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Holding Kids Back a Grade

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How would you suggest discussing the fact that DD will be repeating second grade in the fall without her taking it to heart? It's a rather unique situation where she started kindergarten a year early and the following year we experienced a family tragedy. After that we watched her reading skills get worse and worse and at the end of second grade we are still not seeing the progress we would like after stabilizing her environment. Her grades run a consistent C average but her teacher feels she will thrive and excel if we keep her back instead of forcing her on. I kind of agree with her, but the issue I'm running into is knowing her best friend is 6 months younger than her and will be advanced to 3rd grade next year skipping second all together. She started doing second grade curriculum and this year and when DD found out she became upset self comparing and unable to understand why her friend that is younger than her is in the same grade now. I anticipate more upset feelings when she realizes she is not going on to third grade but her friend that is younger than her is. Soooooo, what can we do to get her to be ok...well more than ok, happy with this decision that the adults around have made for her? --BFGuru


I am sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings, but my professional opinion from what you have told me is that holding your daughter back is not a good idea. Having a child repeat kindergarten or first grade is generally fine, but by second grade it really affects self esteem. If she is consistently functioning at a C level, there are much more effective ways to help her to blossom academically. No matter how you try to explain it to her, holding her back in the second grade will give her the message that she is not as smart as her classmates. Unfortunately, she will perform accordingly.

"Grade retention" as it is called, has become a source of great debate because it has been completely discredited (in other words, it generally does not help the kids who are held back) and yet schools continue to do it.

If you'll bear with me here, I want to cite some research so you can see why I am taking such a strong position. If you agree and go to speak with your daughter's school about this, having this research will give you a head start on showing them why you're concerned.

One recent study (2014) found that "Retaining a child in early primary school reduces his or her odds of high school completion by about 60 percent in propensity score matching and sibling fixed-effects models."

M. Andrew. The Scarring Effects of Primary-Grade Retention? A Study of Cumulative Advantage in the Educational Career. Social Forces, 2014; DOI:10.1093/sf/sou074

When compared to other kids who are functioning at a similar level and are promoted, kids who are held back show worse academic achievement (Nasp, 199. Some studies have shown gains in student achievement the first year after retention. However, numerous researchers agree that the gains are small and diminish within three years (Hauser, 1999; Holmes, 1989; Karweit, 1991; NASP, 1998; Roderick, 1995; Thompson & Cunningham, 2000).

Karweit (1991) concludes "the consensus of several extensive reviews of grade retention is that there is not a positive effect for grade retention on academic achievement or on student personal adjustment".

As for kids' reactions to being held back, one study of young children found that they "so feared retention they ranked it third in a list of worst anxieties, topped only by blindness and death of a parent" (Hartke, 1999).

The info on all these studies is available at

In its 2003 "Position Statement on Student Grade Retention," the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) concluded:

* Academic achievement of kids who are retained is poorer than that of peers who are promoted.
* Achievement gains associated with retention fade within two to three years after the grade repeated.
* Kids who are identified as most behind are the ones "most likely harmed by retention."
* Retention often is associated with increased behavior problems.
* Grade retention has a negative impact on all areas of a child's achievement (reading, math, and language) and socio-emotional adjustment (peer relationships, self-esteem, problem behaviors, and attendance).

You can see why I think having your daughter repeat second grade would not be in her best interests. Of course, promoting your daughter to third grade without giving her extra assistance would also be a mistake, so you will have to commit to giving her that extra help. In fact, I think you and her teacher both see that she is capable of thriving and excelling if she gets the special attention she needs. Intervening now with some focused tutoring at home and at school can permanently boost your daughter's self esteem, whereas holding her back could permanently damage it.

Unfortunately, many school districts still operate on the old practice of holding kids back rather than giving them extra help, and some schools are becoming more strict in an effort to increase their school's test score performance. Often, however, the school can be convinced by a parent who is committed to doing extra work to help their child, and in many school districts the parent has the right to make the final decision.

