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Are you worried that your kid is falling behind in school? You’re not alone.

As kids start school with more online learning, parents wonder whether they'll ever catch up. Here's how to set them up for success.

Are you worried that your kid is falling behind in school? You’re not alone.

(Art: Sonia Pulido/New York Times)

If you’re concerned that home-based learning may have set your child back academically, brace yourself: It probably has. When students return to school, research shows that most will be behind where they would have been if classroom instruction had continued as normal.

The question comes up constantly: When do we need to start panicking about our children falling behind?

Deborah Stipek, Ph.D., a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, said that may not be the right question to ask. “I think a more useful one is, ‘How do we ensure that our children get the best possible opportunities to learn under these challenging circumstances?’” she said.

For pre-schoolers, that starts with prioritizing the crucial social-emotional skills that form the building blocks of learning, said Elisabeth Jones, a preschool teacher at the Child Development Centre at Texas State University. When kids go back to school, she said, “they’ll be expected to wait their turn and share materials, and many aren’t getting the opportunity to practice that right now.”

At home, board games are an easy way to reinforce turn-taking etiquette, said Jones. Parents can also work on delaying gratification. “If your child asks for a snack, stretch out the time between them asking and you giving it to them,” she said.

To gauge potential gaps in learning, said Britt Menzies, a preschool teacher in Atlanta, scatter informal tests throughout the day. “Have a child count their peas while they’re eating dinner,” she said. “See how many letters they recognize on a billboard. Ask them what shapes are in that picture they drew. Try not to prompt them, so you have a clearer picture of what to work on.”

But don’t stress over hard-hitting academics for the pre-K set, said Emily Levitt, vice president of education for Sylvan Learning. “Do work sheets, sure, but don’t do them all day,” she said. Instead, weave in playful learning activities, like “baking sheets filled with lentils to give kids a multi-sensory way to trace shapes and numbers,” she said. “Or add letters to a Twister board, so you’re saying, ‘OK, left foot to C, right foot to O.’”

When pre-schoolers do get back to the classroom, said Ms. Levitt, “They’re at the age where they’ll likely bounce back very quickly.”

But with online learning often difficult for young primary school kids, the stakes may be a little higher.

Dr. Stipek said that parents of primary school kids should look to their schools for resources and guidance, and, as much as possible, supplement school learning with reading, games and activities. “Something as simple as talking about measurements and the effects of different ingredients while baking muffins can be educational,” she said. But with many families currently feeling the crunch of work and child care, “parents shouldn’t feel guilty that they aren’t doing enough,” she said.

In addition to students with learning disabilities, children from low-income households may also be at greater risk of falling behind. Though Dr. Stipek is confident that teachers will do everything they can to help kids catch up when they return to school, she is concerned that the lack of in-person instruction may increase the achievement gap already prevalent between socioeconomic groups.

“Affluent parents are better situated to help or hire help for their kids working online,” she said. “Children in economically disadvantaged families are less likely to have consistent access to the internet, and their parents have fewer resources to provide additional support. This situation can exacerbate a problem that’s already there.”

Amy Estes, a teacher in Sacramento, Calif., said her public school district is preparing to expand its tech offerings and paper materials to kids who don’t have access, as well as ramping up resources like meals, counselling and home visits. In addition, Estes has spent the last month helping the school draft a rigorous online curriculum that includes ways to meet the diverse needs of non-English speakers and special education students. “We’re working to get teachers the training they need to design lessons and interact with students in more constructive ways,” she said. “The benefit to pivoting to distance learning officially is that now districts can help teachers do a better job.”

Regardless of socioeconomic status, a household filled with anxiety and stress can be a major driver of kids falling behind, said Bruce Fuller, Ph.D., a professor of education and public policy at U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education. When parents lose their patience or don’t listen, said Dr. Fuller, children can start to shut down emotionally, in turn disengaging from reading and rich conversation inside the family.

“Children’s cognitive learning is built on a secure emotional foundation,” he said. “If they continually see their parents unhappy or anxious, it can start to inhibit their own development. That’s worrying, because this is a really stressful time for parents. It can be hard to maintain a calm and attentive climate for kids when parents must take over schooling.”

By Holly Burns © The New York Times