Should I Retain this Child?  

March 24, 2014
At this time of year, parents and teachers often worry about the future of students whose academic performance is low, who seem socially immature, who demonstrate behavior difficulties, or whose primary language is not English. They often ask, “Should I retain this child?”

When a child repeats his or her current grade level again the following year, this is known as grade retention, flunking, failing, being held back, or non-promotion. No matter what it is called, parents and teachers need to work together to make this decision. They need to understand what the research says about the effectiveness of retention. They need to know what options are available to help the student. Most importantly, they need to realize that the real task before them is to plan specific intervention strategies so that the child’s academic, social, and emotional development is supported.

Research on Retention

Researchers have compared the outcomes of groups of low-performing students who repeated a grade level with the outcomes of equally low-performing students who moved on to the next grade. Overwhelming evidence from the research tells us the following:

•  Students seem to temporarily benefit during the year they repeat a grade. Two to three years later, the benefits actually decline.
•  Across time, most retained students simply do not “catch up.”
•  When students have been absent for many school days, retention may help, but only if the student’s attendance improves.
•  Retention actually has a negative impact on all areas of achievement. It also has a negative impact on a child’s social and emotional adjustment. Research indicates students who are retained have a greater chance of emotional distress, low self-esteem, poor peer relations, anti-social behaviors and substance abuse.
•  Students who have repeated one or more grade levels typically have a more negative attitude toward school and higher rates of absenteeism.
•  Students who repeated one or more grade levels are 5-10 times more likely to drop out of school. This is not to say that retention caused the student to drop out. Rather, retention is highly linked to school withdrawal and therefore predicts failure to complete high school.
•  Students view retention as one of the most stressful life events that could possibly happen to them. The only events more feared are the death of a parent or going blind.
•  Retention is also a predictor of lifelong negative outcomes, such as an increased likelihood of unemployment and need for public assistance.

Strategies to Support Students

So, what strategies are recommended to meet the needs of students considered for retention?
•  Make sure your child is rested and ready for school, eats a nutritious breakfast, comes to school on time, and has medical needs  met.
•  Help your child with homework by asking to see the work and creating an appropriate place and time for study.
•  Discuss concerns with your child’s teacher. Ask what help is being given and what you can do at home.
•  Work with your child’s teacher to access student support teams to identify strengths and weaknesses, design effective    instructional interventions, and monitor progress.
School Personnel
•  Promote an optimal learning environment by using research-based instructional practices to increase student engagement and learning.
•  Implement early assessment and intervention practices.
•  Involve parents. Communicate with them early and often. Provide structured activities, materials, and guidance to parents and others who can provide additional opportunities to develop academic or social skills.
•  Involve student support teams to design intensive, targeted interventions and monitor the effectiveness of planned interventions.
•  Promote social and emotional adjustment through comprehensive, school wide positive behavior support practices.
•  For adolescents, provide meaningful opportunities to explore career options and to develop realistic goals and plans for obtaining those goals.
•  Be aware of the school district’s policies and procedures for retention.

In summary, research has determined that retention has either no overall effect or a negative effect on student academic and social development. School personnel are advised to involve parents in problem-solving efforts tosupport student development. When promotion is in question, the best question to ask is not “Should I retain this child?” but rather “What needs to be done differently during the student’s next year in school?”

-by Patrice Feller, ESU 10 School Psychologist

Jimerson, S. and Renshaw, T. 2012. Retention and Social Promotion. [online] Available at: [Accessed: 14 Feb 2014].
Jimerson, S., Woehr, S. and Kaufman, A. 2007. Grade Retention and Promotion: Information for Parents. [online] Available at: [Accessed: 14 Feb 2014].