Summer Slide: What The Research Says

Parents often ask me, “How can I help my kids avoid forgetting the skills they’ve practiced all year long? How do I prevent summer slide?”

What the Studies Say About “Summer Slide”

Summer slide is real. The National Association of Summer Learning* highlights the potential outcomes of summer learning loss:

  • All young people experience learning losses when they do not engage in educational activities during the summer. Research spanning 100 years shows that students typically score lower on standardized tests at the end of summer vacation than they do on the same tests at the beginning of the summer (White, 1906; Heyns, 1978; Entwisle & Alexander 1992; Cooper, 1996; Downey et al, 2004).
  • Most students lose about two months of grade-level equivalency in mathematical computation skills over the summer months. Low-income students also lose more than two months in reading achievement, despite the fact that their middle-class peers make slight gains (Cooper, 1996).
  • More than half of the achievement gap between lower- and higher-income youth can be explained by unequal access to summer learning opportunities. As a result, low-income youth are less likely to graduate from high school or enter college (Alexander et al, 2007).
  •  Children lose more than academic knowledge over the summer. Most children—particularly children at high risk of obesity—gain weight more rapidly when they are out of school during summer break (Von Hippel et al, 2007).
  • Parents consistently cite summer as the most difficult time to ensure that their children have productive things to do (Duffett et al, 2004).

I appreciate the concerns of the parents I talk with. And I remember the efforts I made to keep my own children engaged during the summer months. However, before arming yourself with worksheets and flashcards, consider the value of substantial-quality vacation time.

You may find yourself having a tough time slowing down. And allowing yourself a deserved rest. If so, you aren’t alone. A 2014 survey released by the U.S. Travel Association and the market research firm GfK reported that 40 percent of Americans didn’t plan on using all of their paid-time-off that year.

Scientists tell us this is a mistake. In fact, the research shows that taking a break from work actually increases productivity and learning. One study by Florida State University examines the performances of elite athletes, musicians, and chess players. These individuals were shown to experience the greatest success when they practiced in 90-minute increments. This allows the body and brain to rest and recover in between each period. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a researcher at the University of Southern California, suggests that the resting brain is not unproductive. Instead it is processing and assimilating facts and details.

Daniel J. Levitin is the director of the Laboratory for Music, Cognition, and Expertise at McGill University and author of The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.” In a fascinating article for The New York Times, he writes that the brain has two dominant modes of attention: the task-positive network and the task-negative network. Levitin writes that the task-positive network is active when a person is engaged and focused on a particular task. The task-negative network is active when a person’s mind switches into “daydreaming mode.” He describes these two networks as a “seesaw in the brain”.


“This two-part attentional system is one of the crowning achievements of the human brain, and the focus it enables allowed us to harness fire, build the pyramids, discover penicillin and decode the entire human genome. Those projects required some plain old-fashioned stick-to-itiveness.

But the insight that led to them probably came from the daydreaming mode. This brain state, marked by the flow of connections among disparate ideas and thoughts, is responsible for our moments of greatest creativity and insight, when we’re able to solve problems that previously seemed unsolvable. You might be going for a walk or grocery shopping or doing something that doesn’t require sustained attention and suddenly — boom — the answer to a problem that had been vexing you suddenly appears. This is the mind-wandering mode, making connections among things that we didn’t previously see as connected.”*

*A version of this op-ed appears in print on August 10, 2014, on page SR5 of the New York edition with the headline: Hit the Reset Button in Your Brain NYTIMES

Want to learn how to avoid the summer slide? Keep reading.

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