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Worried about your child repeating a grade because of COVID-19? Do this

A lot of kids have fallen behind academically during the pandemic. Here's what parents need to do.
Illustration of kid and mom in front of a scribbled blackboard
TODAY Illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

With the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic and the hasty transition to online learning, the past two school years have been anything but easy for millions of students, teachers and parents. Even some once-stellar students are realizing that they’ll need to repeat a class or, in some cases, an entire academic grade.

Parenting experts say there are things families can do to avoid too much additional learning loss and build resilience in their children this school year.

Approach teachers early and often

“Recognizing that things are going south early is so important,” Dr. Candice Jones, a pediatrician in Orlando, Florida, told TODAY Parents. Jones advised parents to keep close tabs on their children's school work as the new school year ramps up and check in with teachers right away if anything seems to be amiss.

While there were high hopes that the 2021-22 academic year might look more like a traditional school year, the rapid spread of the delta variant of COVID-19 could create another chaotic and ever-changing situation. Parents should consider contacting their children’s teachers before the school year even starts to broach academic performance.

“It is so important just being more involved and proactive and staying in touch with the teachers,” Jones said.

Teachers and administrators won’t be surprised by parents and students worried about learning loss or repeating a class or a grade. In fact, parents might want to ask whether there is a school- or district-wide strategy to help struggling students.

“Ask the childhood educator what the plans are for assessment and catch-up,” Dr. Deborah Gilboa, a parenting expert, told TODAY Parents. “There were a variety of experiences around education in the last 18 months and educators know that. They’re going to be talking about this.”

Talk with your kids in a nonjudgmental way

If the 2020 school year experience means a child needs to repeat some classes — or even an entire grade — there are ways parents can help their children grapple with their feelings about it. It's important to note that some children might not feel as bothered about it as others.

“Oftentimes we put our own thoughts and feelings into how kids feel,” Annette Nunez, a psychotherapist in private practice in Denver, told TODAY Parents. “Really follow the child’s lead. We assume that a child may feel sad or upset or hard on themselves because of it, and they may be happy that they get to do a year over again that they didn’t get to do.”

Experts agree that parents should start candid conversations with children about how unusual school has been since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. This can normalize their experiences and help them understand that this crisis has impacted learning and school performance for so many students. It also can help your child become more resilient.

“This has been a tough year for many people,” Jones said. “This academic year has been a wash. We just have to pick up where we are and move forward.”

Nunez said parents can share their own experiences to help children understand that repeating a class or a grade is OK.

“Normalize it in the sense of maybe mom or dad had to redo work projects, meet with clients again, redo things that they would not have done if the year was ‘typical,’” she said.

Ask the right questions

Nunez also recommends that parents check in with how their children are feeling generally. She said the key is to ask a lot of questions.

“It’s really important when a child is repeating a grade to ask how they feel socially? Do they feel socially anxious? Do they feel like they regressed?” she said. “Then also ask what are they excited about with being in school again? Is it having a connection with the teacher? Is it learning new things? Is it finally being out of the house and not in front of the video?”

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Give children a sense of control

Having open conversations about academic performance helps children feel as if they have more agency.

“It’s really important to process those feelings and emotions so that kids and teens feel like they have a voice in the matter,” Nunez said. “When kids and teens feel like they don’t have some sense of control or accountability, that’s when you start seeing a lot of behavioral issues.”

Gilboa says parents might want to structure a talk about academic struggles as something that parents expect will happen. With the chaos of the past 18 months, it’s likely that loads of parents will need to help their children navigate some stress around academic performance. This is especially important in encouraging your children to feel comfortable enough to tell you they’re having a problem before it’s too late.

“Use that ‘when,’ not ‘if,’ language,” she said. “Then children feel less like they have failed when it’s hard.”

Remember effective coping strategies

Whether a child is repeating a class, a grade or is where they should be academically, Gilboa believes parents should prepare their children to return into the classroom. Many children haven’t been around friends or groups of people in a while, and some might need a refresher on their coping strategies.

“I’m hearing from psychologists that I work with that kids with anxiety or ADHD or other struggles have forgotten their strategies that they’ve been taught,” she said. “They forgot, ‘Hey if you’re feeling this way, ask for a fidget toy or exercise ball. Use your words instead of your hands.’ They’re out of practice self-regulating.”

Realize how common your experiences are

While it might be another rocky school year, parents are the best people to help their children navigate it.

“You are absolutely not alone. This is happening in so many families,” Jones said. "I just encourage parents to have a little empathy and give each other a little grace and come up with a plan — working with the school, talking with your child. ... Say, 'Hey, how how are we going to move forward? What are some of the things we need to do better?'"