5 tips to prevent the Coronavirus slide—keeping student brains sharp while they're away from school

teen staring at bright computer screen with blue background

It’s all too familiar.

July rolls around and the kids start getting up later and later each day. You realize there’s a problem when the first text you receive from your teen is “Good morning. What do we have for lunch?”

Something just isn’t right there.

And while the sleeping in is one thing, it’s how kids are spending their time out of bed that is the real kicker—YouTube, Snapchat, Insta; movies and TV shows; mindlessly mashing the buttons of poor, undeserving video game controllers.

Kids certainly know how to live their best summer—or so they think.

Little do they know, or care to ponder, the impact of the phenomenon called summer brain drain. Or summer learning loss. Or the summer slide. Whatever term you want to use to describe the negative consequences that stem from kids being out of school for prolonged periods.

And if that’s scary, many of you reading this actually might already be experiencing the phenomenon. 

In fact, what has been traditionally thought of as a summer issue has accelerated and is presenting itself as the “Coronavirus slide” right now, as we speak, both because of spring break, and due to the varying nature of the roll outs and outcomes of distance learning programs.

So, with some schools struggling to gain traction with distance learning, and many pondering what they can do to make up for lost learning time between now and the start of the new academic year, there is worry that chunks of the student population will be lacking a thing or two when doors open again. 

An “expensive trade-off”

While the initial break from early mornings and homework is nice for kids, it comes at at a price. coronavirus slide fact 1 graphic

For the cost of those sleepy AM hours and all-around lazy days during spring break, and then routines that stray from what kids are used to when they return from break, many sons and daughters might not be receiving much of academic value in return, and could be losing a lot in the way of academic skill and know-how.

In fact, kids can lose as many as two to three months of math and reading skills just over the summer. There’s no telling the impact on that figure if you tack on additional "school-less" months starting now. Again, there is distance learning, but programs and results will vary.

Not only do students forget important concepts, but a “slide” also means that teachers might have to typically spend the first few weeks of a new school year re-teaching the previous year’s ideas and principles—to rusty brains, at that.

Sure, some students are more likely to suffer from the dreaded drain than others, but all kids are susceptible to it happening. And, we are going to be dealing with unprecedented lengthy "breaks," so there is no predicting the reach.

So, what can you do? 

Year-round schooling hasn’t really caught on most places, so whenever it is safe to return to school, there's no telling if schools and teachers will even be ready or able to immediately jump back in.

And, most of you reading this aren’t homeschooling parents, myself included, which means we aren't readily-equipped to transform ourselves into great teachers, making all of this even more difficult to navigate. 

Luckily, there are options. Those who were offering learning tools and even online tutoring for kids before COVID-19 are ready to serve, not to mention the many sites, individuals, and organizations doing what they can to offer learning resources. 

And don't forget, summer learning has long been a thing, and something many kids and teens already engage in between June and August. 

Coronavirus slide tips

If you’re struggling with getting kids interested in learning right now, and need a way to help keep them sharp now and for the months to come, here are a few tips to consider. 

1. Get kids to engage in learning disguised as fun

Think back to when you were sneaking veggies into your kids’ meals to maximize nutrition while going to lengths to disguise their greens as a different food entirely.

The same idea goes for online learning.

If you try and pass off a plate of math coursework or add a heaping portion of quiet  reading time to your kids’ menu right now, it might not go over too well if math or reading aren’t really their thing. (If they are, then by all means, pile them on!)

The point is, ask yourself what it is your kids like to do; what are they interested in? Perhaps it is the aforementioned social media or video games, or maybe it’s their smartphone and the many apps that come along with it.

(One very good step could be talking to kids about coronavirus, how we are being affected right now, and what could come in the near future. From that, you might be able to more easily transition into how to make the most of the situation from a learning standpoint.)

Believe it or not, there is online learning available that focuses on all of those things, and then some.

For instance, online coding courses get students interested in the “other side” of apps and social media, learning how to actually create the things they already love so much. 

And while an “online course" might sound like school on the surface - which could be a turn off - it's really the furthest thing from it. Kids can learn on their own, or if they wish, can find an STEM Summer Camp or Virtual Tech Camp, specifically that groups them with small groups of other like-minded students for a much-needed socialization aspect as well. These are high-energy environments free of textbooks and teachers and full of hands-on learning, those like-minded peers, and inspiring instructors. 

coronavirus slide fact 2 graphicWe are talking Minecraft mods or how to make an obby in Roblox; Unity 3D Game Design, and more. Really, things kids already enjoy except now, they are learning the skills necessary to go from tech consumer to tech creator—again, all without even really realizing they are doing so.

Through fun online learning, young minds stay stimulated, helping kids maintain a fresh learning mindset, and even better, result in them absorbing additional, valuable skills they might not have a chance to learn elsewhere even if they were in school. Not to mention their newfound inspiration to keep researching and reading, learning, and doing, while out of school.

They are basically reversing the learning loss by turning brain drain into brain gain, and advancing their education at the same time.