Since the teacher is already recommending that your daughter be held back, you will need to meet with the school to understand more about why they are recommending this. If she is really functioning at a C level, and her maturity level is normal, then she should receive special help, rather than being held back. You will need to explain to the school that you think holding her back would be emotionally devastating, and that you have read that grade retention actually worsens school achievement. You may want to print out some of the research cited above.

If you stress that you are committed to helping your daughter solidify her second grade skills over the summer, the school will probably be willing to work with you, especially since your daughter was earning Cs, rather than failing. Is there a summer school program that she can attend? If not, then commit to working with her yourself on a daily basis. Ask them for worksheets and other materials that you can use with her over the summer to review all of her second grade work. Reassure them that you intend to read with her every day over the summer. Check out the information in the Raise a Great Kid section on helping your child learn to love reading.

You will also want to ask the school what special support can be offered to your daughter so that she can thrive in third grade, and reassure the school that if necessary you will find tutoring for your daughter during third grade to insure her success. Finally, you will want to continue working with your daughter on a daily basis during third grade so that you can be sure she is keeping up with the work. The most important factor in kids' school achievement is the involvement of the parents, so your commitment to your daughter might be exactly what she needs to excel.

I know I have not answered your question, and have given you unsolicited advice. I hope it is helpful. If you decide, for whatever reason, that it is best for your daughter to repeat third grade, she will certainly have lots of feelings about it. The best way to speak with her about your decision is to maintain a positive attitude about why this is the best thing to help her catch up, at the same time that you allow her to express all of her feelings about it. Then ask the school for the names of the girls who will be in class next year and work hard to foster friendships between your daughter and those kids over the summer. Finally, be sure she has an easy explanation to give to anyone who asks, such as: "I wanted to be in second grade again to practice my reading and get really good at it."

Good luck with this very difficult decision. Please let me know if you need further information as you think this through.
Dr. Laura

Your research was part of why we pushed through for so long even homeschooling her to give her an extra grasp, and the one on one attention to try and help her excell (public cyber school working in direct contact with a teacher at home one on one). The problem is I see serious test taking anxieties and with standardized tests coming next year I fear an emotional break down. Although most of her grades are at a C/low C level her reading comprehension is failing and if we miss even one day of drilling, she will fail her spelling tests as well. Math she does average in, science and social studies as well, but reading is her demise. Another thing we have noticed is that socially she is very much so younger than her classmates and they tend to ignore her unless it is the "troubled" children. The teacher honestly thinks she is a delight, but fears with the trouble makers being the only ones to take an interest in her since she behaves much younger than the other kids that we may be setting her up to be hanging with the wrong crowd. As it stands, she goes to school all day and comes home and dallies. She refuses to stay on task and will stretch a 20 minute homework assignment to a 4 hour homework assignment. Personally we feel it's partly because she just wants a break but even when we homeschooled we noticed as soon as she would even break for lunch there was no getting her back to finish and stay on task, so we'd have to cram as much as we could in before lunch and save the easiest subjects for last.

I do understand what you are saying regarding her emotional well being, but I also fear if we keep pushing her at this rate it may get even harder for her. With both me and my husband back in school now to try and get off of public assistance, we won't have the time to give to her studies like we did before (well me specifically since I was the SAHP), but then again, we also wonder, could she simply just use a year that is easy? School has always been a struggle for her and we'd like her to learn to enjoy it for a change.

Ugh, parenting is tough and as soon as you finally make a decision you backstep and think, maybe I shouldn't. I'm not sure if I can go back and change my mind again though. I know we already set things into motion for her to repeat the second grade. --BF Guru


Thanks so much for helping me to understand the situation more fully. Three things you've said seem critical.

First, your daughter is socially/emotionally young for her age. That means that holding her back might actually be a very good idea because it will allow her to make friends who are on her developmental level. The challenge (as you have noted) will be to keep her from judging herself negatively.

