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Summer School for Our Kids

Without structured educational activities during summer break, children with attention deficit (ADHD), learning disabilities, and other special needs often suffer learning loss. Try this plan for an alternative summer school to keep your child learning while still making time to have fun.

Boy with ADHD learning through creative play
Boy with ADHD learning through creative play

As soon as school is out for the summer, our kids shove their backpacks under the bed and rush outside, anxious for an extended recess. But, especially for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a summer of no work and all play can lead to learning loss.

“Many children with learning disabilities and ADHD lose ground during the summer months — particularly in academic skills in which they are below grade-level standards,” says Sandra F. Rief, M.A., author of How to Reach and Teach Children with ADHD. “But it’s important to offer them a fresh environment, with learning experiences different from those they’re exposed to during the school year.”

“Parents try to make their kids do better by pushing the school model on them,” says Laura Grace Weldon, author of Free Range Learning: How Homeschooling Changes Everything. “Think of learning as custom-designed, hands-on, interest-based fun.”

I try to do that for my fourth-grader, Natalie. This year, for the fourth year running, she’ll attend “Hannah School,” named for the tutor who will be teaching her and her friend Harry. Natalie never complains about going, and the benefits are reflected in her back-to-school assessments.

Special Needs Alternatives to Summer School

My daughter’s personalized summer school, Hannah School, runs from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. four days a week. Working around vacations and other activities, we get in about six weeks each summer. Unlike hour-long, sit-down sessions, the four-hour time blocks allow for frequent breaks, multisensory and experiential learning, and field trips!

Because Natalie shares tutoring with her friend, Harry, each session is an anticipated play date. Weldon sees advantages to group learning: “As children discuss problems, innovate, create solutions, and move forward, they gain comprehension. They also develop social skills and maturity.”

Near the end of the school year, our tutor spends part of a day in Natalie and Harry’s special-education classroom, and meets with their teacher to learn about strengths, weaknesses, and learning goals.

Last summer, Hannah School started each day in a study room at the public library. Having a door to close gave the trio privacy and allowed them to express their excitement without muffling their voices. They had access to library books, computers, and special programs. A big plus was the park, one block away.

Creative Ways to Prevent Learning Loss

Natalie and Harry worked on the same academic skills they would work on at school, but they worked much differently. They practiced math facts while on a swing. They used flashcards to learn words by sight, but they didn’t sit face-to-face with the teacher to see them. Instead, when Hannah said a word, they raced to find the right flashcard among the many spread around the room. In addition to academic basics, the kids’ learning followed their own interests. Harry took home books about trains, while Natalie chose books about dogs. “School” also meant concerts in the park and lunches at Subway.

“When children study something they are passionate about, a range of similar topics opens up,” says Rief. “They wind up developing skills that are transferable to other subjects.”

That may be true, but Natalie and Harry can’t wait to get back to school this summer because it’s fun.