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The School Says My Child Needs to Repeat Third Grade. What Can I Do?

By Donna Volpitta

The school says my daughter needs to repeat third grade. Should I fight this? And if so, what should I suggest as an alternative?

Donna Volpitta

Founder, Center for Resilient Leadership

Teachers often refer to third grade as being the year for transitioning from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” That’s because up until third grade, students are mostly focused on building basic skills. Once they hit third grade, students are expected to have these skills in place and apply them to tasks that involve higher-level thinking like making predictions or drawing conclusions.

For many children, this change in expectations can feel like a big jump. Moving up to fourth grade might be very difficult. If the school is saying that your daughter needs to repeat third grade, there are a few key things to consider.

The Rules in Your School District

Some states have third-grade retention laws. (Schools refer to repeating a grade as “retention.”) Retention policies can vary from state to state and in some cases from district to district.

Some school districts have strict policies that are guided by the scores on standardized tests. Other districts, however, have guidelines that can be quite flexible. Find out what the legal policy is in your school district. If you need help researching this, reach out to your local Parent Training and Information Center. It’s a good resource—and it’s free.

Make sure you have a copy of the policy. And keep in mind that even if your district has a strict policy, you may still have legal options to fight that policy if you decide to do so. This is especially true if your child has an Individualized Education Program (IEP). That’s because federal law protects your child’s right to a free and appropriate public education.

The Reason the School Wants Your Child to Repeat Third Grade

Once you understand the retention policy in your district, the next step is to find out why the school wants your child to repeat third grade. Typically, children are retained either for academic reasons or for reasons involving social and emotional development.

  • Academic issues: This means your child has not met the academic standards needed to move up to the next grade. The school may see repeating third grade as a way to give your child more time to develop the skills she’ll need to succeed in fourth grade.
  • Social-emotional issues: This means the school might be concerned that your child is having difficulty fitting in with kids her age. She might be less mature, and this might make her a target of teasing or of social isolation. The school may see repeating third grade as a way to help your child be with kids who are more likely to be friend material.

The Pros and Cons of Repeating a Grade

Whether the school’s reasons are emotional, academic or both, it’s important to gather a team to explore each of the pros and cons of repeating a grade. If your child already has an IEP, call an IEP meeting. If your child does not have an IEP, now might be a good time to ask for an evaluation to see if she qualifies for one.

The Ways the School Has Been Trying to Help Your Child

When you meet with the school, ask for specifics about the strategies it’s been using to help your child. For social-emotional issues, the school might have tried things like including your child in lunch groups that are designed to help teach social skills. For academic issues, the school might have tried things like intensive reading programs that are designed to build and reinforce basic skills.

Possible Alternatives to Repeating Third Grade

This meeting is also the time to explore alternatives to repeating third grade. Find out whether the school thinks tutoring or additional services for the rest of this school year and throughout the summer might be enough to get your child ready for fourth grade. You may also be able to help your child work on certain skills at home. Ask the team to give you specific suggestions.

How Your Child Would Be Taught If She Repeats Third Grade

It’s important to keep in mind that if your child has learning and attention issues, teaching her the same material in the same way may not be very helpful. Find out whether the school is planning to use different educational strategies if she repeats third grade. If not, ask why.

Putting It All Together

Deciding to repeat a grade is a big decision. It is important to think through the potential benefits as well as the potential negative impacts, particularly in regard to self-esteem.

You may want to use Decision Guide to help you think through some key questions about whether to move up or repeat a grade. You may also want to reach out to other parents in our community. Every child is unique, but it might be helpful to hear about the experiences of other families who have faced the same decision.

About the Author

Portrait of Donna Volpitta

Donna Volpitta

Donna Volpitta, Ed.D., is coauthor of The Resilience Formula: A Guide to Proactive, Not Reactive, Parenting.

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