Unfinished Learning: What Can (and What Should) Parents Do?

As we come to the end of this extraordinary school year, many parents are still looking for answers to the same questions we’ve been asking for months: Did our children actually learn anything this year? How will they catch up on academic progress they may otherwise have made toward IEP goals? What about those who have fallen behind? As parents, should we focus on catching up academically this summer, or should we give our kids a break from academics and focus on building back up their confidence and self-esteem? We spoke with Dr. Karen Wilson, a clinical neuropsychologist and Director of West LA Neuropsychology and an Assistant Clinical Professor at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Behavior at UCLA, to get a better idea of what we can and should do to address pandemic-related unfinished learning. 

  “Learning Loss” vs. “Unfinished Learning”

There has been a lot of conversation around “learning loss” at the state level as to what schools can do to try to help students recover some of what they missed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, many teachers and students find this term unhelpful — it’s been pointed out on social media that students have not lost learning; they have survived a pandemic. Some teachers feel that concern for “learning loss” diminishes the heroic efforts of teachers who made great progress with distance learning, as well as the amazing strides made by students working independently from home. In fact, some kids have thrived during distance learning in ways they could not have in a traditional classroom

Still others, including many parents, worry that a focus on academics misses the more important issue of social-emotional loss — the trauma many children have experienced by not having access to social activity, playgrounds, or friends. Many families have suffered economic hardship, with some even losing their homes, and many have experienced the much deeper tragedy of losing family members — and for some, their long-term health — to the virus. Will putting too much emphasis on “catching up” only add stress to an already traumatized generation?

In a recent report, What We’ve Learned about Unfinished Learning, researchers suggest using the term “unfinished learning” instead of “learning loss.” Even more accurate is “unfinished teaching,” which places the onus of recovery on adults rather than children. 

Dr. Wilson agrees: “There’s an urge for parents to push their kids to catch up academically, but we need to take a flexible approach to academic standards in the wake of the pandemic. It’s hard for parents to not look at grades and test standards and where kids should be in regard to math and reading, but the priority has to be our kids’ mental health, given the year we've had and the stresses we’ve experienced.” 

“If we’re going to put an emphasis on catching up with ‘learning loss,’ the emphasis needs to be on catching up on social-emotional development.” —Dr. Karen Wilson, Director of West LA Neuropsychology and Assistant Clinical Professor at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Behavior at UCLA

  Is Unfinished Learning Real?

A Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) report published in January 2021 found significant unfinished learning in some California school districts. PACE compared results on the Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) and STAR tests from the 2019–2020 school year to previous years and found differences in both English language arts and math, with students in earlier grades most affected. They also found that the equity impact is severe — certain student groups, especially low-income students and English language learners, are falling further behind compared to others.

A second PACE report published in March 2021 studied oral reading fluency (ORF) using an assessment that measures children’s progress through their recording readings. The ability to use remotely recorded samples allowed the researchers to study fluency changes related to campus closures, with data collected in more than 100 school districts across twenty-two states. They found that students’ development of ORF largely stopped in spring 2020 when the pandemic began; that ORF in second and third grade is approximately thirty percent behind what we would expect; that students at lower-achieving schools are falling further behind; and that ten percent of students were not even assessed this fall. 

What this shows is that even if children haven’t “lost” anything, there is a need to address how we can accelerate their progress after a difficult time. Dr. Wilson notes that some students have struggled more and lost more than others: “Some didn’t have access to WiFi and missed a number of classes, some will need extra academic support through summer school or an educational therapist or tutor, and some will need to switch schools or repeat a grade.” But, she reminds us, parents shouldn’t emphasize catching up academically at the expense of mental health and social-emotional learning.

  The Importance of Social-Emotional Learning

There has been a huge focus on the adverse effects of distance learning, and most of it is warranted, but there’s also been a lot of loneliness and social isolation. “It’s really hard for kids to think when they're depressed,” Dr. Wilson says. “If we want to set them up for success for the next academic year, we need to really set them up for social-emotional success.” Parents can foster this by giving their kids an opportunity to play with their friends, family, and peers over the summer: “Kids need a break from screens and academics, and now is the perfect time to take that break.”

  Unstructured Play Time

Dr. Wilson says the most important thing we can do is allow our kids unstructured playtime and interactions with peers. “We know that unstructured play allows kids to build language and negotiating skills, and helps build empathy and executive functioning skills like planning and organizing time. You can build those skills without putting them in an executive skills program with a clinician.” If your child is experiencing a lag in executive functioning, she notes, there are plenty of group programs that build these skills while socializing. “For example, there’s an OT in LA who teaches executive functioning skills through a cooking class that’s done remotely; kids learn how to measure, count, and follow instructions while interacting with others and having fun,” Dr. Wilson says. “We have to be creative in how to build on those skills by giving kids the opportunity to develop strong emotional connections.” 

  Developing Emotional Connections

Over the past year, while our kids have struggled in various ways, there’s also been a great deal of resilience — and Dr. Wilson reminds us that one silver lining is the opportunity to help them build on that. “All kids want to feel a sense of belonging and to feel safe, especially after a year where safety and health have been threatened. Spending time strengthening those relationships, such as with friends, cousins, and grandparents, will be important.” 

“The upcoming academic year will be another time of transition, so we need to prepare for that. Kids do best academically and socially when they have support, and the summer is a great opportunity to build relationships and resilience.” —Dr. Karen Wilson

Dr. Wilson recommends seeking out camps and other fun ways for kids to engage with peers. “Camps are a great opportunity to establish connections, have a routine, be off screens, work on executive functioning skills, and interact with others.” (For a great round-up of summer camps and classes — both in-person and virtual — check out parts one, two, and three of our summer camps series.)


  Managing Our Stress

This has also been an incredibly stressful time for parents, and our kids often reflect our stress. “One of the best things we can do for kids is to manage our stress and practice mindfulness,” Dr. Wilson says. “If kids are stressed, it’s hard for them to learn and focus.” She notes that we can also emphasize physical activity: “Now that things are opening up, kids can participate in more activities. Even small amounts of physical activity is shown to boost moods, and it reduces screen time. Kids have had a year of too much screen time, so we want to considerably reduce that time over the summer by giving them off-screen activities.”

  The Bottom Line

While unfinished learning will affect most students — some more than others — and will need to be addressed by school districts and new IEP goals, our kids’ (and our own) mental health should take precedence. “It’s been a rough year for all students, especially students with disabilities, but we need to take a step back,” Dr. Wilson says. “We need to be flexible for the benefit of our kids. I encourage parents to say, ‘We have time, so let’s play this summer.' Some kids may need to repeat the grade. In the future, it won’t matter — as an adult, no one is going to care that you repeated second grade — but mental health at this point does matter.”

Other news