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Summer Planning: Help Teens Recover from Unfinished Learning

By Helen Waldron

Two years into the pandemic, many are working hard to assess and compensate for the learning loss being experienced by an entire generation of children. Experts describe this phenomenon as “unfinished learning.” This differs from the “summer slide” (when students lose previously earned academic gains) because it refers to learning that has yet to occur. Pandemic conditions have generally reduced opportunities for children to grow, both inside and outside of school. As a result, many are lagging in academic skills and social-emotional development when compared to peers of the same grade level from before the pandemic. These concerns are particularly acute for teens, who have fewer years left to prepare for adulthood. The upcoming summer months—being outside of traditional school deadlines and social pressures—are an excellent time to help teens grow in the areas that are most urgent for each individual. 

Parents can facilitate this process by thinking holistically: Would your child benefit from shoring up a foundational academic skill? Do they struggle with organization and focus? Does your teen feel connected to peers and adult mentors? Does anxiety or another emotion interfere with their day? Are they building confidence in other life skills and developing their own personal interests with enthusiasm? All of these questions are relevant to your child’s ability to succeed in school, feel part of a larger community, and pursue future life goals. And all of these areas have been hampered during the pandemic. 

The New York Times has just published a survey of hundreds of school counselors nationwide that outlines the breadth of loss in social-emotional development and its connection to academic engagement. If your child is facing any such challenges, I recommend prioritizing summer activities that promote social-emotional development. Emotions help human brains decide what to pay attention to, and if a teen’s brain is constantly in a highly emotional state, then it is more difficult to follow a lesson in math class, tune into social cues, concentrate on necessary tasks, and take healthy risks. For teens who have suffered emotionally from feeling isolated, summer provides many opportunities to reconnect, reflect, and build confidence. In this context, summer camps take on new significance. Amidst a wide variety of themes, locations, and schedules, these organizations coalesce around the goal of providing steady, structured, social interactions. For older teens, summer jobs are important venues to demonstrate emerging independence and be a part of a team working toward a goal. 

To focus more specifically on school readiness, starting work with an academic coach during the summer provides a running start to the next school year. Based on my own work in this area, students who struggle with executive functioning benefit from time to deconstruct their own behavior patterns and develop new habits that they can apply to future projects. Addressing any social-emotional needs first will make efforts to grow academically more effective.

The true toll of the pandemic on those who are coming of age during this era is incalculable. Taking stock of the state of unfinished learning allows us to acknowledge difficulties and help teens make up for lost opportunities. By increasing self-awareness, strengthening social bonds, and reviewing academic skill sets, teens can expand their bandwidth to take on new challenges in the classroom and beyond.

Helen Waldron provides academic, executive function and 2e coaching for students from middle school to college. Contact for more information.