Teachers and parents are sometimes faced with the question of whether to have a child repeat a grade because he seems unprepared to learn the material in the next grade. When making this decision, keep in mind that research shows that low-achieving students tend to progress at the same rate, whether they are retained or promoted. Retained students do not necessarily score better on achievement tests at the end of the repeated grade, compared with similar students who are promoted. Even if retained students improve on standardized test scores, their overall learning does not appear to increase.
You must also consider the negative effects of grade retention on social and emotional development. Quite often these students have fewer friends and a poorer self-concept. If a child already has emotional or social difficulties and has an academic deficit only in a particular area, he might benefit more from special services rather than retention.
Usually teachers will mention a child's immaturity when they recommend retention. Ask for specific examples of this problem. Is it in the physical, emotional, or social realm? Ask if retention is the only or the best solution. If your child's schoolwork is on track, but he has difficulty controlling his impulsive behavior with his friends on the playground, then a consistent home-school approach to helping him change his behavior may be appropriate.
Other issues also must be considered. Rigid, test-based policies regarding promotion and retention often do not take into account issues beyond the student's control, such as the poor quality of teaching, poor teaching environments, learning disabilities, emotional problems, or family difficulties that may cause students to miss school.
In general, then, retention does not help children learn and, in fact, may contribute to a poor self-concept, diminished self-esteem, and emotional or social difficulties.
Other practical solutions may be alternatives when retention is being considered for your child, whatever the reason.
- Some schools have instituted a policy that prevents students from entering the first grade before they are ready to read and write. By creating a "readiness first grade" for six-year-olds who are not quite ready for the usual first grade, they have eliminated the need for students to repeat the same first-grade curriculum. For example, the content of the reading materials varies between the readiness class and the regular class, so students do not repeat the same work. Teachers report fewer behavior problems in the more positive learning environment of this approach.
- Multi-age grouping, or mixing children from two or more grade levels in the same classroom, can be beneficial. In this way, a child stays in the same classroom with his friends—continuing to develop socially and emotionally—but receives the appropriate academic work that he needs. It also allows the youngster to do grade-appropriate work in those areas in which he is capable.
- Some schools make adjustments during the school year itself, moving the child to a different class or involving a tutor if it is obvious he will need extra help.
- Sometimes children are permitted to repeat a failed semester instead of a full year, which requires the teacher and student to be flexible.
School staffs tend to be very knowledgeable and experienced in decisions about retention, and do not lightly make the recommendation to hold a student back. Some students do benefit from retention, particularly those who already have strong self-esteem and are emotionally healthy but are still having difficulty keeping up academically with their classmates. Some educators argue that if a student is continually moved ahead without acquiring the basic academic skills he needs, he will not develop the literacy or problem-solving abilities required in today's job market. This can be counterproductive to your child's education. If you suspect that this process is occurring, schedule a meeting with the teacher.
However, when retention is recommended and you are not comfortable with it, seek an additional opinion. Talk it over with your child's pediatrician, another teacher, or a psychologist. Consider whether an outside evaluation would be helpful.
If you and the teacher ultimately decide that it is necessary to retain your child, ask for the teacher's suggestions on the best way to explain it to your youngster. Also, inquire about the program that will be in place next year to address your youngster's problems. In preparation for the next school year, help your child figure out positive ways to discuss his grade retention. Role-play how he can answer the inevitable questions from his friends and classmates.
For the middle-years child, the optimal times to retain him are at the end of kindergarten or first grade, or upon moving to a new school or a new city.