Christmas break-down: Students may experience learning loss over winter break

Published 12:10 am Sunday, December 20, 2015

By Amanda Raymond

Almost anyone involved in the American school system has heard of the summer slide — the loss and/or regression of learning that occurs during the summer months when school is not in session.

But summer is not the only time students get a long break from school. Albeit much shorter, students also get time off from school for the winter holidays.

For college students, the semester ends before the winter break, which means all final exams are completed before the students get to enjoy their break.

But in high school, the semester does not end until after the winter break, which lasts from Dec. 21 to Jan. 1 this year.

That means for high school students, the exam period comes after a two-week break.

Kimberly O’Malley, education research expert, said there is a risk of lowered performance if students do not keep their minds engaged and learning during a long break.

“When students leave school and if they disengage from learning activities, we see drops in their performance and we see slowing of their education progress,” she said.

Although it takes a little bit of time for students to get back into the swing of things after they come back from winter break, teachers said the students end up fine in the end.

A stressful break

Leslie Sechler, a literacy coach at South Rowan High School, said the learning loss during winter break is not as significant as the loss during the summer because it is a shorter time period.

“I think, if anything, what the problem is, is that we start school so late in August. If we start earlier in August, then we could end the semester in December and our kids could have a true break,” she said.

Sechler said the break is stressful for many students because they are thinking about the exams they will have to take when they get back to school.

“I think it’s hard for them to take a break, and for the ones who really do take a break, it’s hard sometimes to get back in the swing of things,” she said.

Sechler said students sometimes struggle to get back into the regular routine of classes, only to have to learn a new routine when the new semester starts shortly after.

“If it could start all over with a new routine right after getting back I think it would be ideal,” she said.

Sechler said some students study over the break, while others may feel confident enough to just relax.

Teachers often help their students review the material they have learned when the students return from the break. At South Rowan, students can go to a review session either of their choice or teacher recommended during their South Block period.

Post-break fatigue

Even though students in elementary and middle school do not have to worry about exams, teachers said they sometimes come back a little sluggish after the break.

Sally Schultz, a fifth grade teacher at Hanford-Dole Elementary, said when she used to teach kindergarten she had to spend time going over expectations and procedures again.

“Usually the first day or two they’re still kind of asleep, but after that we’re back in the swing of things,” she said.

Schultz said she also does that with her fifth graders, but not as much as she did with the kindergarteners.

Elizabeth Henley, a sixth grade teacher at West Rowan Middle School, said her middle schoolers do not really suffer academically, but they do come back drowsy.

“They come back tired because they’re used to doing all the Netflix binging and staying up all night long and eating whatever they want,” she said.

Keeping brains active

Sechler said limiting the amount of time spent watching screens is one way for parents to make it easier for their kids to adjust back into their school schedules.

“I think it’s important for kids to get some fresh air and move around,” she said.

Sechler said it is important for students to keep reading, whether that is reading their favorite novel or a magazine on a topic that interests them.

“I think parents should encourage their kids to read anything for fun,” she said.

Henley said if students see their parents enjoying a good book, they may be more motivated to do so as well.

“I think for each parent, you need to find what interests your child and make sure that you approach it in a parental way that’s positive but also kind of go through the back door and kind of help them out without them even realizing what you’re doing,” she said.

Henley also said getting students back on their regular sleep schedule a couple days before school starts can help them with readjusting when school starts again.

O’Malley said holiday traditions can easily turn into learning opportunities. Baking holiday cookies can turn into a math lesson if parents ask their children to double or triple the batch.

“We can always get into the science of making cookies and experiment on how to make cookies, say, more cake-like or more chewy based on the different ways we mix in the ingredients,” she said.

There are plenty of educational programs students can access on their iPads.

Schultz said Achieve3000, an online literacy program, has organized a competition during the break to encourage reading. Students who gain a certain amount of points can have their names entered into a drawing to win an iPod Shuffle.

“The kids are all really excited. They’re all ready to go home and read, which is exciting for us because we want that,” she said.

Even though the winter break may throw a wrench in things for some students, Sechler said it usually all works out.

“It’s ultimately okay. They do a good job,” she said. “The kids come back in and they feel rested and they are able to do well on their exams.”

Contact reporter Amanda Raymond at 704-797-4222.