How to Gain ‘Magic Muscles’ After Pandemic Learning Loss

The struggle to overcome learning loss and build resiliency.

Turnaround for Children
3 min readMay 8, 2023

ALL KIDS THRIVING | How learning and development happen.

By Pamela Cantor, M.D.


  • Instead of conveying anxiety and worry about learning loss from the pandemic, communicate confidence and belief that kids will catch up.
  • Don’t blame kids for being behind in school. It’s not their fault.
  • The skills and resiliency to overcome challenges develop during struggles.

No one likes to be told that they are behind. No one likes to hear that they have lost something. And yet, today, we hear it all the time: that kids have lost learning, that they may never catch up, and that, in some cases, the damage is beyond repair.


We recover, we heal, we are resilient.

No one should be surprised that a once-in-a-century event like the pandemic caused sweeping turmoil and that time spent learning in classrooms was lost. And yes, it’s true that half of the students in the U.S. started this school year below grade level in at least one academic subject. It’s true that the scores on the “Nation’s Report Card” are well below where they need to be. But kids catch up. They are incredibly resilient. We see evidence of this all the time.

Think of kids who miss school when they are sick or hospitalized. It may take them a while, but most of the time, they can make up for much of what they’ve missed.

Think of famous athletes who have faced enormous setbacks and adversities. Gymnasts Simone Biles and Aly Raisman were each abused by their team doctor yet went on to win Olympic gold. Jimmy Butler was abandoned and neglected as a child, but today is one of the leading scorers and toughest competitors in the NBA playoffs.

As a psychiatrist, I worked with children who had experienced terrible trauma. But here’s what I told them: as they recovered, they were developing special powers or what I called “magic muscles,” the kind you can only get when you face incredible challenges and overcome them.

Today we have this opportunity with millions of kids. We can help them find and build their superpowers. But it won’t happen unless the adults in their lives see this moment for what it is, a setback, and seize the opportunity to help children recover and grow stronger from it.

How you talk to kids matters.

Kids will believe what their parents believe and what their teachers communicate about their learning and future. If what they see is worry, if the adults in their lives catastrophize, so will the kids. It will make them worry and increase their fears about their future. It will paralyze their efforts.

Parents, teachers, and coaches: This may mean changing how you talk to the kids in your life. Notice and talk about your belief in them and why you have it, authentically citing past accomplishments or challenges that have been surmounted.

This is a moment for calibrating or chunking new challenges, celebrating successes, and noticing the new muscles (or skills) kids have developed through the challenges of the past three years. They need to believe you, so if what you say is shallow or rings hollow, it won’t work.

Punishment and threats don’t work, either. Telling kids that if they don’t grind more in math or get an “A” in social studies, they can’t play soccer or ride bikes with their friends isn’t motivating. After all, kids know they didn’t cause the pandemic. It’s not their fault that they may be behind. If we allow young people to do the things that build their energy and confidence and give them joy, this energy will transfer into what they need to do to catch up academically.

Don’ts and Do’s

  • Don’t blame kids for being behind.
  • Don’t dwell on losses and disappointments.
  • Do talk about what is going right and well in their lives.
  • Do chunk challenges into bite sizes.
  • Do acknowledge and celebrate real progress and successes.
  • Do talk about the new muscles kids are building.

You want a flywheel that gains momentum from your support, belief, and confidence in them. Kids will catch up with accomplishments, successes, and very special muscles to show for their struggles.

This article was originally published on Psychology Today.



Turnaround for Children

Turnaround connects the dots between science, adversity and school performance to catalyze student development and academic achievement.