It’s not just test scores: Kids are losing developmental skills

Pandemic learning loss has impacted students’ basic developmental skills, ranging from sharing to using scissors, raising the stakes for using the summer months to help make up the gap.

In this week’s Education Week State of Teaching survey, most pre-K through third-grade teachers said that, compared to five years ago, their students had more difficulties listening, getting along with others and using pencils.

Experts say it is important parents use the time over the summer to be hands-on with their children’s activities and be sure to prep them with the tools to have successful interactions with their peers.

“It definitely doesn’t surprise me. I think that we all anticipated that the pandemic would have implications far beyond lockdown for not only young children, but all children,” said Khy Sline, KinderCare supervisor of curriculum development and education programs, who bemoaned “losing that much time of connection while we were locked down and spending time primarily in our homes and just not necessarily having the same experiences and exposures to other children.”

The survey by Education Week showed 94 percent of teachers of young children say their students have a challenging or much more challenging time listening and following instructions. Eighty-five percent said their kids are struggling more with sharing and cooperating with their peers.

In terms of fine motor skills, 77 percent of educators found young students are having greater difficulties handling pencils, pens and scissors, while 69 percent saw their charges struggling to tie their shoes at higher rates than five years ago.

“As far as the fine motor skills — which I thought was very interesting that so many parents or teachers are seeing a decline or a struggle with — I think those are also really easy skills to practice at home with some attention,” Sline said.

She recommends letting children participate in daily activities such as helping make a meal, allowing them to use the keys to unlock the house or even buckling their own seat belts.

“I think sometimes parents find themselves often in a rush with their children, often just needing to get to the next place,” Sline said, but she added they need “to be intentional and set aside time” for kids to learn to do things themselves.

Difficulties with student behavior and floundering test scores have exploded since the pandemic.

At the end of last school year, an Education Week Research Center survey showed 70 percent of educators believed students were misbehaving more than in 2019.

“Kids are struggling to resolve normal conflicts that happen day to day, so parents often feel very helpless when their kids are struggling with friendships. But there’s actually a lot that we can do about it,” said Eileen Kennedy-Moore, a psychologist and author of the book “Growing Friendships: A Kids’ Guide to Making and Keeping Friends.”

Kennedy-Moore suggests parents should help their children learn how to introduce themselves, recognize social cues of how their peers are feeling and insert themselves into activities with other kids.

“Playdates are the single best things that you can do to help your child deepen their friendships, or it might be getting them involved in an activity that fits their interests, and then they have a lot of common ground with the other people,” she said. “Sometimes it can also be helpful for parents to model the importance of friendship, so have your own friends over or invite another family over for family game night.”

Regarding academics, elementary and middle school students have been recovering some learning loss from the pandemic, but still have a long way to go. An analysis done by Harvard and Stanford researchers showed students have made up a third of what they need to in math and a quarter in reading.

One of the biggest tips for parents has been less screen time for kids. For children below the age of 2, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time at all. As kids get older, the group recommends limited screen time with adult supervision.

“We know there’s other pieces of it that show children in the early years have much more screen time than they did before, and one of the ideas behind the increase in screen time is that it may be crowding out other activities that children used to do,” said Rebecca Parlakian, senior director of programs at Zero to Three.

“If children are on screens more than before we have to ask what they are not doing,” Parlakian said, adding activities that encourage fine motor skills or socialization may be falling by the wayside.

The problem is not unique to young children or to homes, as school districts have been looking to ban cellphones in classrooms due to the distractions they can cause, with some administrators already instituting policies that restrict screen access during the day.

The biggest piece of the puzzle for parents, Parlakian said, is just making sure that enrichment opportunities — be they social or educational — are available to their kids.

“Children just by virtue of growth and maturity want to do things for themselves and learn new skills. We might consider this an issue of access. Do they have the access to learn these skills? This is what parents have a lot of control over,” Parlakian said.

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