Help! Is my kid falling behind because of COVID?
In this premiere episode, Teri asks if moms should be concerned their kids are falling behind their peers because of the pandemic. Dr. Amy says that’s the wrong question to be asking and shares insights on how to accurately measure COVID “learning loss” and what to do about it if your child is indeed struggling in school right now.
Read the transcript for this episode:
Help! Is my kid falling behind because of COVID?
with Dr. Amy Moore and Teri Miller, MS Psy
Teri Miller: So today we are talking about worries that many of us are having about our kids falling behind due to the COVID pandemic. So Dr. Amy, tell us if you would, tell the listeners about your kiddos, their ages, and how they’re handling things.
Dr. Amy Moore: Sure. Good morning Teri.
Teri Miller: Good morning. Hi.
Dr. Amy Moore: So Cael is 22 and he’s in EMT school, he’s doing it kind of hybrid. Lawson is at CU Boulder, he’s 20 and he is solely online right now. And Evan is 16, he’s concurrently enrolled in high school and college as a sophomore and he is completely online right now. How about your kids?
Teri Miller: He’s Mister Smarty Pants.
Dr. Amy Moore: He is Mister Smarty Pants. I was going to leave that out. But you can brag on them all you want.
Teri Miller: He is so smarty pants, he is. He’s amazing. So my kiddos range from out of college all the way down to third grade, so I’ll just kind of skip over the ones that aren’t even in school. But my kiddos that are in school… so I’ve got Jaydaria who is in third grade and then Nakoda is in fifth grade, Serene is in sixth grade, Canyon is a freshman in high school, and Ian is a sophomore in high school. And we’ve been all over the map the past year or so where spells of it they’ve been completely online at home, sometimes they’ve been face to face five days a week. Right now my boys, my high schoolers are kind of in a hybrid where they go some days, some days they’re online. And then my elementary school kids, let’s keep our fingers crossed it stays this way, they are currently right now going five days a week, which is such a relief. It’s so lovely.
Dr. Amy Moore: I’m so glad.
Teri Miller: Yeah. But so have your kids struggled with feeling that they’re falling behind or they’re having a hard time with the COVID pandemic education model?
Dr. Amy Moore: Yeah. So my kids don’t like learning online at all, which is interesting because I taught online for five years and I found just the relationships that I was able to build with my students, being accessible to them 24/7 through an online environment was incredible. I loved it. So I kind of made this assumption that all kids would love that access and love learning online and I have seen the exact opposite. So while Lawson is doing fine, Evan actually had to pivot and completely change the way he’s enrolled and which classes he decided to take. So he decided he can not learn STEM classes while they’re learning online. So math and science, completely out for him. He is only taking business classes this semester because he felt like those were the types of classes that he could handle online, whereas the more technical oriented content he just could not engage during online learning. Does he feel like he’s falling behind? Not really. He just has shifted. Okay, I’m going to take these credits now and then when we go back in person he’ll take the STEM credits that he needs. So he doesn’t really feel behind, he just feels like he had to make a compromise.
Teri Miller: Okay.
Dr. Amy Moore: How about your kids?
Teri Miller: It’s so great that he was able to do that. Okay, so for example, one of my high schoolers, he’s not been able to make that switch. He’s in, it’s some kind of an engineering class and it has been a huge struggle for him. And it’s so interesting that you would say that’s what Evan has struggled with because that’s been the struggle as well. The basic stuff, the language arts, the history, yeah those are so much easier to address in an online environment. But yeah, this engineering class has been awful.
And then my other son, he had an art class, which again… Honestly, it was just kind of stupid. I mean, he’s a good kid and he works hard and he’s self-motivated so he did the projects and he did fine. It was last semester or last quarter or whatever. But to not be in person for an art class, talk about falling behind. Did he do fine with his grades? Sure. Did he really learn as much art skill as he wanted to? Not remotely? Ha, that’s funny, remotely. No pun intended. But he didn’t. So I mean, I guess in that sense he did fall behind. But then I think didn’t all the kids?
