I'm a Dad and the Founder of an Education Company: Here's How I Approach the Learning Gap for My Own Kids

The COVID-19 pandemic forced parents and children into digital classrooms (even at the kitchen table), forever changing our idea of school and creating a potential for learning gaps along the way. Sal Khan, founder of the famed Khan Academy, explains how being a dad impacts his efforts to close the learning gap with his own children.

Dad and founder of education company
Photo: Kailey Whitman

In 2008, I started Khan Academy, an educational nonprofit for online learning which now reaches more than 18 million learners every month. This came out of me tutoring a cousin who needed some academic assistance while I still had a day job as a hedge fund analyst in 2004. It started as remote learning for one cousin and evolved into software and videos for many more—word spread in my family that free tutoring was available and I was soon working with more than 10 cousins every week.

I could never have predicted that my efforts years ago would become so relevant for so many today. When the pandemic hit, the nice-to-have of digital education became an overnight must-have for countless families and schools.

As important as digital learning proved to be, I'd be the first to say that given a choice between great technology and a great teacher, I'd pick the great teacher every time. Thankfully, today, almost all children are back in school in person with a teacher to guide them.

Of the many things on teachers' plates, they are hard at work diagnosing the learning gaps that developed during the pandemic and are beginning to address them. However, there is a lot that we as parents and caregivers can do to help at home. Through my experience with Khan Academy and as a dad to three kids, ages 7, 10, and 13, here's my advice to help kids continue to succeed (please take with a huge grain of salt because I am still unsure of how successful my parenting will be).

Take Care of Yourself First

We can do the best for our kids when we do right by ourselves. If we're stressed, tired, or overwhelmed, kids feel it. That doesn't create an ideal learning environment. So, invest in yourself.

My personal approach is to take a few minutes every morning to meditate. It calms my mind and gives me greater clarity and energy for the rest of my busy day. Whatever your outlet—whether it's meditation, a brisk walk, or a hobby or craft—make time for yourself so you can be at your best for your child.

Help Your Kid Build a Growth Mindset

Researchers have known for quite some time that the brain is like a muscle. The more you use it, the more it grows. They've found that neural connections form and deepen most when we make mistakes doing difficult tasks. (Repeatedly having success with easy tasks doesn't have the same effect.) What this means is that our intelligence is not fixed, and the best way that we can grow intelligence is to embrace tasks where we might struggle and fail.

You can help your child adopt a growth mindset and tee them up for success. For example, when your child struggles, praise their hard work with acknowledgment: "I know you're working hard." If they haven't learned a skill, say they haven't learned it yet. Reward your child not when they succeed at things they're already good at, but when they persevere with things that they find difficult. Praise the process, not the outcome. That is the power of a growth mindset.

Develop a Habit of Academic Practice

The two subjects where we see the most consistent learning loss from the pandemic are math and reading. Reach out to your child's teacher to find out if your child is struggling. If they are, try and set aside 20 minutes per day to work with them. Use that time to focus on exercises recommended by their teacher.

There's no need to pay for expensive tutors. With math, look for online programs that are tailored to your child and that take the burden off you. Many are free, including Khan Academy Kids (for ages 2 to 8) and Khan Academy (for third grade and up).

Remember, Raising a Learner Is a Marathon (Not a Sprint)

I believe 20 minutes per day can help kids catch up (and move ahead), while setting a pace that's doable for the long run. It might be tempting to spend hours tackling academics at home, but the stress and anxiety of pushing children too hard can backfire. Instead, focus on a steady pace and empower them for sustained learning.

Tell them that you'd like to spend a little time every night on the "unfinished learning" they missed during remote school. Set reasonable expectations for how much time they'll spend catching up. And remind them that you're in it together.

Keep Communication Lines Open

Stay close to your child's teacher throughout the school year. Check in occasionally and confirm that you're focusing on the right areas at home. Talk about what progress looks like for your child and how to measure success. Then, at the end of the school year, ask your teacher if they recommend summer learning.

Equally important, keep talking to your child about their progress throughout the year too. Convey optimism. Help them take ownership of their education. And most importantly, celebrate their wins, even the small ones.

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