To Retain or not to Retain?

The month of June is associated with positive images of weddings, graduations, the start of summer, and the beginning of summer vacation for millions of children. But for the families of about 10% of our children, it is a time of great stress. These parents are trying to decide if their child should repeat a grade. About half will end up doing so.


The parents sat in my office weighing all the usual pros and cons. Their son’s teacher had been talking to them about Brian’s struggles and the possibility that repeating the first grade would be beneficial. It would be a little easier to decide if he were one of the youngest or smallest or if he was struggling socially as well as academically. These are some of the common factors that suggest a child may be “developmentally displaced” and will fit in better if he is one of the older rather than younger children in his class.


But Brian did not fit those criteria. His struggles were partly academic, particularly mild reading and writing difficulties, and a more vague attitude problem. Brian didn’t like to do schoolwork. He wanted to play. By the end of what seemed like an eternity, each school day would end and he would burst from the bus to find his friends or to head into his room where he became embedded in his fantasy play. The small homework assignments typically were resisted and had become a chronic source of conflict over the school year. He was not especially focused in school but not to such an extreme that would lead to a diagnosis of an attentional disorder. Brian had also begun to increasingly refer to himself as stupid, perceiving that his classmates were learning at a faster rate than he was.


Retention is a very emotional topic for educators and parents. Most of the research has reported negative results, saying that children who repeated a grade not only failed to catch up to their academically sound classmates but were 20% more likely to drop out of school in adolescence. However, in this research, the typical child is a young, physically smaller, non-white boy from an economically deprived family unable to provide much academic support and attending a school with large classes and limited resources. Programs designed to provide this child with more individualized academic help and able to involve the family report better outcomes.


But what about the child whose parents are very involved and whose school has excellent resources. There is mostly anecdotal evidence, now more available because of the Internet, that many children benefit from an extra year to grow. A few studies do support this, though they are clearly in the minority. However, their message is that the students who benefit have parents who support the decision and who receive intensive remedial help. The more one reads about this issue, the more one recognizes that it is the parents’ attitude more than the child’s attitude that seems to influence the outcome. Most parents respond to the question of retention with a sense that they have failed as parents and that this is a failure for their child.


But some parents see it very differently. In fact there is a sharp increase in the number of parents REQUESTING retention. Now some of this is for the wrong reasons, i.e., the idea that it will give their child a competitive advantage academically or athletically in the competition for the “best college, best life” race that unfortunately consumes too many families. However, many parents simply recognize that their child really does need some extra time to mature, “ a gift of time” as one writer put it so eloquently. Children develop at different rates while schools organize children by age groups and expect them to all perform within a narrow range of ability. That’s not the way it works. A significant percentage of children are developmentally delayed in their neurological and/or social growth. For these children, an extra year can be a real blessing.


Still, it is not easy to identify these children. A full evaluation by educators, psychologists, and pediatricians is essential. If the problem is a learning disability, a medically related problem, or an emotional problem such as an early diagnosis of anxiety or depression, then promotion along with a well-designed educational/treatment plan may be the best option. Simply repeating a grade will not solve any of these issues and could add to the child’s poor sense of self. Early intervention, on the other hand, may allow the child to gradually make full use of his strengths while minimizing his weaknesses, allowing for a successful school experience. 


However, if the parents and child are very opposed to retention (obviously these shared attitudes are linked), then it is unlikely to work even if warranted. In that case, summer programming to address the child’s weaknesses, tutoring during the school year, and some counseling for the child and family may enable the situation to improve. Keep in mind that some children simply grow up more slowly than others. These are the children whose interests remain more childlike and who prefer younger playmates as they transition to middle school and high school. They may suddenly catch up along the way or they may end up taking their catch-up year as an educational vacation before entering college.


As for Brian, he and his parents viewed retention very negatively, he had age-appropriate friends, and his academic skills varied from excellent to needing help. So he is moving on to the 2nd grade with remedial help scheduled for the summer and the next school year along with some counseling to help with his feelings of being stupid. Is it the right decision? It is a best guess decision using all the information available. When it comes to the question of retention, there is no certainty.