17 August 2023

Vacation brain drain. How to stimulate children intellect during holidays and “landing back” at school?

While an extended break from school is highly beneficial for students' mental well-being, it has a worse effect on their cognitive abilities. Numerous research confirm that children returning from vacation experience a temporary reduction in cognitive skills, such as sharpness, productivity, and performance. Psychologists and cognitive scientists describe this phenomenon as a "vacation brain drain."

Author: Maria Mazurek,


Photo: Takahiro Taguchi/Unsplash

According to a study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, the University of Tennessee, and The University of Virginia, most students lose 2 to 2.5 months of computational skills they learned during the previous school year during the summer vacation. This applies to students regardless of background or family income. In addition, if a student’s socioeconomic status is low, he may additionally lose up to three months of reading skills compared to the level with which he finished education before the vacations.

The phenomenon of losing some of one’s cognitive abilities during rest breaks also affects adults and is called “vacation brain drain.” However, while adults’ vacations tend to be shorter, and besides, mature individuals are better able to cope with stress, including in the context of post-holiday disorientation, for children, returning to school can be more challenging and negatively affect their sense of self-worth and interest in learning. However, as research shows, there are simple ways to make it easier for children to “land safely” at school.

“Vacation brain drain.” Causes of the phenomenon

The reason for the cognitive decline during the vacations, which naturally most affects the most extended summer vacations, is clear: the brain, figuratively speaking, rests and, therefore, “resets” from the daily routine and intellectual triggers. Mental engagment is reduced. This subsequently leads to a temporary decrease in learning-related skills, including mathematical abilities, reading skills, searching and critically analyzing information, as well as logical thinking.

These conclusions absolutely do not mean that vacations are unnecessary or harmful for children. Quite the contrary: they carry positive effects for both their mental and physical health, motor development and curiosity about the world, as well as their socio-psychological development. As an analysis published in the “International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity” shows, people on vacation sleep an average of 21 minutes longer, which reduces the risk of many diseases and improves mood. In addition, it remains undeniable that children spend much more time outdoors during vacations – and, as the study “Low Childhood Nature Exposure is Associated with Worse Mental Health in Adulthood” shows, contact with nature benefits our brain and mental health. In addition, when we spend time in the sun, we replenish our vitamin D3 levels (D3 is synthesized in the skin as a result of UVB radiation), and it plays a crucial role in the functioning of the nervous and immune systems, reduces fatigue, improves concentration, prevents depression and infections. An active, happy outdoor vacation is, therefore, the best long-term investment in a child’s mental and physical health.

In contrast, the intellectual slowdown associated with the “vacation brain drain” phenomenon is temporary. However, it is worth knowing how to help students get through the sensitive period of returning to school.

Holidays bring headspace for intellectual challenges

To avoid the negative effect of “vacation brain drain,” it is advisable to take care of children’s intellectual stimulation already during the holidays. In many countries, the law prohibits the assignment of projects and homework for the holiday period, so the responsibility for strengthening students’ cognitive abilities during the summer break is mainly on the parents’ side. However, they may be encouraged by educators to take care of their children’s intellectual challenges during a break from school.

Proven and credible ways to prevent lowering cognitive decline are:

  • Reading. While a child usually wants a break from school reading during vacations, reading even less ambitious literature (including young adult literature, youth fantasy, and even teenage girls’ novels) develops reading comprehension skills, expands vocabulary, and stimulates the imagination. Research indicates the importance of reading for pleasure for both educational aims and personal development (Clark and Rumbold, 2006). 
  • Puzzles, logic games, and mathematical challenges. Since computational skills are the competencies that children lose the fastest and most intensively during vacations (regardless of background or family income), it is crucial to take care of their development during the time away from school. Puzzle games, brain teasers, and riddles develop analytical thinking and problem-solving skills, while mathematical activities, such as games that require calculations or building structures with blocks, directly develop mathematical skills. 
  • Learning foreign languages. It develops mental flexibility and analytical thinking and increases the cerebral cortex’s activity, not to mention the most obvious benefit of knowing foreign languages. While vacations should not be associated by children with traditional learning and pressure to memorize, both visiting a foreign country and watching foreign movies or singing songs can be an excellent opportunity for a child to learn languages through fun.

Tough returns. How to ensure a “soft landing” for students at school?

Children experience not only learning difficulties but also a wide range of emotions when returning to school after a long break. Researchers at Bath University conducted a large-scale study of the physical stress response before, during, and after school restarts. By analyzing levels of cortisol (or the so-called “stress hormone” – the substance the human body produces when stressed) in saliva samples of young study participants, they found that students were stressed not only at the time of the actual return to school but also in the time leading up to that return.

That’s why it’s so essential to create a friendly, supportive environment where they can communicate openly, including about their problems and difficulties, with both teachers and parents.

Another concern is attracting students’ attention. After the vacations, when their brains are still coming out of “lazy” mode, arousing their cognitive curiosity is a difficult challenge for teachers. In this task, an awareness of neurophysiological processes becomes useful: learning begins with information received by all the senses, but the brain is able to process only about 1% of this information and prioritizes certain things, deeming others irrelevant. We know from brain imaging studies that priority will be given to those pieces of information that help mammals – including humans – survive. Usually, this is unexpected information – our attention filter first accepts sensory information about change and newness.

After vacations, there is a greater than usual amount of new sensory information competing for access to the brain: students are busy “catching up on social activities,” reminiscing about vacations with classmates, and organizing logistics for the coming months. Teachers can, therefore, use strategies to ensure the provided information gets through their attention filters. As Judy Willis, a neurologist and former teacher, describes in “The Guardian” newspaper, it will be helpful to use techniques such as sudden mid-sentence silence (a suspenseful pause before saying something important increases alertness and stimulates memory), changing the furniture arrangement in the classroom (this also introduces an element of newness), and making unexpected movements, such as walking backward while speaking (movement gets high priority to listeners’ attention).

Most importantly, she points out, “good teachers are highly responsive to their students’ moods and needs.” An essential factor in teaching is to be attentive to the messages, including non-verbal ones, sent by students, to be flexible in adapting lessons to them, and to treat each student as a separate, unique individual.

Both during the post-holiday return to the classroom and in and throughout the school year.