Second, reading -- comprehension, spelling, etc -- is especially difficult for her. I hear that she needs daily help in reading, and that giving that help is hard for you now that you are back in school. I want to caution you that she will still need this help over the summer, or she is likely to fall further behind during that time. In addition, you probably want to ask the school to do some special testing with her. It is entirely possible that she has a learning disability that testing would uncover. If so, the testing would also give you and her teachers more information as to the best way to help her learn, and would make her eligible for tutoring in the fall, which would be very helpful to boost her confidence.

Third, your daughter seems to have some attention issues. I wonder if these show up at school, or just at home? In any case, she will need special help from you to learn to manage herself and her schoolwork, or simply repeating a grade will not help. That means she will probably need an assignment book or other system to write down all her homework each day. She will need a regular homework routine at a specific time after school and before dinner every single day, with an adult to supervise. She may well need a break every fifteen minutes, so set a timer and let her take five minutes to stretch and get a drink of water, but make sure she understands that when the timer beeps after five minutes, it's back to the homework. Most kids really benefit from a reward during each break, such as a sticker and a big hug. It also helps to have an M & M waiting when she goes back to the homework. Give constant positive feedback for any and all progress in the right direction.

So, we are back to your original question: How to make her repeat of second grade a positive experience that will help her to thrive socially and academically, rather than internalizing a negative message about her own capacities?

1. Give her a way of explaining the situation to herself and others. One easy way out would be to blame the homeschooling time period, so she can say to her classmates: "I didn't really go to school the whole time while you all were in first grade" (or whenever it was); "I was at home and I didn't learn all the stuff other kids did. So I wanted to catch up, to practice my reading and get really good at it before I went to third grade."

2. Once you and your daughter explain this to everyone, no one else will really think about it except her. At that point, it is important that she continues to see this grade repeat as having time to catch up so she is at the same level as the other kids, rather than as stemming from any failure on her part. Any expression of self-doubt by her should be met by your confidence in her: "Honey, I know this is hard work, but that's partly because you were home for part of first grade (or kindergarten). As you catch up, it will get easier. You're a smart girl and you can handle this."

3. Keep a positive attitude yourself. She will take her cues from you.

4. Don't see repeating second grade as the only intervention, because by itself it will not be sufficient. Your daughter will still need extra help from you and from the school for this to be successful.

5. Be sure that your daughter has a way to practice reading this summer. If you cannot do it, hire a responsible neighborhood middle school girl to read with her every day for an hour --
and I do urge you to read the section on my website on helping kids develop reading skills.

6. If she will have a different teacher, have her meet the new teacher now to hear how great the class will be and that this class will include some new and positive things she will enjoy. If she will have the same teacher, have the teacher speak with your daughter about why this will be such a good thing and how the teacher will rely on your daughter since she knows the ropes in the classroom.

7. Get the names of the girls who will be in her class in the fall and work hard beginning as soon as possible to foster friendships with those girls over the summer.

8. Stay in constant touch with the teacher in the fall to make sure she is keeping up.

I agree with you: Parenting is tough, and it is hard to know what is the best decision. I think the key here is that your daughter needs your involvement in her schoolwork whatever grade she is in. I also think your model, of going back to school yourself, is a great example to set for her, and you should be very proud, despite the extra challenges!

Many blessings,
Dr. Laura

Thanks, so much. Much of what you said we already did so that's an affirmation there. We did have her evaluated for ADD as well as anxiety disorder knwoing I have both and was seeing the same issues. When we home schooled we had a definative agenda and now that she is in school her teacher sends a homework book home every day. They also evaluated her for a learning disability. Although everyone from her cyberschool thought she was a candidate for an ADD dx, her eval says that only it's a slight possiblity and that sensory issues may be more likely (which we haven't delved into yet). The IQ testing for learning disabilities showed that she was advanced for her age, but behind for her grade LOL. How's that for odd? But we are enrolling her in either the school summer reading program (if I can find the paperwork again) or the library summer reading program or both. I keep trying to instill the importance of reading and even with video games encourage her to play more "role play" games that necessitate reading to figure out what to do next (any way to slip it in I say!).

