Shifting the Conversation from “Learning Loss”

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While it is not a new term, parents and educators have expressed concerns about “learning loss” during the COVID-19 pandemic. Learning loss refers to when students forget or lose knowledge they previously gained in school as a result of missed or disrupted education.

In 2020, online classrooms were less engaging to some children, causing them to either not advance or regress academically. Even with schools reopening, anxiety and stress about the pandemic, grief due to losing loved ones to COVID-19, and lost class time due to infection have disrupted many students’ education worldwide.

What Is Learning Loss?

Learning loss indicates the loss of knowledge, abilities, or academic progress experienced by students.

It can also refer to when students do not fully lose knowledge they gained previously but fail to make adequate academic progress. Students can experience learning loss if they miss an extended amount of school due to illness, frequent moves, or lack of resources. It can occur if a student discontinues school or drops out. Some students experience learning loss during summer vacation.

Students in an academic setting can also experience learning loss. If teachers are not adequately able to support a learning environment or do not properly challenge students, the students can regress and lose information they had previously learned. Students experiencing significant stressors, traumas, or issues such as untreated learning disorders can have learning loss even if their classroom attendance is good.

While it generally applies to academic knowledge, students can also experience learning loss around their social and communication skills as well as general childhood development.

Learning Loss During COVID-19

Since education disruption is a major cause of learning loss, many have been concerned about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on students’ learning. Many students struggled to engage in an online classroom environment, and others missed school due to their own illnesses or family deaths.

Teachers struggled to provide adequate education through an unfamiliar venue in an online classroom. Children, parents, and teachers were expected to shift to the online learning environment with minimal preparation of support, and those already experiencing inadequate support were hit the hardest by the disruption. Additionally, the ongoing stress of living in a pandemic may have interfered with students’ learning even when they were able to continue attending school regularly.

A literature review of studies on learning loss since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic found that the pandemic has caused significant learning loss, and this has disproportionately impacted minoritized children (Black, Indigenous, and other children of color as well as children from low-income families).

Learning loss is a major argument in favor of keeping schools open during the pandemic to ensure children’s education continues without disruption despite health risks. At the same time, while the learning loss identified since COVID-19 began is significant, models predicting the severity of learning loss were found to overestimate how much loss would occur.

Can Kids Recover from Learning Loss?

You want your child to get the best education possible, and the idea that they might have regressed or failed to progress based on typical expectations is scary. The good news is that learning recovery is also possible.

Children have varying educational needs and were impacted differently by academic disruptions caused by the ongoing pandemic. As such, there is not a single approach that will reverse learning loss for everyone affected.

However, educational research has consistently shown that children can recover lost knowledge with appropriate instruction, and students given access to appropriate resources can often catch up to their grade level when they failed to progress due to educational disruption.

In short–yes, children can and do recover from learning loss.

Losses Versus Gains: Reframing Learning Loss

While concerns surrounding learning loss are valid, the same research documenting this phenomenon also shows that children have made unique gains as a result of the pandemic. Specifically, one study identified that university-level students actually learned more during online learning compared to in-person. Additionally, online classrooms have been shown to reduce bullying as well as minoritized students’ experience of microaggressions.

The current emphasis on learning loss has the potential to change how we currently assess our education model. Many children around the world received inadequate education and support prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. One study, in particular, found that efforts to address learning loss due to COVID-19 in sub-Saharan African countries have begun improving education outcomes to a higher level than before the pandemic began.

This suggests that educators are in a unique position to rebuild a better system than before and address pre-existing disparities.

In addition, while many children did not make the same academic progress during school closures and continue to be impacted by the pandemic, children continue to learn and grow daily regardless of their environment. While a student struggling to engage in the online learning environment might not master mathematics in the same way as they did before the pandemic, they might learn new skills to focus and engage in a different way.

Supporting Your Child

If your child has experienced learning loss, you can support them in regaining academic knowledge. First, openly communicate with your child and encourage them to share any concerns, anxieties, or fears they have around their education or ongoing pandemic stress. Let them know that you are there for them and support them. Make it clear that you are not disappointed in them or blame them for any learning loss that may have occurred.

Let your child know that they are not alone in their experience. All kids experienced disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and their difficulties are not a personal failing or an indication that they did not work hard enough.

If your child is struggling academically, they might benefit from an assessment to determine their current knowledge and skills. This will identify areas that need improvement as well as the child’s current strengths. Emphasizing those strengths can help your child build confidence and use those strengths to build skills in other areas.

Your child might also benefit from tutoring to help them make strides in challenging subject areas. Talk to their teacher about your child’s performance at school and ask how you can best support their learning.

While learning loss creates significant challenges, it has also opened up the opportunity to provide support and tap into strengths we might not have previously identified.

6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Donnelly R, Patrinos HA. Learning loss during Covid-19: An early systematic review. Prospects. Published online November 10, 2021.

  3. United Nations Girls' Education Initiative. Learning Loss and Student Dropouts During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Review of the evidence Two Years After Schools Shut Down.

  4. Center for Assessment. Understanding Pandemic Learning Loss and Learning Recovery: The Role of Student Growth & Statewide Testing.

  5. Aldosemani TI, Al Khateeb A. Learning loss recovery dashboard: a proposed design to mitigate learning loss post schools closureSustainability. 2022;14(10):5944.

  6. Warner TV. Racial microaggressions and difficult dialogues in the classroom. In: Mena JA, Quina K, eds. Integrating Multiculturalism and Intersectionality into the Psychology Curriculum: Strategies for Instructors. American Psychological Association; 2019:37-47.

By Amy Marschall, PsyD
Dr. Amy Marschall is an autistic clinical psychologist with ADHD, working with children and adolescents who also identify with these neurotypes among others. She is certified in TF-CBT and telemental health.