Should I Hold My Child Back a Grade (aka Retention, Flunking, Repeating a Grade)

Vector concept of investment in education with coins books and scales

One of the toughest questions that parents ask me is, “Should I hold my child back in the same grade?” As such, I’ve given this topic a lot of thought, and the various professional experiences I’ve had with students and parents/guardians helped shape my views on holding kids back a grade.

One of the books in the reading program that I used as a teacher is called The Flunking of Joshua T. Bates. At first, I wasn’t sure this was a good book to read since it was about…well…the flunking of Joshua T. Bates. Joshua is a student who finds out that he has to repeat third grade. Despite the less than happy theme of this book, it turns out to be a genuine story about the struggles of repeating a grade and the success this student finds with the help of his caring teacher.

Reminiscing about this book and the school year rapidly coming to a close got me thinking about all the decisions that have to be made towards the end of the year. Helping a parent make the final determination about whether or not to retain a student in the same grade is probably the least enjoyable responsibility as a principal.

As a principal, I keep close tabs on students who are at-risk and generally not performing up to grade level starting right in August. When new students transfer in, the first thing I look at is their cumulative file, first for their attendance record, then for their academic report cards, and then for any discipline records that may have been included.

For kindergarten students, I look at any student who scored low on the kindergarten assessment. I have conversations with these students’ teachers and check in from time-to-time to see how the student is progressing. I want to ensure that the students have any additional support we can provide at school as well as any support parents can offer at home. Then by January, I ask teachers to let me know of any students who are really struggling. which eventually leads to the students who may be candidates for retention. By this time, these students receive heavy-duty intervention in every effort to prevent retention.

Let me clearly state that I am NOT a fan of retention. Whether the parent suggests the idea of retention or I/the teacher broach the possibility, I always state that up front to parents even before a conversation about retention begins so they understand that for me, it is the last resort. During my 12-year administrative career, I’ve wholeheartedly supported one retention. I’ve also strongly but unsuccessfully lobbied against retention with five or so parents.

Retention is usually brought up if a student is:
1) Immature for his/her age and needs time to develop.
2) Significantly behind in mastering grade level standards (often based on test scores and/or grades).

From my personal experience, which is admittedly completely non-scientific, I have rarely seen a positive outcome from a student retention, especially when students are retained in a higher grade level such as middle school. About 50% of the time when I had a middle school student with discipline issues, I’d find evidence of a retention in his/her file. The other problem is, the retained student doesn’t necessarily do better. Some people may believe it’s some sort of silver bullet, but the reality is, it is not.

When a decision is made to retain a student, I believe that the best grade to do that is in Kindergarten and if at all possible and it’s agreeable to the parents, have the student attend another school. One of the kindergarten students I had was able to do this with, the parent contacted me the following year and said that moving schools was a good idea.

Students who have special needs, an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), or a 504 plan (often students with health and medical issues that require modifications but do not qualify for special education otherwise), are a completely different situation. In my opinion, they should almost never be held back. His/her IEP or 504 should be able to meet any modification needs for the student to be successful.

If you have concerns about your child’s success in school and are considering retention, here are some things to consider:

1. Maintain constant contact (and as early in the school year as possible) with your child’s teacher. Get a copy of the district paperwork early, and look it over carefully. (The decision-making process for retention can be lengthy as it involves many parties.)
2. Ask if your child is receiving any additional support at school (interventions) and if not, ask if s/he can.
3. Ask if your child may have a learning disability and if s/he can be tested. (The process that leads up to special education testing can be lengthy.)
4. Consider your child’s grade level. I’d strongly discourage retention past 1st grade.
5. Consider your child’s emotional state and how s/he would handle a retention. How does s/he feel about it?
6. Will your child be able to catch up academically and/or in maturity level if given an extra year?
7. Do your research and try to find a parent or two who have retained their child. While every child is different, it’s good to get input from those who have been there.
8. Would you consider moving your child to a different school? How does s/he feel about it? Is your child quick to make friends and will s/he miss her/his peers?
9. Have you exhausted every support measure at school before making a final decision to retain your child? The final decision is yours as a parent.
10. The last question to consider is: What’s worse– social promotion (passing a student along to the next grade even though they are not keeping up) OR retaining a student (and facing the social stigma of “flunking”)?

At the end of the day, you (the parent/guardian) have the final decision, and the weight of the decision is yours to bear. A child cannot be retained without parents/guardians signing on the dotted line, which in my opinion is as it should be. As a parent, given the choice for my child, I’d choose the former, WITH targeted support in place for my child’s learning through every means possible, because I’m not convinced that every child’s story of retention turns out as well as The Flunking of Joshua T. Bates. It is, after all, fiction.