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AERA: Is There 'Summer Melt' for Social-Emotional Learning, Too?


Even in the midst of spring testing and end-of-year projects, educators are already starting to worry about how much of the students' hard-fought-for reading and math progress be forgotten over the lazy summer months. So-called "summer melt" is long studied in the academic world, but students' social and emotional development may also regress when they are not in school, according to new findings presented at the American Educational Research Association meeting here.

University of Chicago and Northwestern University researchers tracked the academic and social-emotional development of more than 18,000 children in the federal Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, who entered kindergarten between 2010 to 2014. About a quarter of the students came from low-income backgrounds. Using both student assessments and interviews with the students' parents, teachers, administrators and child-care providers, the researchers  analyzed how the students progressed through kindergarten into the fall of their 1st grade year. 

In addition to early-reading skills like letter and word recognition and early numeracy such as number sense, properties, and pattern recognition, the researchers also tracked four areas of social-emotional development:

  • Approaches to learning, such as organization skills, attentiveness, and ability to follow directions;
  • Interpersonal skills, such as the ability to share or work with others;
  • Levels of internalizing problems, such as social anxiety or loneliness; and
  • Levels of externalizing problems, such as aggressiveness or impulsivity.

Just as earlier studies have shown, the researchers found kindergartners' math and reading growth significantly slowed during the summer months, particularly dropping off for children of mothers with low levels of education. However, the researchers also found that the development of students' interpersonal skills and approaches to learning also suffered significant setbacks during the summer months: For example, a student who rated in the middle of the class in those two skills at the end of kindergarten fell by more than 7 percent of a standard deviation for every month she was out of school—a bigger dropoff than the loss found for reading and math over the summer.

"They really need the structure of school to remember what they need to do in school," said Ijun Lai, Northwestern University researcher and study co-author, during a symposium on the study here. 

There was no significant dropoff in aggression during the summer months—on average, students tended to act out more as they grew from kindergarten through 1st grade—but they did show significantly lower levels of internalizing problems over the summer months, suggesting children might have been better able to let go of academic stress or make new friends during the summer.

White schools "were not particularly benefitted or harmed" by the summer gap in young children's social development, Lai said, there was the same income gap for the summer melt in social skills development as researchers have found in academic skills. That suggests that over time, low-income children and those of less educated parents could fall behind more advantaged peers in social adeptness and noncognitive school skills.

The findings come as states and districts are looking for ways to measure and improve social and emotional learning under the Every Student Succeeds Act.


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