Retention: Why kids are held back

At a glance

  • Research shows that retention isn’t the best plan for most kids.

  • Academics are only one thing to think about when considering retention.

  • You can talk to your child’s school about all the options before making a decision.

Holding kids back a grade — also known as “retention” — isn’t common. But if the school is considering having your child repeat a year (or if you are), there are some important basics to know about it.

Why schools may recommend repeating a grade

When kids haven’t built the academic skills needed for the next grade, the school may advise holding them back. The idea is that an extra year will help them catch up.

But sometimes a child’s academic struggles are just one factor that the school is considering. Additional reasons that the school may cite can include:

  • A child is very young for their grade or socially immature.

  • A child has missed a lot of school due to serious illness.

  • A child doesn’t reach the performance level expected for moving to the next grade.

Some states also have third-grade retention laws that say kids have to stay back if they can’t read at a certain level this year. However, some of these states may make exceptions. The school can tell you how your state’s law handles third-grade retention when a child has a known learning difference.

Current thinking on retention

Recent research shows that, for the most part, holding kids back a grade isn’t the best practice. The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) reports that some kids do better in school the first year or two after being held back. But it also says that this effect doesn’t last.

NASP also points out that kids with learning and thinking differences may not do better at all unless there are new, specific interventions in place. When kids are held back because they’re struggling to learn, more of the same kind of teaching doesn’t help. Moving up a grade with new learning supports in place may be a better solution.

What you can do

Parents play an important role in their child’s education. They have the right to be involved in the decision-making process.

If the school suggests that your child repeat a year, it’s a good idea to sit down with the teacher to find out why. You can also ask what changes would be made in the ways your child is taught if repeating a grade. It’s important to have a plan in place that you believe will help your child succeed.

When you meet with your child’s teacher, you can also discuss what alternatives there might be to retention. Some questions you might bring up:

  • Are there new that could increase your child’s success in the classroom next year?

  • Do your child’s goals and services need to be revised?

  • Are summer learning programs an available option?

  • Would one-on-one tutoring be helpful in making sure your child can move up to the next grade?

It may help to go to this meeting prepared with a working knowledge of the pros and cons of retention. And even if you disagree with your child’s teacher, it’s important to build a good relationship.

Key takeaways

  • Some states have laws that say kids can’t move up unless they can read at a certain level. But there can be exceptions.

  • If your child is going to be held back, there should also be a plan to teach in new ways that may work better.

  • There may be other options to consider before retention.


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