Since we moved 3 times in one year we felt that not moving on with the class to the next grade may not be consistant enough and have requested the same teacher since she seems to work well with her and they like each other. This teacher does not notice the distractability tendancies we notice at home which says to me the "herd learning" atmosphere must be better for her. (Though I have learned she keeps a very messy desk lol).

The conversation came up vaguely last week when she was talking about how much she liked her new teacher. I asked her if she would like to keep the same teacher for next year? She grinned and said yeah! So I said "well, I'll see what I can do then". Perhaps the fact that I gave her a "choice" (at least in her mind I did lol) will help. I hope so. I just hope she doesn't experience more anxiety when her best friend is advanced skipping second entirely straight to third this year. -- BF Guru


At first she was actually excited about it. The idea that she was going to be the smartest kid in the class really had her stoked. I used myself as an example being I had to drop a class last semester that she knew I struggled with and how now it's all review I get to help the other students since I am grasping the concepts real well. She even liked the idea she was keeping the same teacher and her teacher wrote all sorts of "I really look forward to having her in my class next year" on her report card.
It hit.

She realized her friends she just made were not going to be sitting with her in class next year. It's not about feeling dumber than them it's totally about losing contact with her friends. She sobbed hysterically and I about cried with her remembering being a military kid and moving often and leaving my friends. I anticipated the feeling like she wasn't competant enough. I was prepared for that. I was NOT prepared for this heart breaking sobbing over losing her friends and no matter what I say she doesn't want to hear how much fun it will be to make new friends. -- BF Guru


Ouch. It's heartbreaking to see your child sobbing in anguish.

This is a real loss to your daughter, and she needs time to grieve about it before she can find any solace in the idea of new friends. The most important thing you can do for her is to honor her feelings. But at the same time that you empathize with her sadness that her current friends will be in a different class next year, you can reassure her that she will not lose these friends because you will make the extra effort to set up playdates with them, invite them to her birthday party, etc. Then find ways to keep those connections alive for her.

I don't think your daughter is likely to get excited about the idea of making new friends in theory, and your saying that probably makes her feel you are being dismissive of her sadness. Instead, you might also want to get on the phone immediately and invite some of the girls from her next year's class over for ice cream and running around in the sprinkler. (If she doesn't know these girls well enough to invite them over, you could just call and explain to the mom that they'll be in class together and that the teacher suggested they get to know each other, and invite the mom over with the child.) Any connections your daughter can make with girls who will be in her class in the fall will ease her anxiety substantially.

BTW, it will probably be helpful to you (so that you can be more helpful to her) if you can drop any self-judgment about whether you are doing the right thing for your daughter. The fact that this is a big loss for her doesn't mean it is not the right thing. You can empathize with the loss and still be very clear in your own mind that this is in her best interest.

Thanks again...sheesh, you're going to start charging me for sessions soon. LOL
We won't know who will be in her class until next year, but we do have the contact number for her one friend and I'm hoping that with this summer reading program she is getting involved in there will be kids from the new class there to get to know. It's like a shortened day camp for 6 weeks. There is a little girl in her dance class that's in kindy this year and going into T1 instead of first, so they have that to lean on with each other as well.

Thanks for the reminder to not do the mommy guilt thing. I second guess myself so much with her. Perhaps it's the girl thing? Perhaps it's because she's my oldest and I haven't traveled those paths yet. But I get very prone to it with her. I know educationally this is the best decision. It's just hard to watch your daughter in a weak moment. After all, if we had our druthers we would give them the stars and the moon right? -- BF Guru


The stars, the moon, and our own lives, if necessary.

The sages say that the life path that requires the most self-growth is motherhood.

--Dr. Laura

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