ERIC Identifier: ED408102
Publication Date: 1997-05-00
Author: Robertson, Anne S.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Elementary and Early Childhood Education Champaign IL.
When Retention Is Recommended, What Should Parents Do? ERIC
Each year, many teachers face the problem of where and how to place children
who do not seem to fit into the rest of the class. In many school districts,
retention, or having the child repeat a grade, is an option that is frequently
considered for children who appear to lag behind. It is estimated that every
year, 2.4 million students are retained in grade for a variety of reasons
(Setencich, 1994, p. 4).
CHARACTERISTICS OF CHILDREN WHO MAY BE RETAINED
A child may
be considered for retention if he or she has poor academic skills, is small in
stature or the youngest in the grade, has moved or been absent frequently, does
poorly on a prescreening assessment, or has limited English-language skills. In
addition, a retained child is more likely to be male and to have minority
status, a high activity level, low socioeconomic status, and parents who are
unwilling or unable to intercede for the child. Retention is also more commonly
used in the primary grades (Sakowicz, 1996, pp. 17-18). In a few cases, the
teacher may feel that the child is capable of moving forward, but the parent may
prefer that the child be retained. Since most schools have vague policies
regarding retention, the decision typically falls to the classroom teacher
(Sakowicz, 1996, p. 7).
EFFECTS OF RETENTION
Research from the Gesell Institute
suggests that children benefit from careful developmental assessment and
placement in the early grades (Keirns, 1991). Some teachers and parents believe
that appropriate placement encompasses retention and that certain children will
benefit from the maturity gained from an extra year in the same grade. However,
cumulative research on the effects of retention shows that the negative effects
usually outweigh the positive effects. The National Association of School
Psychologists (NASP, n.d.) notes the following among the negative effects:
*Most children do not "catch up" when held back.
*Although some retained students do better at first, these
children often fall behind again in later grades.
*Students who are held back tend to get into trouble,
dislike school, and feel badly about themselves more
often than children who go on to the next grade.
In addition to the conclusions that NASP has drawn from the research, the
weakened self-esteem that usually accompanies retention plays a role in how well
the child may cope in the future. Research has shown that children view the
thought of flunking a grade to be almost as stressful as the death of a parent
or blindness (Sevener, 1990, p. 2).
"Even more staggering is the fact that being held back twice makes dropping
out of school a virtual certainty" (Setencich, 1994, p. 7).
WHY DO SCHOOLS RETAIN CHILDREN?
In view of the larger body
of research on retention, the continued use of retention is one of the clearest
examples of poor communication between research and practice (Sakowicz, 1996, p.
Professors Smith and Shepard at the University of Colorado found that
teachers frequently exaggerated the perceived benefits of retention. They
believed that retention in early grades prevented problems or the stigma of
failure later on. But teachers lacked real feedback on how well students were
doing as they moved through school (Smith & Shepard, 1987, p. 130). Also,
the practice of retention gives the appearance of a school's being accountable
about a problem and enforcing standards but may neglect the underlying cause of
a student's failure (Sakowicz, 1996, p. 16).
There are also some philosophical differences among professional educators.
Some teachers believe that children mature and develop school readiness along
with physiological unfolding, while other teachers believe that any child of
legal age is teachable if the program is adapted to fit that child's individual
needs. In one study, the teachers who leaned toward physiological readiness also
leaned towards retention, while the other teachers were more likely to change
their teaching methods to meet the individual child's needs (Cooke &
OPTIONS OTHER THAN RETENTION
Another difficulty for a
teacher or parent, as he or she assesses the possibilities for the child, is the
basic dilemma of choosing from the options that are available in their school or
community. It is important for parents and teachers to become aware of some of
the alternatives to retention. These include:
*Mixed-age classes. In this environment, students learn at
their own rate and advance to the next stage when they
have mastered the required skills without the restriction
of grade-level labeling.
*Individualized instruction. This method is tailored to
the individual student's style of learning.
*Tutoring. Through individual attention, students are
helped in difficult academic areas throughout the
*Home assistance programs. These programs provide parents
with structured specific information about ways to help
their child academically with homework, sound study
habits, or sound work habits.
*Smaller class size. Particularly in the primary years,
small class size improves learning environments for all
*Seeking alternative educational settings. These may
include summer school or after-school programs that are
learning laboratories with lots of opportunities for
projects and a "hands on" approach to learning.
