School

5 Myths and Facts About Grade Retention

March 29, 2022

Many schools still recommend grade retention for students who are struggling to learn, despite what the research says.

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In the spring, parents often call my office concerned because the school has recommended grade retention. Most of these parents are concerned because they believe their child has ADHD or learning differences. However, the school has not (or will not) evaluate their child.

 

These parents want to better understand their child’s needs. They also want to know what supports their child needs in order to make progress at school.

 

Grade retention, or the practice of having a child repeat a grade, typically occurs when students are not meeting social-emotional or grade-level expectations. At first glance, it can seem logical. If a student is not making progress, giving them another year should give them the time needed to “catch up.”

 

However, an abundance of research over the last few decades indicates that grade retention does not benefit students. In fact, much of the research shows negative effects on students’ success at school long-term.

 

If the research is clear that grade retention  is not beneficial, why are schools still recommending it? The truth is, there are several myths related to grade retention.

 

 

5 Myths and Facts about Grade Retention

 

Myth 1:

If a student is held back a grade, they will “catch-up” with their peers.

 

Fact 1:

It is true that some studies have shown small academic gains in the FIRST year after a child repeats a grade. But, this positive improvement is temporary. Those benefits do not continue 2-3 years past the year of grade retention.

 

For children with ADHD, we know that they will likely be 30% behind their peers in their executive functioning, ability to regulate emotions, and social skills. So, if you retain a 7-year-old, they might then fit in more the year they are retained. But as they get older, that 30% rule still applies, and the gap will still exist. These children need proper accommodations and interventions for ADHD. Another year will not be the answer to helping them “catch-up”.

 

Myth 2:

If a student is held back a grade, they will have another year to learn and will make progress in reading, writing, and math.

 

Fact 2:

Students who experience grade retention do not improve in their learning long-term. In fact, studies have shown that long-term, they perform more poorly in reading, writing, and math compared to other students who were also struggling academically and did not get retained. If a student didn’t learn the concepts the first time they were taught, then it is very unlikely that simply repeating the same information, in the same way, is going to help them learn it now.

 

Myth 3:

For students who are socially and emotionally immature, another year will give them time to make social gains and boost their confidence.

 

Fact 3:

The research does not show that grade retention will boost a child’s confidence or help them make social and emotional gains. In fact, the opposite is true. Research shows that children are more at risk for emotional distress following retention. They have more challenging peer relationships and lower self-esteem.

 

Myth 4:

Students who are held back a grade will be more successful as they progress to high school.

 

Fact 4:

Research has shown that children who experience grade retention in elementary school are 5-10 times more likely to drop out of high school than students who are not held back a grade. Recent research shows that these negative effects are even more significant for Black and Hispanic girls who are held back a grade.

 

Myth 5:

If you hold a child back when they are young, they won’t notice or experience the negative effects.

 

Fact 5:

The research shows that grade retention is not effective no matter whether a child is younger or older.

 

It is certainly true that some children can benefit from grade retention. The problem is, no research to date can help us to predict which students would benefit from it and which would not. And given the negative effects that grade retention can have on children, it is not a research-supported intervention for struggling students.

 

If your child has already experienced grade retention, we don’t want you to worry. We are trying to show that grade retention in and of itself is not going to be the solution to help your child if they struggling.

 

What should you do if your school is recommending grade retention?

 

If your child’s school is recommending grade retention, please share with them this wonderful handout provided by the National Association for School Psychologists (NASP) on grade retention.

 

The most important thing is to understand why your child is struggling and to provide them with the interventions and supports that they need to be successful. So, if your school is recommending that your child be held back a grade INSTEAD of evaluating your child, that is a problem.

 

You can better understand your child’s diagnoses, strengths, and needs through a comprehensive evaluation. For instance, if your child has ADHD, they will benefit from specific interventions. Or if you child has a reading disorder or dyslexia, they will benefit from a different form of instruction. You can use this guide to request testing through your school. If you are seeking out a private evaluation, check out this blog.

 

Let us know in the comments what questions you still have about grade retention.

 

Have a great week!

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  1. Sarah says:

    Related follow-up question: What about kids who have summer birthdays? Here’s our specific scenario: Our son is about to make the transition between a Montessori school (without rigid grade divisions) and a traditional school, so he wouldn’t be repeating anything if we held him back a year. And he has a summer birthday, so he is kind of in between grades. We have the option to start him in 5th grade right after he turns 10 or right after he turns 11. His current Montessori says she thinks he can start 5th grade at 10. But our friends with kids at the traditional school are all recommending that we hold off for another year. Would appreciate your insight!

    • The Childhood Collective says:

      Hi Sarah, This is a great question. Each individual situation is going to be unique and therefore, we can’t give personalized advice. However, the main takeaway here is that if a child is struggling (academically/socially/with executive functioning) then it is NOT recommended that they repeat the same grade. Instead, we would recommend comprehensive testing to figure out why the child is struggling and what specific interventions are needed for them to be successful going forward. Best of luck with your decision!

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