Dr. Amy Moore: Right, so let’s talk about what that means because we’re hearing this over and over and over again, right? That our kids are all falling behind. And I think “all” is the operative word here. I mean, falling behind is relative. Arguably all, the majority, most of students in America and arguably across the world are in a similar boat. So in my mind is is very doubtful to me that the achievement gap is widening because they’re all in the same boat right now. So rather than saying “My child is falling behind compared to his peers.” The question really is “How is my child doing now compared to how my child was doing before the pandemic?” That’s the question that we need to be asking, not my kid is falling behind, what do I do. Because they’re not. They’re all having to learn differently. So to just assume that they’re falling behind is a fallacy.
Teri Miller: I think it is complicated though because like with my different kids, so many different kids that I have five that are in school. I’ve got two others in college that are also struggling in different ways. But the five that are in high school and elementary school, they learn so differently and what I’m seeing is my youngest that has some auditory, processing kind of struggles, that when we were just having the online classes, she struggled so much. And it was hard to not recognize that she was falling behind compared to her peers because the other kids were just getting it. There would be conversation going on and she couldn’t participate because she was just overwhelmed. I mean, the online session would end and she would cry.
But then my other kiddo who’s super-verbal and social, he’d be the one, they would push some little raise their hand button, he’d be the one on top of everything. He’s raising his hand for everything and he thrived. And yet I know there were kids in his class that were falling behind so to speak compared to him. So there are, I think with some of the online stuff, there are those concerns. Are they really falling behind academically? Can they keep up with this new learning platform if they have a different kind of learning style?
Dr. Amy Moore: Yeah, and also I’m glad you said that word. The idea of “learning styles” is also a fallacy. That’s what we call a neuro myth. So there are learning preferences and some children prefer to learn with a hands on approach, some people prefer to learn by reading, some people prefer to learn by listening to a lecture. So yes, absolutely children have preferences, but the way our brains work, unless we have brain injury or damage to a certain part of our brain, everyone is capable of learning from every method. It’s just what they prefer. And if you want to engage kids, if you want to keep kids motivated, if you really want to reach them then you will allow a variety of learning delivery methods so that you do speak to their preferences. But as a cognitive psychologist it’s super important for me to always set that record straight that there’s really no such thing as a learning style.
Teri Miller: Okay. As a mom though, it feels like those learning differences, learning preferences, whatever, it feels like they are deficits or strengths that are ingrained. I mean, my kid that can stay on top of the Zoom meeting, online class, he’s getting a leg up. He’s doing better than the other kids. And then my little girl that struggles with it, it feels like a deficit for her. Like it’s such a bummer.
Dr. Amy Moore: Sure.
Teri Miller: And like I said earlier, I’m so glad they’re back in person. Thank goodness.
Dr. Amy Moore: Right. But you also said she’s got auditory processing delays.
Teri Miller: I think so, yeah.
Dr. Amy Moore: So that is different than just simply not preferring to learn that way.
Teri Miller: Okay. Okay, that makes a lot of sense. Okay, good. That makes it all more clear. Okay.
Dr. Amy Moore: Absolutely.
Teri Miller: Okay, I want to ask you a couple of other questions, but let’s take a break just real quick and I want to talk a little bit about our sponsor. We are going to just talk about LearningRx, that’s our sponsor for today.
At LearningRx, we’ve learned that tutoring is great for catching a child up to speed on a specific subject matter in school, but is it the right option if your child is consistently struggling inside the classroom? The majority of learning struggles are caused by one or more weak cognitive skills and LearningRx one on one brain training programs are helping students learn easier, think faster, and perform better. Visit LearningRx.com today to learn more. Again, that’s LearningRx.com.
So thank you to LearningRx for sponsoring our podcast today. And incidentally that little shout-out was very timely to what we’re talking about, and that’s something I’m going to have to visit with my youngest daughter, I think, to get her some help that she’s not getting in the classroom.
Dr. Amy Moore: Yeah.
Teri Miller: Okay, so learning loss. You have told me that that is a slippery statistic. What is learning loss?
Dr. Amy Moore: So learning loss is this idea that because of missed time in the classroom because of the COVID pandemic students have lost learning. And the reason that I call that a slippery statistic is that it’s super difficult to quantify something that seems completely universal, like we talked about before, all students are experiencing changes in the way that they are being schooled because of the pandemic. So how do you quantify something that seems really universal, but’s not universal at all? And I say that because we can’t generalize learning loss across students or across schools or across the country because it is deeply individualized based on so many different factors. So the idea of how much learning loss has occurred is dependent upon multiple variables within each student. So you want me to talk about some of those?