*Guidance counseling. In an advisor/advisee type of
relationship, an "at-risk" student may be identified
earlier and given consistent support throughout his or
her school career.
*Delaying achievement testing that may lead to retention.
Achievement testing may be useful for identifying weak areas in
the school curriculum and possibly areas where
the child needs additional support; however, it should
not be taken out of context of other information and
become the deciding factor for grade placement for a
HOW PARENTS CAN RESPOND
When parents are faced with
retention as an option for their child, they can:
*Make an effort to understand why the teacher is
suggesting retention. Parents can ask to see examples of their
child's work compared to the work of other children of the same
age. If the teacher is concerned about the child's
maturity or behavior, parents can ask for specific examples of
behavior that cause concern.
*Keep the teacher informed about the parents' knowledge of
the child. If the child was within the normal ranges of
early developmental benchmarks, parents can let the teacher know.
How does the child's school behavior compare with his or her at-home
behavior? Are there similarities or large differences?
*Be aware of the stresses that may be affecting the child
and keep the teacher informed. For example, if the family
has a new baby in the house, or has recently moved, these
life changes can affect the child's behavior for a short
period of time.
*At home, ask the child about homework and give him or her
a quiet place to study.
*Be certain that the child eats nutritious meals, gets
enough sleep, and stays healthy.
*Request assistance from other support staff in the
school. The school psychologist, school counselor, or
special education staff may be able to evaluate the
child and suggest an alternative intervention.
However, if the parents and teachers believe that retention is the best
option, the National Association of School Psychologists (1988) notes that
retention is not as likely to be harmful when the student:
*lacks serious deficits in the year prior to retention;
*has positive self-esteem and good social skills;
*shows signs of difficulty in school because of lack of
opportunity for instruction rather than lack of ability;
*does not have serious social, emotional, or behavioral
If a child repeats a grade, parents should work with school personnel to be
sure that their child has a significantly different experience during the
retained year from the previous year and that the child is assessed and placed
at the appropriate developmental level. Some options might include a classroom
with a lower teacher-student ratio, a different curriculum, or a different
approach to learning. It might also be beneficial to move the child to another
school. If retention is chosen, then the extra year should not be just a
repetition of the previous year, but it should be individualized in such a way
that it contributes to the child's future success.
Early intervention or identification of specific
difficulties can assist the child with specific skills he or she may need to be
successful in his or her school career. Retention should be used rarely, and new
approaches to curriculum development, school restructuring, and student
instruction should become the focus of academic improvement (Meisels & Liaw,
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Cooke, Gary, & Stammer, John.
(1985). Grade retention and social promotion. CHILDHOOD EDUCATION, 61 (4),
302-308. EJ 315 804
Keirns, Jan (Ed.). (1991). COLLECTED RESEARCH REFERENCES. PART 1: GESELL
DEVELOPMENTAL PHILOSOPHY, GESELL ASSESSMENT AND EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION. New
Haven, CT: Gesell Institute of Human Development.
Meisels, Samuel J., & Liaw, Fong-Ruey. (1993). Failure in grade: Do
retained students catch up? JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH, 87 (2), 69-77. EJ
National Association of School Psychologists (NASP). (n.d.). SHOULD MY CHILD
REPEAT A GRADE? Bethesda, MD: NASP.
National Association of School Psychologists (NASP). (1988). POSITION
STATEMENT. Bethesda, MD: NASP.
Sakowicz, Anita B. (1996, April). THE EFFECT OF RETENTION, IN GRADE ONE, ON
THE SLOW READER. M.A. Project, Kean College of New Jersey. ED 393 081
Schuyler, Nancy B. (1985, April). DOES RETENTION HELP? PERSPECTIVES AFTER
THREE YEARS. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational
Research Association, Chicago, IL. ED 263 143
Setencich, Jill. (1994, March). THE IMPACT OF EARLY GRADE RETENTION ON THE
ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT AND SELF-ESTEEM OF SEVENTH AND EIGHTH GRADE STUDENTS. Paper
presented at the Annual Convention of the National Association of School
Psychologists. Seattle, WA. ED 393 026
Sevener, Donald. (1990, January). Retention: More malady than therapy.
SYNTHESIS, 1 (1), 1-4.
Smith, Mary L., & Shepard, Lorrie A. (1987). What doesn't work:
Explaining policies of retention in the early grades. PHI DELTA KAPPAN, 69 (2),
129-134. EJ 359 345