9 November 2009 11:57 AM

The Retention Question

by Dr. Rick

One of the most stressful decisions a parent must make is whether to retain a child for another year in a grade at school.  We get this question here at Dr. Rick Blog often, and parents look – hoping against hope – for a quick and simple answer.


Well, to paraphrase H.L. Mencken, the “Sage of Baltimore”: “For every complicated question there is a simple answer, and it’s always wrong.”


If you think your child is a candidate for retention or if a teacher has suggested that you consider the option, there are several thoughts to keep in mind.


For some kids, retention is a good move.  I’ve seen it work to help kids refresh and relearn.  It can give these kids the extra time to acquire new skills and to develop self-confidence.  For children who are “young” for their grade – late birthdays, for example – retention can be just the ticket.  Many schools now offer, for example, “pre-first” grade specifically for these children, a transition time between kindergarten and first grade.  A few months for a five-year-old can be the right period of time for catching up with other children.


For other kids, though, retention can be a hardship.  I’ve worked with teens who trace their bad habits – academic, social, and personal – to their retentions as younger students.  There’s much research that shows retained students are at increased risks of dropping out of school, of abusing drugs, and of behavioral and emotional challenges.  There’s still an old-fashioned and out-of-date stigma that can go along with retention, and it can create negative attitudes about school and learning.  That’s the last thing you want for your child.


For all kids, here are some thoughts to keep in mind when you’re considering whether retention is right for your child.

  1. Meet with your child’s teacher.  If she’s the one who recommended retention, talk frankly with her about her reasons.  Get specifics.  Do your child’s classroom behaviors – inattention, inability to follow simple directions, disruption, for example – show up at home, too?

  2. Get lots of information and opinions.  Talk with the school guidance counselor, with other parents who have faced this decision, with veteran teachers, even with kids who’ve been retained.  Weigh their words, their results, their circumstances.

  3. Consider the age of your child.  Every parent with more than one child knows that no two kids mature at the same rate.  Some kids simply need more time, and it’s a gift to them.  If your child has a late birthday, is months younger than his classmates, and struggles to keep up, retention could be a wise choice.

  4. Check out vision and hearing.  Sometimes, the child simply cannot see or hear the teacher or his classmates.  Have simple vision and hearing tests.  More times than I can count I’ve seen a pair of glasses work wonders on young eyes.

  5. Ask about teaching methods.  Sometimes even the best of teachers have teaching styles that don’t mesh with all kids.  Especially in elementary school, where kids can have the same teacher for most of the day, make sure your child responds and adapts to the teaching style of her teacher.

  6. Get individual help.  Often individual help, not retention, is the answer.  I don’t know of any kids who don’t need some personalized help at one time or another.  If you suspect your child needs help, get it early.  Tutoring works. 

  7. Have your child assessed.  A simple academic assessment, a few hours’ investment, can yield much information about your child’s strengths and needs.  If you’re not convinced that retention is the solution to your child’s issues, have an assessment done.

  8. Consider special services.  Does your child have special needs?  Could she blossom with special classes like basic math or gifted and talented writing?  Lots of children are not performing well in class because they’re bored, having already mastered the skills and concepts.  Ask the principal to consider cross-grade scheduling for some classes.

  9. Establish and stick to study routines .  Kids thrive on constancy.  They need routines to help them feel safe, to be organized, to have structure.  Make sure your family has pretty strict routines around study, meals, bedtime, play, and family time.

  10. Be positive.  Whatever your decision – it’ll be different for each child, for each family – be positive and upbeat about it.  Show your child that your decision to retain or not to retain is for his benefit, for his success, and that your primary motivation is his success, happiness, self confidence, and safety.  Then, work with him closely by setting goals together , rewarding him when he’s particularly motivated and successful, monitoring him, and supporting him daily.

Have you faced this issue with particular success?  Have some advice to give?  We’d love to hear it.  Click on “Comments” below and share with us.




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