How Many Days of School Can a Child Miss Before They Start to “Slip Behind”?

More than you might think.

Alison Acheson
Apr 28, 2020 · 5 min read
photo: Alison Acheson/author

Many parents are worried about the number of days their children were missing in the spring term, and now for the looming fall. I am writing as a teacher, and as someone who has missed a lot of formal education. And I am writing as someone who has homeschooled the youngest of my three sons, and would homeschool all of them if I had a re-do.


I live in a part of the world in which kindergarten is still optional. I never went. I was several months past my seventh birthday when I did finally begin grade one…and learning to read was pain-free. One day I couldn’t read, one day I could, and the next, I wanted to be a writer.

In grade four, for various reasons, I took Ministry of Education correspondence courses, and again in grade eight. I started grade nine correspondence and grew restless and bored, and quit formal education altogether and did the Thing of hairdressing school. Some years later, bored of that, too, I returned to school —as a “mature” college student, aged 25.

Three degrees later, and I teach in a grad program in a post-secondary institution.

Last completed grade: 8.

Days missing prior: in the hundreds.

In middle-school years I had issues with pneumonia and bronchitis and missed weeks — no, months — of school.

All those degrees

One of those degrees is a Bachelor of Education. I did extensive practicum work for my degree. After all the years of both public school and “homeschool,” I was stunned by the amount of time spent “sorting” the students. Time spent lining up in hallways, ensuring that no one reached out and touched the wall (an Enormous Issue in public school); time spent settling in after recess and lunch; time spent over-explaining, repeating; “wait” time; and what I’ll call — from my observation — shaming time. Too much time was spent with this. (That would be another article.)

When all you need is 2–3 hours

When my son homeschooled, and from my own experience of studying at home, real focused time spent “studying” is usually 2–3 hours per day. The 2–3 hours will produce the same body of knowledge a child will receive in the formal classroom and school. After that period of time, a learner can read, enjoy hobbies, play games, create videos and music, do sports, dance, cook, household tasks.

And do the things that we all need to know and that the school system or households have no time for: learn how to address an envelope; how to read a map; how to sew on a button; how to fry eggs and make leftovers tasty. My son was in the fridge and getting creative before he was ever in school.

What your child can do to have productive learning time

Read in bed, read in a hammock, read in a tree. Read nonfiction, graphic novels, poetry. Read for fun, read for information. Take notes about the book ONLY if you want. Do discuss the book — yes, talk about it! — with a parent, friend, sibling. Don’t worry about “predicting” what it is about; enjoy the path on which the writer is taking you.

Trust me: as a published children’s author nothing irritates me more than the “what do you think is going to happen next?” question. Really?? Writers work hard to come up with twists. Enjoy them. Enjoy reading. If a child returns to school after COVID-19, and likes reading…that in itself will be enough. School, in general, saps all love from reading.

If there are school subjects your child don’t really like but wants to know something about, read about them: for instance, if not big on learning science, Joy Hakim’s books about the history of science are fascinating. Hate math? Read about Pythagoras and his followers — strange lot, they were. Some were disappeared over the side of a boat…if they didn’t drink his kool-aid. Read about Fibonacci and those rabbits. Read around subjects; this time of COVID-19 induced “homeschooling” can be a good time to learn about subjects, about the world around you, in a broad way, a way that grabs, and holds on.

You and your children can also use this time to catch up. One of the aspects of our current education system is how they “move on.” In this regard I do understand why so many parents are concerned that their children will “fall behind”…but honestly, given what I’ve witnessed in too many students in classrooms, they are probably already “behind.” Teachers move on to next topics in all subjects before all or even most of the students are ready; teachers have a full year of material to check off their lists. I had many discussions with my sponsor teacher, while training, about just why I was supposed to move the class on when most of the students (too many, to my mind) were not yet ready.

So review with your kids. Use playing cards to have some fun reviewing the times tables…or take the time to find out where they are at with material and topics they are supposed to have already covered. That question they had about ancient Egypt, the one they never had time for in school? Now they can look it up.

Use the time to go deep

Our education system does not go deep. There is not time for questions, not the real questions that young people have. When teachers write lesson plans, they slot in an amount of time for each part of the lesson. There is not time to think through a problem. Critical thinking? What’s that? Takes too long to develop.

This is not necessarily teachers’ fault. We all have a share in this. We expect so much of the system, and so much of those hours.

Life offers an ever-changing array of opportunities

This is a time to slow, to find out what is most important, to talk and share with each other. To learn more about those you live with. The world itself is the best teacher and is a formidable school.

Margaret Mead said: “My grandmother wanted me to have an education, so she kept me out of school.”

Because the moment a child is born, a parent is born, too.

Alison Acheson

Written by

Alison Acheson’s latest books: memoir of caregiving, Dance Me to the End: Ten Months and Ten Days With ALS; picturebook, A Little House in a Big Place.

A Parent Is Born

Because the moment a child is born, a parent is born, too.

Alison Acheson

Written by

Alison Acheson’s latest books: memoir of caregiving, Dance Me to the End: Ten Months and Ten Days With ALS; picturebook, A Little House in a Big Place.

A Parent Is Born

Because the moment a child is born, a parent is born, too.

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