Discussing the ‘summer slump’ and how to combat it

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Annie Certo, MA, and AJ Harris, MS, break down what a “summer slump” is and how it can affect children during summer break from school. The duo offers suggestions on how to combat the negative associations of a “summer slump.”

Discussing the ‘summer slump’ and how to combat it | Image Credit: © New Africa - © New Africa - stock.adobe.com.

Discussing the ‘summer slump’ and how to combat it | Image Credit: © New Africa - © New Africa - stock.adobe.com.

In this Contemporary Pediatrics Q+A interview, Annie Certo, MA, senior manager of coaching at Brightline—a virtual option for behavioral health coaching and therapy—and AJ Harris, MS, senior care specialist, coaching, Brightline, discuss what the “summer slump” is and how it can impact mental health in pediatric patients.

Contemporary Pediatrics:
Can you explain how the “summer slump” comes into play and what associations there are with pediatric mental health?

Annie Certo, MA, and AJ Harris:

When children and teens go on summer break, they typically lack the mental stimulation they are used to throughout the school year. Mental stimulation can be described as learning, following a routine, completing tasks, getting to socialize, and even participating in group settings. All of these areas can come to an abrupt halt during the summer, leading to what we call the “summer slump.”

The “summer slump” is real, and typically consists of regression in academic and mental health skills that can span up to several months. A study published in the American Education Research Journal found that students lost, on average, 39% of gains made across the entire school year.1

During summer, many children and adolescents experience a shift from the structured support of school to a more unstructured environment, which can take a toll on their mental health. Summer also means a pause in access to school-based mental health services. "Students are [6] times more likely to access mental health [care] when these services are offered in school,” stated Miguel Cardona, secretary of education, United States, on May 18, 2023.2

Those who access mental health care at school lose this support over the summer, possibly exacerbating or leading to increased mental health issues.2 As research has consistently shown, mental health conditions often worsen when left unaddressed. This decline in mental health skills is commonly associated with lacking stimulation and structure during the summer.

Contemporary Pediatrics:
How can being out of the classroom on a consistent basis during the summer negatively impact a child’s mental health, when generally we hear so many positives associated with summer? Can you also detail some of these positives?

Certo and Harris:

Often, when children walk out of school for the summer, they can feel a sense of relief or freedom. The opportunity to slow down, relax, and make the most of their downtime is likely their goal. Often, children can dive head-first into this and perhaps “overdo” it. As previously mentioned, a drastic change in mental stimulation can cause some regression in both cognitive and academic skills, which can negatively affect our mental health. Classrooms provide structure, routine, socialization, and cognitive reasoning that our brains desire. Children can often fill their time with various forms of mental stimulation that are less helpful. For example, a teen who is sitting at home, bored, may check their social media only to see one of their friends on an extravagant vacation in the Fijian islands. This could trigger a negative social comparison.

Based on this understanding, we can still reap the benefits of summer while minimizing the negative associations. Summer should be the opportunity for children to relax and enjoy their time off, however, we have to keep in mind the importance of mental stimulation.

Contemporary Pediatrics:
Have there been any studies done on the “summer slump” that you can highlight? What were the findings?

Certo and Harris:

An important study entitled “School’s Out: The Role of Summers in Understanding Achievement Disparities,” published in the American Educational Research Journal in 2020, utilized longitudinal data across 5 years that measured the impact of the "summer slump."1

“While some students actually maintain their school-year learning rate, others lose nearly all their school-year progress. Moreover, decrements are not randomly distributed—52% of students lose ground in all [5] consecutive years,” stated the study authors. The study indicated that 52% of students lost an average of 39% of what they learned for 5 consecutive summers.1

Contemporary Pediatrics:
What are signs and symptoms of the “summer slump” to look for at well visits?

Certo and Harris:

A “summer slump” may not present as symptoms or be clear to the individual. Often, children and teens may not be able to describe or fully understand this feeling until they return to school.

The National Institute of Health describes the following as signs of a decline in mental health for both children and teens:3

  • Have frequent tantrums or are irritable much of the time
  • Often seem fearful or worried
  • Complain about frequent stomach aches or headaches with no known medical cause
  • Are in constant motion and cannot sit quietly (except when they are engaged in an activity they enjoy, such as watching videos or playing video games)
  • Sleep too much or too little, have frequent nightmares, or seem sleepy during the day
  • Are not interested in playing with other children or have difficulty making friends
  • Struggle academically or have experienced a recent decline in grades
  • Repeat actions or check things many times
  • Have lost interest in things that they used to enjoy
  • Have low energy
  • Have periods of highly elevated energy and activity and require much less sleep than usual
  • Spend increasingly more time alone and avoid social activities with friends or family
  • Diet or exercise excessively or fear gaining weight
  • Engage in self-harm behaviors
  • Smoke, drink, or use drugs
  • Engage in risky or destructive behavior alone or with friends
  • Have thoughts of suicide
  • Say that they think someone is trying to control their mind or that they hear things that other people cannot hear

Contemporary Pediatrics:
What recommendations are there to help children avoid this slump, and what advice should be relayed to parents?

Certo and Harris:
Many suggestions to combat the “summer slump” are rooted in a treatment called “behavioral activation,” which involves scheduling activities to encourage people to reconnect with their environment in positive ways and decrease avoidant behaviors that maintain negative emotions. This can look like planning summer camps, social time, weekly family/friends time, or really anything that promotes the child’s preferred form of socialization.

As caregivers, it is important to know that we have the power to combat the “summer slump,” and maintaining open conversations with our kids about their mental health is always a great place to start. We want to ensure we create a safe and non-judgmental environment so they can trust us with how they feel. Working with our children to create a plan for them can show them that we see them, are invested in them, and will do what it takes to ensure their long-term success.

Here are some further recommendations to decrease the possibility of a “summer slump”:

  • Consistent routines, daily goals, intentional projects/tasks
  • Reading charts, reward systems, social activities, puzzles and brain teasers
  • Limiting screen time or looking at healthy utilization with boundaries and planning
  • Spending more time outside, and weaving learning into play.

“Summer slump” is often associated with learning loss or a decline in learning skills over a period of time. It is important to consider the impact summertime can have on our children’s mental health. There are many contributing factors as to why mental health can decline during the summer. Similarly, we want to mention the potential for an equally positive effect summer can bring. With more intention and planning, we can support our children throughout the summer while giving them the autonomy to relax and achieve their summer goals, whatever they may be.

References:

1. Atteberry, A., & McEachin, A. (2021). School’s Out: The Role of Summers in Understanding Achievement Disparities. American Educational Research Journal58(2), 239-282. https://doi.org/10.3102/0002831220937285

2. Biden-Harris administration takes action to help schools deliver critical health care services to millions of students. US Department of Education. May 18, 2023. https://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/biden-harris-administration-takes-action-help-schools-deliver-critical-health-care-services-millions-students

3. Children and mental health: Is this just a stage? The National Institute of Health. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/children-and-mental-health

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