What to do when your child falls behind: insights from the learning sciences

4 min read   •   September 23, 2021
Dr Nicolaas Matthee: Learning Research and Development Lead at Optimi

The uncertainty of the past few months has seen many learners falling behind on their work. In this short article, we take a glimpse at why it’s essential to ensure that your child catches up. We offer some practical tips to help you and your child to get back on track.

Identifying the gaps in their learning

To ensure your child’s learning journey is heading in the right direction, it is essential that you identify the gaps in their learning. It can be tempting to rush through the work, but that would only serve to damage your child’s learning journey in the long run.

Also read: How to bridge home education gaps

There are many ways in which you can identify learning gaps but based on the research from the learning sciences, two stands out.

  • Traditional quizzes – The first is using traditional quizzes to see where your child lacks in their knowledge. It is important that these quizzes are used to help your child visualise where they are in terms of their work and not as something that you use to scold them.

  • Identifying core components – The second is identifying the core components of the work and asking your child to explain them to you. This works particularly well in subjects such as Maths and Science. An option is to take a worked-out example of a problem and ask your child to explain what happened in each step to reach the answer. This would give a clear indication of where the gaps in their knowledge are.

What you know determines what you learn

It is crucial that your child builds a strong foundational knowledge for their subjects. Foundational knowledge refers to the core knowledge needed to move forward in a subject. In some subjects like Maths, problems with foundational knowledge can persist over many years. This means that your child will struggle to master work in the future if they are left with gaps in their foundational knowledge.

We further know that foundational or prior knowledge plays an important role in managing memory limitations (known as cognitive load theory) when learning. Therefore, rushing through work to catch up or skipping it entirely will likely cause struggles for your child in the future. And, while there are no easy answers when your child falls behind, it is important that they catch up in ways that are healthy for the remainder of their educational journey.

Getting back on track

There is no doubt that catching up is hard work and will mean longer hours for your child. Here are a few tips that will help you and your child get back on track.

  • Help them plan – Falling behind is a common problem for many learners. A distinct lack of planning is regularly the cause that children fall behind. The part of the brain that is responsible for our logical, rational, and executive choices only matures at the relatively old age of 25. Therefore, it is completely understandable that children struggle to plan properly. This is where you can help your child reduce stress and get back on track. Help them plan. Help them set a timetable and help them prioritise the work for each session. This will be a great help when your child has fallen behind.

Also read: Teaching kids how to plan

  • Adapt and iterate – It is also true that we generally overestimate what we can do in a certain period of time. Therefore, it is critical that you regularly check in with your child to see if what you have planned is working. Don’t be afraid to adapt the original plan.
  • Keep them motivated – While it is hard work to catch up, it shouldn’t demotivate your child. Reward them for completing a certain section of work. It is important to praise the effort they put into catching up and focus on the positives rather than the negatives. Remember – if their catching up becomes a way to avoid punishment, it is likely to fail as an educational strategy.

Falling behind is a reality for many learners, especially considering the uncertainty of the past few months. Luckily, we have insights from the learning sciences to help us understand how we can identify learning gaps and ensure that our children have a solid foundational knowledge. Catching up is hard work, but as a parent, you can assist your child in making the most of the time they put in.