, you know, of course, evaluating your own individual situation and identifying if you need some more help, if your levels of stress are affecting, or your child's levels of stress are truly affecting you in a way that is detrimental and is certainly affecting learning and just giving you a different lens to think about it all.

We understand the worry. We're sharing it with you, but just thinking about it a little differently than just some straight learning losses. It's just a different...different learning has happened and the time has been used differently. So test score to test score, it looks like things have fallen behind, but we are just in a different place than we would have been and it's not all bad.

Even though school has not been the way it's always been, the kids have learned quite a bit. So don't worry if you feel like they're not at some academic level you expect them to be because as Rachel and Claire said, they picked up other life skills that'll be just as valuable, if not more that they'll carry into the years ahead.


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