Teri Miller: Yeah, also I’m thinking about some articles I had pulled up as well. If you just do a quick Google search kind of thing, which I did, it’s so interesting that almost everything you’re going to come up with when you look at the effect, like the effect of learning, education effects with COVID, whatever search words you use. Over and over again the things I kept seeing and reading as I’m looking here at my computer were about problems with depression, with feelings of isolation, anxiety, loss of social connection. And I really had a hard time coming up with much that talked about actual measurable, like you said, statistical evidence of drops in grades except for I came across a couple of studies that talked about the impact of COVID on college students, college grades. And that was interesting. Gosh, there was a study. Here, can I find it? Where was it? I had it pulled up.
Dr. Amy Moore: Well, while you’re looking for that let me speak to why I think that it’s easier to quantify the impact at the college level than it is. One reason is because most of the courses that you take in college are self-contained. Right? So you take a history course, you take an engineering course. Those aren’t courses that are building on each other. They’re individual courses that only last one semester. So you know from the beginning of the semester to the end of the semester how much learning has occurred. It’s a quick, rapid, 10 to 16 week measurement process whereas at the elementary school level curriculum is spiral, which means it continues to build on itself day after day, month after month, year after year and it’s not self-contained into 10 or 16 weeks. So that learning is measured how? Teachers give grades, but then what we do as a country unfortunately is measure learning based on standardized test scores that are given in the spring and the fall.
Teri Miller: Oh yeah.
Dr. Amy Moore: Right. So there’s a delay in being able to see how much loss has actually occurred because we have to look at those long-term trends based on these generalized, global testing techniques that absolutely critically ignore the individual differences among students that we have to look at to actually be able to know what learning loss is happening.
Teri Miller: Right. And I think teachers also can’t help, but in elementary school they’re grading comparatively. I mean, like every elementary school is so different. Some of them you get an E for excellent, S for satisfactory. Some you get a one to four score. Some of them still grade A, B, C, D, that kind of thing. I mean, there’s a huge variety of ways that teachers and school districts are grading kids and scoring kids and obviously it’s comparatively with the other kids in their classroom. So that, like you’re saying, that changes the perspective of what is really falling behind anyway. Because if the whole class can’t get to a point where they really grasp whatever little chemistry project they’re doing, the kids aren’t going to be judged if they get a D or an F because the chemistry project didn’t come across as well online. So I don’t know. Then you have to step back and go “Okay, they’re okay. They’re okay. My kids are okay. None of the kids got that chemistry assignment.” But then you’re like “Darn, two years down the road are my kids going to be further behind than I wish they would have been?” Well maybe so, but the whole world is.
Dr. Amy Moore: Right. Well, but then you ask “What do you do about it?” Do you just repeat the entire year for these kids, making the sweeping assumption that they’re all behind, that they learned nothing, so we just have to repeat it? Is that the answer? Oh my gosh, absolutely not. So the best way to find out where each student is is to assess them on the current year’s curriculum. Kind of like giving a pretest at the beginning of the year to find out what is your level of prior knowledge. Well, you may be surprised to find out they’re not as behind as you think they are so there’s no reason to repeat something if they’ve kept up or if they are where they’re supposed to be. But by doing a sort of pretest, a prior knowledge evaluation, you get a more accurate picture of what you need to reteach or where you need to start in the curriculum than you would if you wait around for your springtime standardized test results that don’t come out until the fall by the way. And the fall don’t come out until the spring. So there’s this huge delay. If you’re waiting around.
And again, we talked about this in another episode, that when you start averaging scores you miss the nuances. So each teacher should evaluate their curriculum in the here and now to find out where each student is landing. But let me go back to talking about what can influence where those kids are landing. So things like the level of proficiency that those kids had before the pandemic started, what type of access they had to technology and internet connection during remote learning, the quality of the remote instruction that they actually got. I saw some huge variations last spring when we first went into lock downs. That school districts who already had an infrastructure in place, who already had hybrid options and online learning options, they could seamlessly pivot to 100% online learning, whereas other school districts, like a rural district that my sister teaches high school math in, they had nothing in place, like absolutely nothing in place. So she’s hanging a white board on her dining room wall trying to teach advanced calculus because she didn’t have any of the online technologies, no learning management system that a lot of districts had in place. So that’s going to make a huge different.
