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Back Off Staying Back

By Marcia Brown Rubinstien, MA, CEP

When a child struggles with “grade-level appropriate” material, he is often retained in the same grade to take a second stab at the material that caused the problems in the first place. The name given to this practice by schoolchildren—staying back—shows that even our youngest scholars know how regressive this practice can be. In one poll sixth graders rated grade retention as the most stressful life event, followed by the loss of a parent and going blind.

Yet after decades of research that has failed to support the efficacy of retention, The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) reports that the practice has increased during the past 25 years. NASP cites research that indicates that grade retention in elementary school has a negative impact on all areas of achievement (reading, math, and language) as well as social and emotional adjustment (peer relationships, self esteem, problem behaviors, and attendance). The effect is even more striking when measured at the secondary level, where students who were retained or had delayed kindergarten entry are more likely to drop out of school.

Better Alternatives

Since students with learning differences are more vulnerable on both academic and social/emotional levels, how can parents and educators foster a proactive learning curve without retention or meaningless social promotion? Following is an array of responsible strategies to discourage retention. It’s up to you as concerned parents to make sure that schools consider them.


Strategies to Discourage Grade Retention

  • Ensure that your district maintains state-of-the-art early development and pre-school programs for students at risk for learning difficulties.
  • Encourage sensitivity to different learning styles, cultural differences, and age-appropriate learning methods.
  • Make sure that your schools use effective assessment tools, continuous monitoring and evaluation to promote the use of instructional modification.
  • Insist on effective early reading programs and consistent reinforcement.
  • Demand effective school-based programs for emotional and behavioral health at all grade levels.
  • Understand the network of services available for children with learning disabilities; look for ongoing collaboration between regular, remedial, and special education professionals.
  • Instead of retention, insist that your school system offer extended year, extended day, and summer school programs for children who could thrive with different schedules for learning.
  • Stay actively involved with schools, district decisions, boards of education, and all systems affecting educational programs. With the cooperation of parents, educators, policymakers and students, the ineffective strategies of retention and social promotion can be replaced with educational systems that meet the diverse needs of all students.

2 Responses to “Back Off Staying Back”

  1. Martha Baez Says:

    I would love to have my child attend summer school. I was told by my daughters school that children in special ed do not attend summer school. I find this ludacris since a continous education would be very beneficial to my child. If her school offers extended day then why wouldnt they want my child to attend summer school. I need guidance on how and who do I need to contact if her school does not want to press the issue? Desperate mom…

  2. Jane Ross Says:

    You are right, that it makes sense to offer children who need additional help the option to attend summer school. This issue should be discussed at your child’s IEP meeting to plan to meet her needs.

    Many experts, however, caution that children not only need time off from their efforts to master subjects in school — but that they also need the chance to explore their own interests. Developing their strengths and talents is very important to helping these children achieve success, not just in school, but in what they will eventually pursue as adults. And nothing helps a child’s confidence as much as enjoying activities they’re good at!

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