Whether it's your child's reading skills that have slid post-pandemic or their counting, experts offer easy ways to get them back on track at home.

By Jenna Autuori Dedic
October 23, 2020
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While there are still many things that have no explanation when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic, it's obvious why kids may be struggling to catch up in school after months of missed in-person classes and one (very) long summer.

During any regression children may lose a skill they have just recently achieved. Normal regression is often short-lived and happens during extraordinary events for a child, like the birth of a sibling or an unexpected change in routine (ahem, quarantine conditions). "The summer learning loss in some capacity is a normal byproduct of many months when routine is off schedule, but the pandemic has intensified this for some kids," says Francyne Zeltser, Psy.D., a child psychologist who works as a school psychologist at an elementary school on Long Island.

Luckily, young children, especially those in kindergarten through third grade, are naturally motivated to move forward in their developments because they enjoy exploring and mastering challenging tasks. "Little kids are always the most eager to learn," says Dr. Zeltser.

Read on to see what you can do at home to help your child get back on track—and even ahead.

The Subject: Reading

Regression is individual to each child. It comes down to three things this year, says Dr. Zeltser: Where a student should be in terms of grade level of expectations, where they should be in terms of the norm, and where the student was when school shut down from the pandemic.

"Prior to the pandemic your child might have been a higher level achiever, then dipped during the time home, and while he is still meeting grade level expectations, his performance dropped so it's considered a regression," Dr. Zeltser explains.

The good news? Reading is one of the easiest topics to get a child up to speed, and there are lots of fun ways to do it.

How to Boost Skills at Home

Surround your child in print-rich environments. Start by encouraging your child to read all the things around him, not just books. Ask him to read recipes, labels on boxes, captions on TV, or street signs. Then grab a marker and some paper and label what's in your home and create lists that you can hang in your most used areas of the house.

"Children absorb a lot of what they learn from observing what's in front of them," says Bari Katcher, literacy specialist and teacher in Westchester, New York. Hang a list in the bathroom of what your child needs to do before going to bed, for younger children (pre-K through grade 2) illustrate the list together. Place your child's "high frequency words", sight words, or "words of the week" all around the house. "Anywhere you can have words for your child to see in an organic way is ideal, you should try this while your child is home remote learning," Katcher says.

Avoid what you learned growing up. This one is a challenging one for mom and dads everywhere. "Parents have the best intentions and they rely on what they were taught to teach their kids, but the way kids learn today is extremely different," says Katcher. If your child is reading and they get stuck on a word, avoid saying, "You know that word!" which will only cause tension between you and your child. Instead, ask them how they read unknown words with their teacher, then make a list of strategies you can both refer to when reading together, explains Katcher.

Document using video. Having proof of your child's progression from Monday to Friday is as good as it gets. Parents tend to think reading the same book over and over is not helpful, but it actually builds confidence and will actually make them want to read more. Video them reading, then give specific feedback like, "You read that so smoothly!" if they previously sounded a little like a robot.

Read high-quality books. Your child may be at a certain reading level but it doesn't mean they can't listen to stories with words that are much harder for them. "In school, teachers are constantly modeling social and academic behaviors we want to see. You can do the same at home. Think of your child as your apprentice, it's your job to show them the ropes of reading, what better way than reading a story to them," says Katcher. Since they may not be able to understand every word, before you turn the page think aloud and ask your child a question about what was just read. "What do you think the character will do next? How would you describe her?"

Boost fluency with songs. A child who is not a fluent reader spends an exorbitant amount of time figuring out troublesome words and may sound robotic or choppy. A fluent reader reads in fluid phrases with proper intonation and emotion. Two of the best ways to increase your child's reading fluency is through songs and poetry, suggests Katcher. "Children are able to hear the rhythm and rhyme of the song or poem and will mimic the song-song tone when they read." Additionally, songs, rhymes, and poetry are typically short. For those who consider reading to be laborious, reading something fun, short, and sweet, can be inspiring and motivating.

Engage in play that incorporates literacy tools. Give your child as many opportunities as he can to use his phonics, such as creating lists and notes. Keep a white board handy and have your child write the grocery list throughout the week. He'll need to practice listening to words and then writing them out. "Even if spelling is totally wrong, the muscle memory used in attempting to write words they don't know will come in handy when your child sits down to write their own stories and read a book," Katcher says. The more he uses this skill organically throughout the day, she explains, the less daunting it will be when he's given a new book.