2. Help kids build a new skill foundation

For much of K-12 education, kids must memorize everything from dates in history to math formulas, scientific principles, and more. And while learning and remembering facts in the moment is half of the battle, cultivating minds so they maintain such knowledge is just as important. 

One way to do so is to start building a new skill foundation, apart from the core subjects they were already learning in school. By shifting the focus from memorization to areas like problem-solving, creativity, and if-then thinking, kids and teens are encouraged to engage with complex problems and come up with logical solutions.

STEM skill-building, for instance, challenges students to think differently, and through a hands-on manner versus what they're accustomed to doing when reading and memorizing from a textbook. When a student is tasked with learning how to code in Python or how to use Autodesk software to build a 3D model, they are unlocking areas of their minds that haven't really been tested before.

The beauty of it is, no matter the specific area in which they are engaging, such STEM learning can make kids and teens stronger in all subject areas, from English to math to art, and nearly everything in between. 

And by doing such learning online with other students, they are also collaborating with peers and pushing themselves to new limits, and again, stimulating brains that might otherwise sit dormant—or close to dormant depending on the complexity of the TV show or cat video they're watching.

3. Introduce kids to something new, in hopes that it turns into a passion

“You won’t know if you like it unless you try” are the words many parents utter right before they are forced to start thinking of those aforementioned inventive ways of disguising vegetables.

While these words are often used to coax a picky eater into trying a new food, the same is true when it comes to finding a passion or hobby.

For technology in particular, most K-12 schools still don’t adequately teach computer science and other related tech fields. So, asking your child to give STEM learning a shot might be met with resistance, because it’s new.

But, again, there are a few layers here:

Something “new” can be something “fun” if it aligns with existing interests.

And, such newness in the way of STEM isn’t just enjoyable, but valuable—one of our favorite STEM stats is there were 2.4 million coronavirus slide fact 3 graphicunfilled STEM jobs in 2018, and more down the line as technology evolves. (Not to mention that such STEM jobs pay very well.)

Last, bringing us back to the Coronavirus slide, studies show that developing hobbies and interests (like coding or game design) can actually improve a child’s cognitive skills, concentration, and determination, and even develop their personality.

So, even if you aren't able to get kids going with traditional subjects, getting them to do something can lead to improvement elsewhere. 

4. Eliminate boredom altogether

I like a good viral video as much as the next person, but for most of us, when do we find ourselves reaching for our phones? Or plopping in front of the TV? It’s usually when we have nothing better to do, right?

Again, time-off (and summers) provide kids with a much-needed break from their increasingly busy lives. It’s necessary, and not going anywhere.

But while the first week or so of these breaks is met with a genuine enthusiasm for kids and teens to just absolutely chill and do whatever it is they want to do, most of the rest of the time is just them participating in whatever is convenient; whatever is in front of them—TV, video games, phone, computer, etc.

What I’m saying is, even the most involved kids and teens face boredom after a few weeks without structured activities in place.

One of the things we hear most from parents is that after a day of camp, their child was begging to come back each day. 

Yes, I think our programs are that good, but a benefit of summer camp (and now a benefit of our online learning programs) is the fact that these experiences are providing a break from break! They have something to do! And wouldn’t you know it, that something is actually fun.

Even when we teach more “serious-on-the-surface” topics like artificial intelligence or cybersecurity, we always do so with the idea that this is fun after all—it’s the only way to ensure campers are consistently engaged and remain excited about learning. 

During summer vacation, two to three hours per week are needed to prevent summer learning loss. Adapt that mindset to now. Eliminate boredom, and eliminate the need to resort to “mindless” activity, freeing up time to engage in active learning.

5. Invest in the right kind of screen time

I want to end by saying screen time is not the enemy—it’d be pretty difficult to be the #1 tech camp - online and in-person - without it.

But, it’s investing in the right kind of screen time that is the challenge. As a parent, aim to reduce technology use, but also, embrace the screen when time allows; make it count—embrace video games, embrace smartphones. It all can help your child find their passion. Have them spend time on the computer reading kids blogs. All of these things are tools as much as they are entertainment devices.

The trick is to change the mindset. While most kids just sit and play games, get them thinking about other things while they’re playing—How was that character designed? Wow, how do they move so realistically? How are they responding to me pushing a single button?

That’s the first step. Encourage kids to go from playing to questioning.

Then from there, have them go from questioning to answering those questions - AKA learning - and then even “doing” by starting to create their very own games.

It all starts with screen time; it must start with screen time. But to help stave the Coronavirus slide, that screen time needs to shift from playing, to learning, to doing. Minds stay sharp, kids are excited to actually learn during their break from traditional school as they knew it, and then they roll back into school reinvigorated and in a better position to pick up where they left off.

With these tips, Coronavirus slide stops here. Kids and teens can still very much enjoy their break, while laying a foundation to help them succeed throughout the rest of the year, too.

A photo of Ryan

Ryan has been in EdTech and with iD Tech for 13 years—building experience, expertise, and knowledge in all things coding, game development, college prep, STEM, and more. He earned his MBA from Santa Clara University after obtaining his Bachelor’s degree from Arizona State. Connect on LinkedIn

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