You mentioned one of your kids who’s self-motivated. Well, what is your child’s capacity for independence and independent learning on the off days from remote instruction? That makes a huge difference. How much supplemental instruction is the parent capable of providing, able to or interested in providing? Or what about personal trauma that a child experienced? Did they lose a family member to COVID, did they get sick themselves, were they exposed to increased domestic violence because of the lockdown? That’s going to impact how much progress they were able to make while they were learning. So we see huge differences in these variables, particularly related to socioeconomic status. So we know that the poorer school districts or the children within those school districts that are in lower socioeconomic categories were the hardest hit.
Right. For so many different reasons that kids in a lower socioeconomic level may not have had the resources to begin with, the technological resources. The school may not have been able to provide them. I mean, we did a choice school. We choiced our elementary school kids into a different school district this past year and the school district they’re in, it’s a small school, it’s well-funded, they were all given iPads. So they do their work on iPads. That’s fantastic but there are tons of schools, elementary schools especially, my goodness, that don’t have that kind of funding, that don’t have that kind of privilege. So it makes it so much harder. And then I know that there’s kids even at the school my kids are at, they don’t have the internet access or availability at their homes because they can’t afford it. Or where we are, we live up in the mountains. Our county is a really, really rural county. Teller County, Colorado and lots of rural areas and up in the mountains. So where we are, we get very, very spotty cell service and internet service and that makes it hard.
Dr. Amy Moore: Sure. And when you have multiple children trying to share the same bandwidth on an already weak internet connection because you live in the mountains. I mean there’s just so many things that factor into it.
Teri Miller: Sure.
Dr. Amy Moore: Yeah. So we have to just stop making generalizations. We have to stop just making assumptions that everyone has had this huge amount of learning loss or swinging the pendulum in the opposite direction and underestimating the learning loss because what happens if we underestimate? Then we miss an opportunity to provide remediation to the students who actually need remediation. So we have to look at this at the individual level. We just have to. Is it going to be costly? Yes. Is it going to be time-consuming? Yes. Is it going to be labor intensive? Yes. But if we want an accurate quantification of what that learning loss looks like it’s the only way that we can do it. It’s the only way.
Teri Miller: Yeah. And the only way that we’re going to be able to make a difference eventually. It’s going to have to be up to parents, teachers, schools, and district leaders I think next year and the following year to not just all of a sudden let kids fall behind, but like you said, do the remediation for those individual kids who maybe did not have the technological opportunities to be able to keep up or who had the personality styles or even the learning struggles that my littlest has. I mean, there’s so many different factors. And yeah, you’re right, remediation, that’s going to have to happen down the road.
Dr. Amy Moore: Well not just down the road. Here’s the key, our listeners are tuning in because they want tips, right?
Teri Miller: Yeah.
Dr. Amy Moore: So we’re asking a question, “Is my kid falling behind during COVID?” Well let’s ask, “What do we do?” Right? So focus on the now. How is your child doing right now. And that determines what your next step is. Is your child managing, keeping up, moving forward, then you have the ability to wait this out a little bit. But is your child really struggling? Then you need to know what is your child struggling in. Communicate with your child’s teacher. Which subjects is my child struggling in right now? And you know your children. You know your children compared to how they were before the pandemic. So how they’re doing now dictates what you need to do for them now. So whether they need some online tutoring just to help keep them caught up on the content or catch up on a little bit of content or are they struggling across the board because they’ve got some cognitive deficits that need to be remediated differently? Something that tutoring isn’t going to actually help.
Teri Miller: Well and I think earlier you mentioned something that I think should be really encouraging to all of us that have elementary school kids. I think even all the way up into high school, maybe junior and senior year this isn’t true. But you talked about the education is like a spiral and I think that’s something that yeah, we can all be comforted by okay, in kindergarten they start hearing about different cloud formations and then they hear about it again in first grade and then they get a little more in depth in second grade and a little more in depth in third grade. I talk a lot in homeschooling and child development research about exposure. That we don’t always have to just drive it home, “You’ve got to learn this, memorize it, memorize it.” If we can offer kids exposure to subject material, then the next year as they spiral around they’re going to go “Oh wait, I remember that. Cumulonimbus, was that it?” I mean, they have familiarity. So even if they’ve just been getting it enough to get that exposure this year they’re going to spiral back around. They’re going to get that information again.
