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To Retain or Not to Retain

Question

My daughter is in 3rd grade at a Christian private school. She has struggled since kindergarten to keep up, but we helped her along, with tutoring and occupational therapy to help her with the basic skills she simply couldn’t master. While she has strengthened in many areas, we have discussed with her teacher and OT having her repeat 3rd grade. Now my question is, how should we tell her? She is quite sensitive, and she’s always felt “less than” the other kids. How to we break the news while encouraging her that she didn’t do anything wrong?

Answer

Hello and thank you for reaching out to Parent Guru. As a former elementary school teacher and principal, I will tell you that student retention is a topic about which there are strong and varying views. Most agree, as do I, that the best time to retain a student is after the kindergarten or first grade year.

You share that you "discussed" retention with your daughter's teacher and (occupational) therapist, but do not say if they initiated the discussion - and if they are in full support of the decision to retain. I ask this because you state that your daughter has struggled since kindergarten, in spite of receiving tutoring assistance and occupational therapy(OT). Given that fact, it would seem that the option of retention would have been discussed earlier.

There are numerous factors to consider when deciding to retain a child, the most important of which is determining why the child is struggling then, based on those reasons, weighing the chances of success if retention were to occur. If your daughter is a child who typically puts forth her best effort in school, then it may be that continuing tutoring, OT and other academic accommodations that support her learning would be the best route to go. As a parent, I would not entertain retention without a complete assessment of my child (academic, speech and language, auditory processing, emotional and intellectual quotient, behavior,..). It is also important to consider physical changes that can occur in girls as early as 9 years old and how those changes might affect your daughter.

You mention that daughter is in a private Christian school. If it is a small school and she has been with her peers since starting in the lower grades retaining her will likely not be easy on her emotionally, especially if she is the only student in her grade being retained. Only you know your daughter's level of resilience when it comes to possible negative comments/reactions from peers. You describe her as quite sensitive and as feeling "less than" the other kids, factors that definitely need to be considered.

IF (for me, this is a big IF) after all factors have been weighed thoroughly, you and your daughter's teachers decide that retention is best, I would say that, at age 8, your daughter deserves a thoughtful, direct explanation. Certainly she knows that learning has been difficult for her. She needs to know that her parents and teachers collectively agree that she needs further instruction and practice in order to master 3rd grade skills and be more successful in future years. It is very important that you be confident, positive and assured when talking with your daughter. If you believe this is the right decision, she must feel that from you in an undeniable way. In the end, if your daughter is to have a successful year, she needs to believe that repeating 3rd grade will have positive results for her. When retained children do not feel supported by their parents, are angry, resentful and full of self doubt, the chances of the retention being successful are slim to none.

I'm not sure if your daughter has been able to receive in-person learning or has been taught virtually during this pandemic year. Given the pandemic, many children have lost ground academically. It may be that schools will have to adjust their curriculums in the fall and require teachers to reteach material from the previous grade that students did not master. This may be a worthwhile discussion to have with the administration at your daughter's school before making the decision to retain.

Again, given my 34 year career in public school education, 3rd grade is late to retain. I'm not saying that some children don't benefit, but long term gains are certainly not a guarantee.

Sincerely,
Sharon Lamberth
Certified Leadership Parenting Coach
sklamberth17@gmail.com

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