1. K-State home
  2. »Research and Extension
  3. »News
  4. »News Stories
  5. »Child development expert shares ways to address learning gaps induced by pandemic

K-State Research and Extension News

Parents and kids mixing cookie dough

K-State childhood development specialist Bradford Wiles urges parents to be open to their children's interests.

Child development expert shares ways to address learning gaps induced by pandemic

Wiles says it’s okay for adults to act like their kids

June 15, 2020

MANHATTAN, Kan. – In light of recent studies indicating students’ learning may have been stunted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Bradford Wiles gives parents permission to act like their children.

“One of the things that is really hard for adults is to essentially act like children,” said Wiles, a Kansas State University child development specialist. “We need to get down on the ground with them. We need to be okay with getting wet and making a mess. We need to experience their worlds, and that will help them with the social component of learning.”

Listen to an interview with Bradford Wiles on the radio program, Sound Living with Jeff Wichman

In late May, the not-for-profit education group NWEA teamed with researchers from Texas A&M, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and Duke University to report that the learning gap between high- and low-achieving students has likely widened during the pandemic.

A month earlier, NWEA also reported that students may be returning to school in the fall with less than 50 percent of the typical learning gains.

“It’s no fault of anyone,” Wiles said. “It’s just impossible for adults to try to be the entirety of the school experience and do all the things that adults need to do in their normal lives.

“I want to be really encouraging of parents that while there are deficits in learning, that is a natural consequence of the pandemic. It would be really difficult for parents to keep their children learning at the same rate that they would have in a school situation. I would venture to say it was impossible unless you were already homeschooling before this began.”

To help fill some of the gap, though, parents can continue their child’s education throughout the summer in less formal ways, according to Wiles.

“Be open to what your children are interested in and use that to your advantage,” said Wiles, encouraging a concept known as child-directed learning.

“For example, my daughter’s name is Hannah. The other day, she asked a great question: ‘Who were the first people?’ Well, depending on your religious or scientific beliefs, that’s a tricky question. We sat down and talked…and we found some really good educational videos. We explored her question together.

“Then, the other day, we asked her what kind of trees we had in our backyard. It was the perfect opportunity to learn some science and how trees ‘work.’ We were able to identify some different kinds of trees using an app in which you take a picture of the leaf and it tells you what kind of tree it is from.”

“That’s the kind of learning that we really want to encourage this summer.”

Wiles noted that following children’s lead on learning takes a lot of the pressure off of parents.

“You don’t have to think about what you’re going to teach, or you don’t have to come up with the lesson plan,” he said. “You just go with their lead. It really is a great way to maintain and build knowledge without it exactly being from a book. Books are not bad, by any stretch. It’s one thing to read something, but another to do things with your parents or your primary caregiver.”

Wiles said a child’s memory is enhanced when emotions are associated with an experience.

“That really is a big part of how we want children to learn; let’s encode that knowledge with some emotion attached to it,” he said. “Being happy and being outside with your parents, or learning about something with your parents…are tremendous opportunities for children to learn. We want to approach this summertime by letting children drive the bus and feeding them the things that will extend their thinking and learning.”

Wiles urged adults to go easy in pushing summer learning, allowing room for kids to just enjoy time off.

“You don’t want to make it so the benefits are out-weighed by the risks,” he said. “You want to enjoy the summer with your children. Use opportunities to learn, but you don’t want to pound it into them.

“For all the adults out there, just know that everyone is in the same boat. We want to make sure that our children are learning, but don’t be so concerned with the gap in what they know at the end of the year, versus what they have known historically. That gap exists for almost every student and the reality is we need to be focused on making sure that they’re happy and healthy, and the knowledge will come as they enter into the next school year.”

Wiles manages a laboratory in K-State’s College of Health and Human Sciences, called Applied Research in Child Health and Enhancing Resilience (ARCHER). For more information on child development, visit the lab’s website.

Sidebar: Reading with children can develop empathy

Child development specialist Bradford Wiles said that reading with children, and putting yourself in the story, is a great way to develop empathy.

“In my field, we talk about this thing called theory of mind, which is really just the ability to understand that other people have other beliefs and thoughts and desires than we do,” Wiles said. “Books are often the first and most important opportunity for children to see that.”

He said when children read books, they are aware of the character’s thoughts so they quickly pickup that others have different perspectives. It helps children develop empathy toward others they may encounter.

“We know that empathy goes such a long way in life, and not just in the feel-good way,” Wiles said. “Employers want people who can work with other people. Employers want people who can solve problems and being able to take other people’s perspectives is a huge key in being able to solve problems.

“And the final thing that employers really want is people who can regulate their emotions. One of the things that empathy and compassion allow us to do is regulate our emotions, to not be so triggered and frustrated when we don’t understand other people’s perspectives.”

At a glance

K-State’s Bradford Wiles urges parents to follow children’s lead for summer learning activities.


Applied Research in Child Health and Enhancing Resilience (laboratory)

Notable quote

“Be open to what your children are interested in and use that to your advantage.”

-- Bradford Wiles, child development specialist, K-State Research and Extension


Bradford Wiles

Written by

Pat Melgares


KSRE logo
K‑State Research and Extension is a short name for the Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service, a program designed to generate and distribute useful knowledge for the wellbeing of Kansans.
Supported by county, state, federal and private funds, the program has county extension offices, experiment fields, area extension offices and regional research centers statewide. Its headquarters is on the K‑State campus in Manhattan.