Dr. Amy Moore: Absolutely. And that’s true even at the early childhood level. I have moms who worry, “Hey, my child won’t let me read to him.” You know what? You read anyway while your child does what he’s doing. He will hear you.
Teri Miller: Exposure.
Dr. Amy Moore: Yes. So your child can be playing with his Legos at the table, you can still read a story. That child does not have to be sitting on your lap looking at the pictures.
Teri Miller: That’s good.
Dr. Amy Moore: Right? They are still going to hear you read to them. Absolutely exposure.
Teri Miller: So good. Okay, just because I wanted to cycle back to this college and grades because it’s so interesting. So it’s a website called Inside Higher Education, insidehighered.com. They have some cool statistics from a big survey of over 14,000 freshman, sophomore, and junior students in 2020. So from 232 different colleges, public and private. But anyway, the thing they came up with from this survey is that 85% of those surveyed said that the COVID pandemic has had a negative effect on their performance. But it’s like you said, that’s one little class, one semester. So that may be that those grades were lower than they would have wanted because it was difficult for them to learn in that online environment or whatever. They weren’t able to take the engineering class they wanted to.
But this is interesting, 5% said the pandemic had a positive influence on their grades. So that’s just interesting thinking about all my kids and their different learning styles because I definitely have one out of the nine that I see thrives in the solitude of the online learning and I would venture to say it’s been a positive experience. He’s doing better. His grades are better, his learning is better, his focus, his motivation. So there’s going to be some kids. Let’s be encouraged by that too. You might have one of those kiddos that thrives.
Dr. Amy Moore: I don’t, but yes, many of our listeners might for sure. And I have to tell you that I have thrived in a remote environment as well. As an introvert it has been energizing for me to not have water cooler chitchat. To be able to solely focus on these intentional interactions only.
Teri Miller: Whereas I on the other hand have struggled in and out of deep, dark, lonely depression.
Dr. Amy Moore: Talk to me, talk to me.
Teri Miller: I’m like oh my goodness, if I don’t get out of the house and have adult conversation I’m going to cry. But I know a lot of moms, we have felt that way. We’re going to talk about that in other episodes. We’re not going to talk about that right now.
Dr. Amy Moore: Right. Actually that’s in an upcoming episode isn’t it?
Teri Miller: Oh my goodness. How to cope. Okay.
Dr. Amy Moore: In fact, let’s just share with our listeners that our next episode is going to be on the language of talking to stay at home moms and working moms is very different and what not to say to each group.
Teri Miller: Yes, especially during this pandemic, these weird changes.
Dr. Amy Moore: Absolutely.
Teri Miller: So talking about tutoring, talking about what to do. So if I do worry, like my little one, my youngest I really worried… Now that they’re back face to face it’s better, but worried that she was really falling behind. So talk to me about tutoring. Talk to me about intervention if you do feel like your kid is struggling.
Dr. Amy Moore: Yeah. So luckily there are some great options. First I would encourage moms to leverage the resources available through the school system because those are free. So if the schools are providing additional study sessions, group tutoring sessions after school, take advantage of those because we just talked about there are going to be groups of children who are in the same boat. They’re just needing to revisit content that they struggled to pick up on remotely perhaps. So take advantage of the resources that your school system is offering for sure.
And then there are always tutors available, whether they’re in-person or online. There are always tutoring programs and tutoring businesses that exist where your child can get some small group instruction on content that they missed or that they need extra practice on. So the nice thing about online tutoring is that you can have access from anywhere and almost every subject is available that way and typically the online tutoring sessions are one on one. So for students who thrive in that type of interaction. But again, if you’re tired of the online and if online was what the problem was in the first place for your child, then try to leverage some tutoring that’s available in-person for sure.
Teri Miller: There’s a great article about this subject. It just came out in February on moms.com website, M-O-M-S dot com. And if you just go to moms.com and you can just search “online tutoring” it’s a great article. How To Know If Online Tutoring Is Right For Your Tween. They direct it towards that age group, but it’s information that’s just super helpful for your kids, honestly from kindergarten through high school. And there’s great links in the article. It talks about the benefits of online tutoring and the downsides. Like the times that it’s not going to be helpful, if your child has a learning disability, autism, other learning struggles, even like ADHD or dyslexia that they may be a little bit harder. That online tutoring that’s looking at a specific course or a specific subject. But that may not get to the root of what your child needs. So it’s a great article, check it out. And what if your kid is in that position where again, I would say this for my youngest, I can not fathom that online tutoring would help her because that’s what was so challenging for her. So what other options Doctor Amy would you suggest?
