Since 2021, Sheryl Lee Ralph has played Barbara Howard — the no-nonsense kindergarten teacher who walks the straight and narrow and is led by her faith — on the hit series Abbott Elementary. The character is a guiding light for the younger teachers in the building, and when she leaves set, she doesn’t leave that spirit of mentorship behind. When we sat down with Ralph, she had just as much invaluable advice for parents across the country as she does for her Abbott colleagues.
One issue Ralph is passionate about is the unfortunate but very real phenomenon called “summer slide.” Over the summer, students tend to lose some of the skills they spent the past school year building up. Ralph says that parents tend to figure that once the kids go on summer vacation, all they have to do is wait until the new school year to start learning again.
“No, help your child to stay on point on their class level,” she tells SheKnows. “Get assignments for them to do in the summertime or get them into a class so that they don’t suffer from the summer slide. Very often students come back to school for the next school year not as prepared as they were when they left back in May or June.”
How To Get Started
Finding resources can be as simple as getting suggestions from your child’s teacher at the end of the year (“Most times, teachers want their children to do well in the next grade!”), seeing what kinds of programming your local library offers, taking advantage of any available books (workbooks and those for pleasure), printing out assignments online, and/or downloading educational apps so there is a learning aspect to screen time.
Even small steps can make a big difference, and this is especially important for young children.
“The fact is that if children are prepared for their education by the third grade, there’s nothing that they can’t do,” Ralph says. “If they’ve got their maths under their belt and if they’ve got reading under their belt, they can go far.”
This Is Coming From Experts
Sheryl Lee Ralph has been surrounded by teachers her whole life. So her advice hasn’t come from thin air, and her portrayal of Barbara Howard is largely based in reality.
“I’ve got so many educators in my family,” she says proudly. “My dad was a lifelong educator, lifelong learner. My Auntie Carolyn, my niece, Jana is studying for her Master’s and Ph.D. at NYU now, my brother is a special education teacher, and my sister-in-law is a retired principal. There are teachers all around me!”
So Ralph knows what she is talking about when she says kindergarten “is like the birthplace of learning if not preschool.”
“Trust me, the more you put into a young brain, the more stays there. So the best you can do for your children early is important. I’ve seen two-year-olds that can have a full-on conversation because they’ve been spoken to. I’ve even seen a child that can speak in two languages at two years old because people are making the effort to speak to them in those languages.”
“So children can do much more than you think they can do.”
And sometimes all it takes is a conversation.
Ralph’s profound respect for teachers nationwide and her passion for educating the next generation is why she has partnered with SONIC. The drive-in restaurant chain donates a portion of every drink, slush, and shake purchase to the SONIC Foundation, which supports local schools. And on May 9, the foundation will match 50% of each public donation to teachers’ requests on DonorsChoose, up to $1.5 million.
Ralph’s advice stretches from parents of pre-schoolers to parents of high school graduates and beyond. She has been one of the many celebrity empty nesters for some time now, and she has key advice for anyone in that stage of their life.
“Of course, you’re gonna feel off [with] the amount of time [your children] spend in the home with you,” she says. “But once you get over it, please enjoy your life. Please expand your experience. Please do not become stagnant because your children are out of the nest. Enjoy your life.”
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