Repeating a Grade — Does It Work?

Spring has finally arrived, and for many, it is a season of hope. Nothing, though, can dash that optimism more quickly than a call from your child’s school requesting a conversation about retaining her in the same grade for next year.

What should you do? Facing this challenge is difficult and painful for parents and children alike. After all, the decision you make can have a profound impact on your child’s attitude toward school and her ability to make meaningful progress in the future.

The first step is to take a careful look at the issues she may be facing to ensure you arrive at an effective solution and she receives the supports needed to grow academically, socially, and emotionally.

Why Does the School Recommend Retention?

The first question to ask the school is why it recommends holding your child back. Some of the most common reasons are immaturity, lack of mastery of the work, excessive absences, or behavioral issues.

What Proponents Argue

Proponents of grade retention often refer to the practice as giving a young child the “gift of time” when it involves issues like immaturity or behavioral difficulties, suggesting that the delay is related to developmental issues and will simply resolve itself. For older children who experience academic troubles, these experts point to the danger of a widening academic gap if a student is promoted without meeting the standards set for her grade.

Related: Redshirting Kindergarten: What to Consider

What the Research Shows

This may all sound reasonable and logical — after all, you have to walk before you can run, and time does solve some problems. Much of the research, though, points to the opposite conclusion. In a 2008 Educational Leadership article, researcher Jane L. David reviewed multiple studies on the topic of grade retention and concluded that “Overall, the preponderance of evidence argues that students who repeat a grade are no better off and are sometimes worse off than if they had been promoted with their peers.”

Grade retention vs. social promotion

Why, then, is this strategy regaining popularity in many schools and districts? One explanation is that the climate of high-stakes testing and the introduction of Common Core standards, which many schools are just now integrating, leads teachers to identify more children who have not met grade level expectations. There may be increased pressure to hold these students back in order to try to raise their achievement to grade level. Given that research points to this as a failed approach, is the previously practiced alternative of social promotion — that is, moving a student who lacks the appropriate academic skills to the next grade in the hope that she’ll catch up with time — the answer? Unfortunately, this practice has also not proven to be successful.

What is a parent to do?

The rights of parents to participate in this decision vary from state to state and district to district, but most schools will be pleased to have parents’ thoughts and feelings on the question of whether to retain a child. The younger your child is (e.g., those in kindergarten or first grade) at the time retention is recommended, the better her chances of improving to meet the standards for her grade. By contrast, data from the studies reviewed in David’s article suggest that older students — even those in the upper grades of elementary school — experience retention as traumatizing and are far more likely to drop out of school as a result of this practice.

Advocating for your child

Whether your child faces retention or social promotion, as a parent, you have to ask yourself and the school some hard questions in order to advocate for the resources necessary to help her succeed. While there is no “one size fits all” solution for any child’s difficulty at school, below are questions and suggestions for home and educational interventions that have proven effective in addressing children’s academic or behavioral problems:

  • Were you aware that your child was at risk of making insufficient progress early in the academic year?

Ongoing communication between the school and parent(s) is vital. You know your child best and are in a position to provide critical information to teachers regarding possible issues that may be impeding her progress. Staying in regular touch with her teachers and other learning specialists can help you understand what’s required of your child so you are able to help her complete assignments thoroughly and on time.

Related: A Teacher Weighs In on Parent Involvement in Schools

  • Does your child have a calm, quiet place to work at home ?

Review your homework set-up and make changes, if necessary, to ensure that she has an area free of distractions to tackle her assignments.

Related: Teaching Executive Functioning and Organizational Skills At Home

  • Is your child getting enough sleep and proper nutrition?

Increasingly, educators and parents alike recognize what scientific studies have been showing — children need plenty of sleep and a nutritious diet in order to develop neurologically and emotionally.

Related: School-Year Sleep Schedule: How to Get Your Child Back on Track

  • Is there a multi-disciplinary support team available in the school or district to help you and your child understand which academic, social or emotional issues may be slowing her progress?

Learning specialist or other professionals are required to assess your child for specific learning or behavioral issues and design an effective plan of supports to address those challenges.

Related: Meet Your Child's Disability Specialists: Who's Who on the Support Team

  • Are there a variety of reading approaches used in your child’s classroom, and is direct instruction (or teaching of a specific skillset) available to struggling readers?

Students who perform poorly across the academic spectrum often have an underlying reading or language issue. When these are addressed with an appropriate, intensive program, students often thrive.

Related: Recognizing the Signs of Dyslexia

  • Are there behavior management and modification strategies available to reduce behaviors that interfere with your child’s learning?

The school’s psychologist or social worker, in collaboration with your child’s teacher and you, can help design an effective program to change behaviors that may be disrupting your child’s learning.

Related: Behavioral Problems: When Your Child Acts Differently At School

  • Are there peer or adult tutors available before- or after-school to help with specific learning or social issues?

Peer tutors are older students who have reached mastery and are willing to share their expertise with a younger student; this is often an effective approach because children learn well from other students.

Related: Noodle's local tutoring search

  • Are there before- or after-school programs or a summer session that offer academic help? Check with your school district to find out what is available in your child’s school or other nearby settings; additional academic support when focused on specific areas in which a child is struggling can help her to develop the skills she needs to meet grade standards and move forward with her peers.

Related: What Services Are Public Schools Required to Provide to Children With Learning Disabilities?

It is clear that promoting a child for purely social reasons will ameliorate very few academic problems; and yet, retention appears to be even less effective. What parents need to seek on behalf of a struggling child is a comprehensive plan that integrates home and school supports, and addresses the specific learning, social, or emotional problems she is facing. Pursuing these solutions holds the greatest promise of helping children to get back on track with their academic, cognitive, and behavioral growth.

Sources:

Dahl, R. (2007). Sleep and the Developing Brain. Sleep, 30(9), 1079-1080. Retrieved April 20, 2015, from Sleep.

David, J. (2008, March 1). What Research Says About... / Grade Retention. Retrieved April 15, 2015, from ASCD.