The main question I’m getting as a teacher at the moment is how kids are going to catch up on the learning they have missed during the pandemic. Even my brother-in-law is asking, and his child is 15 months old. That’s when you know that something is a universal concern. Quite rightly, too — there are so many facets of life that all of us have missed out on over the last 18 months. I’m no scientist, just a good old Elementary school teacher, but I’ll use some of my experience to convey how to help students to get back to grade level.

I will recommend the work of Eric Jensen ( as someone who has spent a lot of time looking at the variables that can have an effect — be it positive or negative — on a student’s ability to succeed in school. I went to a conference of his a few years ago in San Diego, and while I thought he partook in a bit too much doom mongering, he still has some very interesting research. One of the main statistics he speaks about is that one poor elementary teacher can set a student back by up to two years’ worth of progress. He also identified short term memory recall as being a talent that successful students tend to have, and that can be taught to struggling students to help their brains be tuned towards learning more.

Personally, I have seen quite a few instances of students making up their academic ground. In almost all cases, the student has enjoyed the support of a great teacher and a proactive family. It is truly one of the most astounding achievements sometimes when it happens, but it can also be obvious how they were able to catch up. The same can unfortunately be said for those students who do not make up lost ground.

In my first year of teaching, I had a girl (who we’ll call Taylor) who arrived as a refugee in November of her fourth grade year. She and her father spoke very little English, and her mother and brother spoke almost no English. Despite only arriving a few days prior, I invited them to come to conferences, where we explained about the English language learning programs we would be giving Taylor. The father became very excited as he asked if he could use the same materials to help his wife and son to learn English as well, at which point I welled all the way up. To see the joy and hope on this man’s face as he found something that he could use to help his family make the transition to living here was so heartwarming. Fast forward to the end of fifth grade, when Taylor was talking to me at recess about how she wasn’t being someone’s friend, but she is now, but they’re not talking with someone else, etc. I just stood there grinning at her, marveling at how far she had come since that conference 18 months prior.

Another kid (who we’ll call Drake) started fourth grade reading class at a first-grade level. He had also arrived as a refugee but had been in the country for a few years and was not making any progress. This continued for a few months until he moved from his parent’s house and was semi-adopted by another refugee family from a different part of the world. It turned out that he hadn’t been getting enough food, sleep, or support. At the time, I was measuring the kids’ heights across the year, and between New Year and summer, Drake grew by four inches and improved to a late third grade reading level. We were doing all we could, but he needed his home life to also look after him, and once he was taken in by a family that gave him the support he needed, he rose to meet our expectations.

My last example (who we’ll call Blair because it’s actually her name and she’s my daughter) has struggled with reading since kindergarten. At the time, she attended our neighborhood school, who waved off the tantrums she would have when asked to read as a phase. In first grade, Blair moved to Westgate with me, where we discovered she was displaying signs of dyslexia, which my wife has. This was not a phase; this was something that needed to be addressed. Luckily, being a school that has many students who need extra reading support, Blair was taken on by the reading team and attended intensive remedial classes. This helped, but she was still reading below grade level. We then took her to the opticians, where she qualified for vision therapy to help her with tracking and focusing her eyes while reading. We also invited a former Westgate student, Bailey — who is now studying to be a teacher — to read and write with her once a week, which worked brilliantly. Blair and Bailey got on so well! Bailey would allow Blair to be funny and insisted that Blair take as long as she needed to sound a word out and get it right. This element was huge for Blair; she now knew that if she studied and worked at something instead of giving up early, she would be able to succeed eventually. Paired with our return to in-person schooling, Blair had brilliant 2nd and 3rd grade teachers who helped her to succeed while working with the other different support structures we had in place. As a result, Blair’s reading MAP score grew by a huge 27 points between January and May, which was the equivalent of jumping from a low second grade to a late third/early fourth grade level. Normal growth is around 15 points a year.

We are lucky that we can afford the vision therapy and tutoring for Blair. The other two students did not have that luxury, but they still made excellent growth because of their teachers — both in their homeroom and in their specialist reading team — and their family life coming together to create the right structure for that student.

That is my answer to the question of how children can catch up academically. If the student has the correct support structure in place, if their teacher knows where they are academically and what they need, and their family helps them to get enough rest, food, and encouragement as well as a good space at home for learning/reading/exploring, then they have a great opportunity to grow and catch up. We teachers try our best to ensure that our kids have everything they need; we make home visits to our younger kids, we offer free breakfast and lunch, and now every student has an iPad or Chromebook that they can take home for learning. If the family is also on our side, then there is every chance that students will catch up to grade level.

Mark Russell is loving being back in school. Twitter: @badbarky

Photo courtesy of Mark Russell