Striking the Right Balance in Summer Learning for Special Needs Students

Article excerpt

Parents of special needs children know how hard their children work to master new skills. It can be heartrending when hard-won progress evaporates. Summer can present a particular dilemma to those with learning challenges. The freedom, recreation, and fun is something we all look forward to, but this break from learning can result in the loss or critical academic skills--something that may have a lasting impact on their educational development.

"Summer learning loss" is the regression that takes place between when children leave classrooms in June and when they return in September. A meta-analysis of summer learning loss studies by Dr. Harris Cooper of Duke University concluded that students lose one to three months of academic skills. This loss is not spread equally among all learners. Research shows that students who are at-risk are disproportionately affected, meaning that, on average, they fall further behind during the summer break.

A study by Tilley, Cox, and Staybrook showed that while some students with mild disabilities, such as hearing impairment, lost skills at about the same rate as general education students; students with moderate or severe disabilities experienced more severe summer learning loss. Not only did these students regress in academics, self-help and motor skills, but when they returned to school, it took them longer than typical students to re-learn the knowledge they had lost. This cycle--severe summer learning loss followed by a slower recouping of skills--means that over the course of their school careers, these students spend significant time attempting to regain lost ground rather than being educated to their fullest potential.

The Value of Summer Programming

Quality summer programming helps children to maintain competency skills over the summer. Summer classes reinforce academic learning in subjects like reading and math and provide an opportunity to practice social and behavioral skills with peers. By keeping skills fresh over the summer, students are better prepared to transition back into school in September and take on the challenges of a new academic year.

Summer programming for children with special needs has important quality-of-life benefits too. For special learners, summer break is often anything but a "vacation." The productive, predictable routine of school is replaced by a tremendous quantity of unstructured time. This can be disorienting, frustrating or lonely for a child with special needs. A summer program can foster friendships and provide opportunities to try new activities in a supportive environment. Socialization and recreation are important for special needs learners, but they may have difficulty taking part in mainstream sports or recreation activities. Issues such as health, motor planning, behavioral issues, over stimulating environments and difficulties inferring social cues and understanding abstract language can interfere with their participation. Well-chosen summer programming offers a predictable routine, meaningful activity and practice with academics and socialization, which can be difficult for many families to provide on their own.

What Are Your Options?

The multitude of camp and summer-program options can be overwhelming. For special needs children, some of the most common types of programs parents consider are Extended School Year (ESY) programs and recreational summer camps, which may be inclusive or have a special needs focus.

Extended School Year (ESY) is an academic summer-school program designed to stave off summer learning loss for students who studies show are most likely to be severely affected by it. ESY programs are often operated by schools and vary in length, quality and areas of instruction. While their goal is to prevent summer learning loss, in practice, ESY programs may be limited to three to six weeks. They may not include social or recreational components, both of which are important for special learners. …