The Subject: Writing

In today's technology-driven world, writing has never been more crucial. "Kids aren't given the same amount of opportunities to practice and improve their ability to write," says Dr. Zeltser. The easiest way to help? Any time you can, pass them a pencil or marker! Have kids help with things like daily to-do lists, grocery shopping lists, and making birthday cards.

How to Boost Skills at Home

Encourage inventive spelling. Since your child is still learning how to spell words, never correct them when they're in the middle of a writing assignment. "You don't want to squash a child's creativity. When they're writing and telling a story it's most important that they get their story out on paper," Katcher says. As a child's phonemic awareness and sight word knowledge grow, so will their spelling skills.

Play writing-focused games. Up the fun with a game: Have an adult chooses a letter, your children race to find something in your house that begins with that letter, then they write the word down. Or grab some stickies and tell your child to leave love notes around the house for her family. Every day you can choose a new theme—My favorite thing about you, Why I think you are fun, etc.—and see what adorable sentences they will come up with. Remember to write a few notes yourself!

Write letters. Gone are the days of pen pals, but with the pandemic keeping us socially distanced, engage your child in a pen pals activity with the classmates she may not get to see. Choose a topic for them to write about to get them started, something like "What I did this weekend," then have your child send a letter to her friend.

Create story prompts. Cut out pictures from a magazine with different characters or locations—the American Girl or Lakeshore Learning catalogs are a great place to start. Then place them in a container or glue them to cards to use as writing prompts for writing a unique story.

The Subject: Math

Start by making sure the concept they're struggling with is understood. "Regressions in math are the most challenging because in order to advance to the next material you have to have mastered what came before," Dr. Zeltser explains. Math builds upon itself so if you didn't learn one thing the next school year you still advance to the next level.

How to Boost Skills at Home

Make math problems hands-on. Help young kids visualize scenarios where one thing is added to another. Count all the chairs around your kitchen table, the cushions on the couch, or the stuffed animals on their bed. "Make sure they are touching each item they count, one-to-one correspondence is key to counting and adding accurately," says Katcher. You can also do things throughout the day like having your child count apples at the food store, collect seashells at the beach, or group Legos into different number piles.

Incorporate storytelling. Word problems are a good way to help students understand how to use math in everyday life. "Using people close to your child to tell stories explaining a math problem will help them better grasp the material. As you tell a story, have your child create a drawing to match your words," says Katcher. Keep the drawings simple with circles, lines, or squares. Math is no longer just about using numbers to explain 1+2 = 3. Your child needs to comprehend how this comes to be, so not only do they need to see the math problem, they need to be able to explain it in the written word. For example, "I had one apple and found two more apples. Now I have three apples total."

Count constantly. "We've not been very successful so far in convincing parents—as we have with reading—to 'count with your child,'" says Katcher. But the more exposure children have with numbers, the deeper and more meaningful their understanding of them will be. Help them recognize that math is all around them! A few questions to ask: How tall is Daddy? How long does it take to get to Grandma's house? What time do we go to bed? How many grapes did you have?

Learning to count with the understanding of "how many" is a crucial skill for young children. "Many adults think that their child can count because they are able to recite numbers in order," says Katcher. This isn't counting, this is memorization. Counting is seeing the word or numeral one (1) and knowing that it is represented by one object. Katcher suggests displaying a group of objects in a row, evenly spaced out, starting from the left (just like reading!) then have your child touch and move the item as they count.

Practice, practice, practice. Think of learning math the same way as learning a new musical instrument. You have to practice! In the morning during breakfast, give your child a couple math problems to work on in order to get "bonus screen time" later in the day. "Any time you can incorporate additional work into their day the better off they'll be. Give them something to think about during the day, make it a game, or challenge, recommends Katcher. How many blue items can you find at the park? How many sneaky numbers are hiding at the grocery store?

Play games that require math skills. A friendly card game of War, Uno, or even Monopoly is a fun and sneaky way to incorporate addition and subtraction into your child's day. "Games promote strategic mathematical thinking, computational fluency, and understanding of operations," Katcher says. Games are a perfect place to throw in intentional math language. "Wow, you got a two, and I got a four, how many did we get in all? We have six altogether, that's a lot! The bank owes you $100, let's count by tens to 100."

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