Should Your Child Repeat a Grade?

When Lydie Thomas was first told her daughter needed to repeat first grade she was embarrassed and even a little ashamed.


“Everybody was going to second grade, and I felt like I failed,” says the Alameda mom. “I thought I should’ve seen it coming.”


Born in late-November, Thomas’ daughter, Thais, was pushing the Dec. 2 eligibility deadline of turning 5 years old before entering kindergarten. Still, Thomas felt her daughter was ready. When Thais’ kindergarten teacher later warned that the girl’s performance was “marginal,” Thomas felt too awkward to pursue the matter further. Perhaps she would catch up.


Then first grade came and it became increasingly clear that Thais was out of her element. She was petite, shy and one of the youngest in her class.


“It was taking a longer time to get the math and to get general concepts,” Thomas said. “Thais in October (of that year) told me that she wanted to be with children her own age. On a regular basis she was crying at school.”


Frank – and plentiful – conversations with Thais’ teacher and school officials eventually led to Thais repeating first grade. And while Thomas and her husband were initially hesitant, it turned out to be the right decision for their daughter.


Now in the second grade, Thais’ grades have improved and she’s no longer the last to finish her work. More importantly, her confidence has grown.


“I’m so happy with the decision that we took,” says Thomas. “Right now, if she was in the third grade it would be hell. Hell for us and hell for her.” 


The Retention Dilemma

Deciding whether to hold a child back a grade can be a difficult and emotionally charged situation for any parent, and it’s one most school officials take seriously and try to use as a last resort.


“It’s as equal to losing a parent to a child. It’s that profound for a child to repeat a grade,” says Jean Robertson, principal at San Francisco’s Grattan Elementary School.


Candidates for retention will most often have trouble reading and/or completing the math skills at their grade level.


“First grade is key. That is the year that they are getting linguistics; they’re breaking the code,” says Robertson. “It’s a very meaty year. It probably should be a two-year course anyway.”


But academics aren’t the only standards. School officials will also consider a child’s emotional and social readiness to go on to the next grade, as well as the stability of his or her home life.


Research on the effects of grade retention has produced mixed results. Those in favor of the practice say it gives children a chance to master the skills they missed, and gives them confidence and a foundation for growth as they pursue higher grades.


Opponents say the effects of retention will fade within two to three years. Plus, it’s often associated with increased behavioral problems and may even make children more likely to drop out later on.


The federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 has played no small role in the controversial subject of grade retention. In order to ensure federal funding, the act requires states to administer Standardized Test and Reporting (STAR) exams to ensure children are ready to proceed to the next grade.


This came on the heels of years of social promotion, which essentially moved a child to the next grade in order to remain with his or her peer group, even if they didn’t earn it academically.


Despite the policy shift, the rate of children who have been retained has remained fairly constant. From 1996 to 2007, 9 to 11 percent of children in kindergarten to grade eight have repeated a grade, according to a 2009 report by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics.


But for parents, all these mixed signals provide little comfort in the face of deciding what to do when their child is struggling at school. 


Retention Benchmarks

School officials generally try to target children for retention before the third grade, which is when students become more socially aware of how they compare to others in their peer group.


“I, personally, as a principal, would never keep a kid back in the third grade (or beyond),” says Robertson. “It’s got to be devastating (to a child). I haven’t seen a whole lot of success.”


Once a child has been identified for possible retention, a student study team is formed, comprised of parents, a student’s teacher, principal, school psychologist and others, as deemed necessary. Together, they devise a plan to improve a student’s performance and hopefully stave off retention.


By Jan. 31, public schools are required to present an agreement for parents to sign, acknowledging that retention may be required if a student cannot perform up to par.


Toward the end of May, a school will make the final determination on whether a student should be promoted or retained, a decision parents can appeal.


But simply holding kids back a grade will not necessarily solve the problems a child is facing. One of the biggest criticisms of grade retention is that there’s no guarantee things will change the second time around.


“Repeating seat time is not the answer and parents need to know that,” says Jeff Knoth, director of student services at the Alameda Unified School District. 


Is Retention Enough?

According to the National Association of School Psychologists, it isn’t ironic that the highest retention rates are found among poor, minority, inner-city youth. Many lack parental involvement and good schools to provide the continuity required to track and ensure their success.


“It isn’t that retention never works, but it works when a child’s deficits are not that great and when their family supports it,” says Jim Russell, a legislative chair for the California Association of School Psychologists, and a credentialed school psychologist and licensed education psychologist. “When a child is terribly delayed, then retention is not enough.”


Early intervention with a specific program can help sidestep retention altogether, says Russell. But if retention is seriously on the table of options, parents need to ask how, specifically, instruction will change to allow a child to gain what they didn’t in the first year.


“The answer is a more careful look at the instruction that the child is receiving,” Russell says. “In my career, most parents do not want their child retained. And in 99 percent of the time, they’re right.” 


Will They Catch-Up?

One of the challenges in the retention decision is knowing if a child is truly behind academically or whether they will eventually – and naturally – catch up. Most experts acknowledge that kids learn at different paces, but they generally even out by the third grade.


When Mill Valley mom Lyssa Friedman and her partner were faced with the dilemma of retaining their first-grade daughter, they weighed the emotional and social implications of the decision just as heavily as the academic.


“If all of her friends went on to second grade she would’ve known and it would’ve upset her,” Friedman says.


So, they took a measured response. After meeting with their daughter’s teacher, they came up with academic benchmarks to consider as the year progressed. By the end of first grade, she had caught up with the reading and was just a little behind in the math. Now in the second grade, she’s reading above the grade level, although her math could use a little help.


Today, they still tentatively wonder if they did the right thing in deciding against retention.


“I just think it’s something we’re always going to worry about,” Friedman says.


While the decision to retain can stress out just about any parent, it’s this level of attention that can make all the difference in the world to the academic success of a child.


“Parents need to pay attention to what’s going on at school,” say Knoth, who has three children. “If they feel that they are not getting a response, they need to push a little harder. Do not feel shy about requesting a meeting at school.” 


The Power of Parents

Studies prove the power of parental participation in school. Students in grades K-3 whose parents were involved in school activities have high-quality work habits and task orientation, according to a 2006 Harvard Family Research Project report. When parents explain educational tasks, children are more likely to participate in class, seek help from a teacher and monitor their own work.


In the end, if parents and school officials decide retention will help a student succeed, it’s important to present in a positive light.


“(Parents) need to first decide how they feel about it,” says Russell. “Is this something they can accept and support their child in, or is it something they’ll say yes to and not believe?”


When Alameda mom Thomas broke the news to her daughter that she would be repeating first grade, she tried to point out what was hard the first time around and what would change given another chance. Next year, it’ll be easier, Thomas assured her.


Both Thomas and Friedman said that throughout the retention decision they placed incredible value on the advice of their children’s teachers and school administrators.


“Trust the teachers. They want the best,” says Thomas. “If they advise you about something and they took the time to tell you about your child, you should think 10 times about it.”


Millicent Skiles is an associate editor with Bay Area Parent and a mother of two.



What’s a “Gap Year”?

Read how many high school graduates are “taking a breather” before starting college in order to travel, work or volunteer.  In Teen Focus.

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