Will Grade Retention Help Your Child?

January 24, 2015

Mark and Janice have had many intense conversations this year about Jarrod’s struggles in Second Grade.  Despite all they have tried to do to help him, Jarrod has continued to fall further behind in reading and math.  Now, with only three months left in the school year, Jarrod’s teacher is recommending that he repeat Second Grade next year.  Mark and Janice are both confused and conflicted about the choice they must make.  Left to herself to decide, Janice would oppose retention because she thinks it would be too discouraging and demotivating academically, and make things even more difficult for Jarrod with peers at school.  Mark, on the other hand, objects to “social promotions” and does not want to see Jarrod become one of the many students who graduate from high school without becoming proficient in basic academic skills that they will need in life. 

  

Mark and Janice are facing a decision that has become increasingly common for parents of US school children.  The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) estimates that 30% to 50% of students are retained at least once before they reach 9th grade.  This is a phenomenal number of school students whose educational needs have not been met sufficiently well to provide for normal academic progress in the expected time frame.  For Mark and Janice, however, it’s not a matter of statistics or asking what could improve our schools.  It’s the very personal, emotional question of what to do for Jarrod.  Will retention help?

 

Mark and Janice are actually both right in their concerns.  Choosing between social promotion and retention to repeat the same educational program as last year, is really a lose-lose proposition.  Both approaches fail to address the underlying causes of academic struggles and to assure that the student catches up academically.  In either case, the stage is set for more failures, declining self-esteem and confidence, and increasing emotional and behavioral problems.

 

Retention due to academic failure is usually promoted as a means of allowing a struggling student to mature and “catch up”.  The negative emotional impact of retention may be considered preferable to the impact of continued school failure.  However, the NASP found that grade retention has a negative impact on all areas of a child’s academic achievement and socio-emotional wellbeing (including low self-esteem and depression, poor peer relationships, behavior problems, and school truancy).  Furthermore, it is the students who are most behind who are the ones most likely to experience the greatest negative impacts.  And any academic benefits that might actually result from retention are generally lost within the next 2 to 3 years.  Furthermore, students who have been retained are much less likely to graduate from high school and to obtain positive employment.

 

Repeating a year of school is highly unlikely to be beneficial if a student receives the same instructional program in the second year as in the first year, although this approach is common.  The methods that didn’t work the first year will most likely not work the second year either.  The idea that students will “outgrow” their learning problems is largely wishful thinking, unless the student is very young, chronologically and emotionally/socially, compared to the rest of the class.

 

On the other hand, retention has been successful for students who receive new remediation services that actually resolve the issues that have held them back in the past.  These students are enabled to advance and be successful in school.  The key ingredient in these successes, however, isn’t retention, it’s the right intervention.  So, there is an even more desirable approach – a win-win approach.  With appropriate, effective services, students can: 

 

  • Identify and resolve learning problems

  • Catch up academically

  • Promote with their class

  • Avoid the negative consequences of both retention and social promotion

 

For students using the brain-based interventions that are now available, this is not only possible, it is common.  Although most schools are not equipped to provide these services, it is now practical and affordable for most parents to provide effective intervention in their own homes.  In fact, if Mark and Janice chose this option, in three months from now Jarrod can be caught up to grade level and prepared for continuing academic success.  What option would you chose?

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