Summer and the Teenage Brain

Why do schools assign summer reading? If you ask the typical teenager, they might accuse their teachers of some pretty sinister motives. The truth is that summer is something of an academic black hole.

Students lose anywhere from one month to four months of instruction over the summer (estimates put out by researchers vary). This number can be even higher for students with learning and attention differences or for students who do not have access to summertime enrichment (e.g., camps, vacation).

Summer reading lists are one way schools hope to keep students learning over the summer, but I have rarely met a teenager who enjoys reading the assigned books. (I seem to remember enjoying my summer reading, but that might be the fog of time).

So what can we do? Give students a choice!

I tell my students, who are mostly in middle school and high school, that they HAVE to do something with their brains over the summer. Besides pointing out the months and months of learning they will lose (I usually tell them they will slide all the way back to February), they are not taking advantage of their truly spectacular brains!

Teenagers have remarkably “plastic” brains. They can acquire new skills at a rate that is shockingly fast (compared to an adult, that is). Summer is the perfect time to take advantage of this skill. I push my students to set 2–4 goals for themselves over the summer, identifying a skill they would like to learn or an area of interest they want to know more about. Here are a few topics students have selected over the years:

  • “I want to read The Walking Dead graphic novel series.”
  • “I want to learn more about business and real estate.”
  • “I want to get paid to make websites.”
  • “I want to beat my brother at ping-pong.”


While I don’t know if learning ping-pong necessarily prevents a slide in math, it certainly requires forming new neural pathways!

Allowing your students to select their area of interest will promote motivation, but it is important to help them create a structured approach to achieving their goals. Working with my students, we break down the goal into a step-by-step plan (for more information on goal setting, check out previous blog posts). It is important to share the goal with parents to provide encouragement and accountability as well as to develop some sort of time management structure (a calendar or regular check-ins with a mentor). At times I have even turned the goals into a competition (e.g., see who can read more graphic novels).

Summer is getting closer every day, so now is the time to start! What amazing things can your students accomplish this summer?

  • Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Program Director