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Parents can help fight summer brain drain

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Fortville Elementary School first-grade teacher Sara Schaefer helps prepare one of the first-grade classrooms before the school year starts for Mt. Vernon on Wednesday. (Joe Hornaday / Daily Reporter)
Fortville Elementary School first-grade teacher Sara Schaefer helps prepare one of the first-grade classrooms before the school year starts for Mt. Vernon on Wednesday. (Joe Hornaday / Daily Reporter)

HANCOCK COUNTY — The promise of a long summer replete with lazy days and no homework has been almost too tempting for a student on break to ignore.

But there can be unintended consequences of eight weeks devoid of learning and new experiences: summer brain drain, or the loss of skills and learned abilities over the long school break.

Jeff Meeker, whose son Landon Meeker is a second-grader at St. Michael Catholic School in Greenfield, took a proactive approach this summer to combating the potential for brain drain. As Landon – and more than 11,000 other Hancock County students – return to school this week, his dad hopes the strategy pays off.

“We’ve worked with our son on reading and with arithmetic flash cards, so we’ve tried to keep him involved and interested,” Meeker said. “He’s read a lot too.”

And that’s exactly the kind of thing that teachers say has to be done heading into the start of school.

“Reading is absolutely key,” Fortville Elementary School first-grade teacher Kathy Tingwald said. “The reading will hit all the skills. But making sure that kids are in situations where they are rich in language and experiences (is important).”

It’s a little late to launch a comprehensive brain-building regimen for this summer, but experts say a number of strategies can be used going forward.

“If (parents) can make sure the kids are being read to, and people are talking to them constantly and taking them on field trips and doing things that are going to stimulate their brain, (that) is absolutely fabulous,” Tingwald said.

Parents might consider purchasing “summer bridge books,” which are designed to keep kids’ brains active. They generally focus on the basics of math and reading. But getting a younger child to focus on a workbook problem can be difficult.

“Kids this young, they have to have some kind of a motivator. They won’t take that task on their own,” said Ashley Stout, a special-needs teacher at J.B. Stephens Elementary School. “It doesn’t have to be sitting down with a worksheet and workbook. It can be as easy as finding a program at the library.”

Parents tend to think of brain drain as an issue that affects younger students, but high school kids are not immune.

“I don’t think that getting into the schedule is much of an issue for us. It’s reviewing some concepts and just kickstarting some brains,” New Palestine High School Principal Keith Fessler said. “But I think our teachers know going into it they are going to have to review to kick things off.”

Fessler said social media has helped, allowing students to stay somewhat engaged and in touch with the school over the summer. The balanced calendar, which all the county’s schools have switched to, allows two weeks off for fall break, two weeks off for spring break and two weeks off for Christmas, leaving about eight weeks for summer break. Fessler said the schedule has had a positive effect on students.

“I think it’s been a help,” Fessler said. “For the two weeks while they’re out, they’re still connected to the school in a lot of ways. Just being connected to the school helps with that.”

When the momentum was shifting to support the balanced calendar, one of the largest community concerns was the impact on child care. Parents were now required to find someone to watch their children over the two-week intersessions.

“I do think that it’s better for the kids, but I think it’s harder on the parents, when you’re trying to find baby-sitters or day care in the fall and the spring for those extra weeks. But the kids being out of school for a shorter stretch in the summer is probably good for them,” Meeker said.

Local teachers believe it is.

“It doesn’t seem to be too long for the kids to lose much,” Tingwald said. “Some get out of schedule, and it may take a couple of days to get back.”

However, there is an issue with which teachers still struggle. Brain drain is inevitable, no matter how short the summer break becomes, and the first few weeks of the fall semester require teachers to review and bring students up to speed before moving on to what they should be teaching.

“Instead of being able to move on to something new to teach, you sometimes have to keep reviewing everything, so you can get the basics down of what you’re expecting in class. Otherwise, it can be complete chaos,” Fortville Elementary first-grade teacher Alyson Huston said.

Losing the first few days or weeks to necessary reviews for students can have a detrimental impact on the current schedule.

“We definitely spend the first month going over the things they learned last year,” Stout said.

Teachers all over the county experience the same thing.

“Usually, the first couple of weeks, you’re going through and just trying to get the kids on a schedule,” Tingwald said. “Keeping them on a simple schedule over the summer is a good idea.”

Tingwald suggested some other simple ideas for keeping kids engaged: During car trips, for example, parents can quiz their children on math facts. Or they read books together with their children before bed.

In school, Tingwald said acclimating the students to their new surroundings and giving them time to adjust can take valuable class time as well.

“It can take weeks for them to get a routine down,” she said.

A report in the Washington Post showed that experts from Johns Hopkins University, the University of Tennessee and the University of Virginia found that regardless of family income or background, most students lose about two months of the math computational skills they learned during the previous school year. The report also shows that students from low-incomce homes lose more in reading skills.

“It’s easier to see in my classroom, because I can have the kids up to three years. I know exactly where they left off at the end of last year,” Stout said.

Other teachers aren’t so lucky. However, they do agree when it comes to the need to stay thirsty for knowledge in the summer months.

 “They don’t have to be engaged 100 percent of the time. If you let a kid be bored, they start exploring and learning on their own,” Stout said. “Sometimes parents think they have to keep their kids engaged all the time.”

The teachers agreed that the smallest amount of new experiences, reading or learning over the summer will help combat brain drain and keep kids stimulated enough that they are ready for the upcoming challenges.

“Anything they can do to stimulate any kind of creative thinking skills is perfect,” Tingwald said.

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