Dr. Amy Moore: Yeah, so we’ve talked about Jaydaria’s issues with auditory processing. So we know that learning struggles are typically caused by some sort of cognitive deficit. Either they didn’t learn the material the first time because it wasn’t taught properly or because they weren’t able to process the information because they have a cognitive deficit of some sort. So tutoring will help with information that they didn’t pick up because it just wasn’t either taught efficiently or they missed school or it was an online learning issue. But if they have a cognitive deficit, and what I mean by a cognitive deficit is a weakness in an underlying learning skill like working memory or attention or the efficiency of how fast they process information or how well they reason. Those are cognitive skills.
So if there’s a deficit or a weakness in a cognitive skill, that weakness needs to be remediated, otherwise we are just trying to reteach content when the child can’t grasp it. So that needs brain training. And of course we advocate for brain training because we’re brain trainers, we’re brain training researchers. So that’s where our sponsor can actually come in and help then. And then what happens is you remediate those cognitive deficits. They still might need a little bit of tutoring to catch up on the content that they missed, but then it’ll be smoother sailing.
Teri Miller: Right. Okay, so we talked about this in an earlier podcast, but just again I’m going to say your Mister Smarty Pants, Evan, you have that personal experience with Evan. I can’t remember whether you said it was third grade, fourth grade, fifth, something in there where you noticed that he had really fallen behind and you were worried he was falling behind and he was. It wasn’t due to the COVID pandemic, but he was falling behind and he needed more help. So LearningRx was amazing for Evan, right? Tell us a little bit about that.
Dr. Amy Moore: Right, because he had severe auditory processing deficits. So his struggle was with spelling. He wasn’t even able to spell his own name in fourth grade. So by remediating those cognitive deficits, then he was able to go back into the classroom and learn across subjects. So your reading and spelling ability impacts all of the subjects because we read and write throughout and across all the subjects.
Teri Miller: And how different it would have been… It was by the grace of God so to speak that you knew of LearningRx, that you were involved with LearningRx, so you knew that’s what he needed. Because I think so many parents would be like “Oh man, he’s having trouble in spelling. We just got to beat him harder over the head with these spelling words. We’re going to study for two hours every day.” Or they would maybe get him a tutor for spelling. But that wasn’t the underlying problem and I think that’s so valuable. Even as we’re looking at this specific, current topic, is my kid falling behind. And for me, for me specifically, for my little one, why was she falling behind? I couldn’t have hired a tutor that would have helped her. She’s got an underlying cognitive something, auditory processing going on, I don’t know. I’m going to have to figure that out. We’re going to have to step into this. Or you know what? We have the privilege to step into this and by the grace of God I know about LearningRx as well.
Teri Miller: There are other programs out there that are very valuable that can help treat those underlying cognitive issues. But I think for parents it’s great to recognize that tutoring and cognitive training are different and that cognitive training can be a huge help when you’re not talking about “My kid is falling behind subject material.” Because all the kids are falling behind subject material. So then they’re not really falling behind. That’s just the state of the world we’re in. But if your kid has some underlying cognitive issues, so they are at a deficit compared to their peers in this current learning environment, there is something to do, there is something we can step into.
Dr. Amy Moore: There is.
Teri Miller: Yep.
Dr. Amy Moore: All right. Well this has been fun.
Teri Miller: Yeah. I hope that offers some hope and encouragement. I know it does to me and I’ve said this before in an earlier podcast, yep I’ll be stepping into the LearningRx cognitive training for my youngest hopefully this summer or in the fall. And yeah, just keep that in mind moms out there if you’re listening. You can check it out LearningRx.com is a great resource. And I think be encouraged as well, what Dr. Amy said, that your kid may not really be falling behind like you think at all. So be encouraged.
Dr. Amy Moore: All right. So look, we’re busy moms and you’re busy moms. We appreciate you joining us today, but we’re out.
Teri Miller: We’re out.