Is “Brain Drain” Real?

There is plenty of research about the “summer brain drain” – a reference to the amount of learning that children lose during their summer breaks. Some researchers believe students can lose as much as three months worth of last year’s learning over the summer. Several reasons are cited for this; one of them is the absence of regular reviews of material to reinforce what’s been learned. This article summarizes the “brain drain” phenomenon and how educators, parents, and families can help prevent this from happening.

“Summer Brain Drain”

Educational researchers have studied the “summer brain drain” phenomenon for years. Most of this research is related to the psychology of memory, forgetting, and biopsychology. There are many causes of “forgetting”, including something as simple as walking through a (virtual or real) doorway. (For an article on the “doorway forgetting effect”, see Dr. Ira E. Hyman Jr’s. article titled “Doorways Cause Forgetting: What did I come here for?” from May 25, 2012 at this link:

Other reasons cited for “brain drain” are: lack of mental stimulation, lack of a structured environment (students get out of the habit of learning), an increase in the amount of time spent without adults supervision (for older children in families where both parents work during the day), and a lack of continued reinforcement of recently learned concepts and skills.

“Summer brain drain” is a real phenomenon. Teachers typically plan on repeating about one month’s worth of the previous year’s learning to offset this loss. The effects of the “summer slide” (as its also called) are also cumulative. This means, for example, that if a student loses two months’ worth of 1st grade learning over the summer, by the end of their 3rd grade year they’ve lost a total of four months’ learning.

“Holiday Brain Drain”?

A recent trend in education research is in the area of “holiday brain drain”. There is at least some evidence that the three to four week break between December and January leads to a loss of learning. By December, students have completed about half of the school year. All told, this equals about 18 weeks of daily learning and predictable routines. It stands to reason that any break of more than three days might lead to student’s forgetting classroom procedures and some content.

Teachers already recognize this and issue plan accordingly. As a classroom teacher, I planned to review classroom rules have students practice classroom procedures the first three days back from winter break. About 95% of teachers in schools where I have taught do likewise.

On a larger scale, school districts are transitioning to year-round academic calendars. These schedules include frequent, shorter breaks of no more than two weeks. Breaks still center on traditional holidays but can also come at the end of grading periods. This increases the number of days students are in school each year, which provides more opportunity for structured learning, and gives them less time to forget what they’ve learned.

Adults can intervene and stop the “brain drain” cycle – even reversing any accumulated learning losses. The following are several ideas for parents and families to help fight the “brain drain”.

Fighting the “Brain Drain”

1. Encourage daily reading. Encourage your child to read a little every day. As parents, we know our kids’ likes and dislikes where reading is concerned. Plan library or bookstore visits and help your children choose something you know they’ll like. Also, find something to read yourself and model good reading habits. Turn off the TV and computer and read for 30 minutes a day. If you choose to create a scheduled reading time – say, at 2 p.m. every day, you’ll soon see your child picking up their book or magazine at that time with little to no prompting.

2. Show enthusiasm for learning. If you read an interesting article in the newspaper or online – especially if it matches your child’s interests – tell them about it. This will show them that you value learning and you want to include them in your own learning. They will see that it is a priority and take it seriously.

3. Limit technology time. This is especially true for students in 6th – 12th grade. Children this age may even expect their break to be filled with endless days of playing video games, lounging in front of the TV, and gaming on their smart phones. As easy as it is to let them “do their own thing”, adults should set technology limits for their children. Adjust them based on your child’s age.

4. Encourage creativity. Use the additional family time to do something creative. This doesn’t have to be a huge, hands-on craft project that requires a lot of planning and materials. Teach your child a new game. Take them to an art or children’s museum. Read your very young child a story about magic or fairies. However you choose to do it, get your child to engage their brain in “outside the box” thinking.


“Brain drain” is a real phenomenon that occurs when students are on breaks that are longer than two weeks. Up to three months of the previous year’s learning can be lost over the longer, 3-month summer break. The effects accumulate over time and require a focused effort by adults to overcome. Parents and families can encourage their children to unplug from technology, read a little every day, show an enthusiasm for learning, and encourage creative thinking to fight the effects of “brain drain”.

I hope you found this article helpful. Please take a minute to leave a comment, Like this post on Facebook, or Tweet the post via Twitter using the buttons on the right side of my blog page. If you have questions about whether a tutor is right for you or if you would like advice for your unique situation, feel free to E-mail me using the “E-mail Jeff S.” button on my WyzAnt tutor home page. I’m happy to help!

Today’s article is dedicated to the memory of the 26 young students, teachers, and administrators whose lives were tragically ended in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut on Friday, December 14th, 2012. Let us commit ourselves to providing a safe learning environment for all children and cherish each opportunity to show our love to the children in our lives.

"When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight." ~Kahlil Gibran

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