Retention or Promotion?: Q&A With Dr. Mary, School Psychologist

Mary Rosen
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Flickr photo by dave_mcmt
Dr. Mary Rosen is here every week to provide answers to your most pressing school issues. She's a school psychologist, licensed counselor, graduate school instructor, and parent.

Today, Dr. Mary is addressing the topic of school grade retention vs. promotion.

Q: The school wants my son to repeat first grade because they say he isn't ready for second grade, and they want him to catch up. I'm not sure how I feel about this and how this would help my son. What do you think?

A: I understand how you feel. Grade retention, as we call it in school-speak, is an often misunderstood idea and comes with stigmas attached.

School staff sometimes recommend retention when a child is young (and therefore possibly immature) for his grade, is just starting to learn English, has missed an excessive amount of school (because of being sick or other reasons), and when he is behind his peers academically. That is, he hasn' learned the things at his current grade level that he needs for the following year. The opposite of retention is what we call social promotion: Advancing students to the next grade level (and thus with their peer group) in spite of the fact that they haven't learned what they need to learn in their current grade level. 

It's likely that neither of these practices will help your son catch up in the long run, and frankly, retention can have damaging effects. For instance, we know that a lot of children actually do worse academically and emotionally when held back. Their self-esteem drops and their friendships suffer. As we covered in my previous posting, the social stuff is tied to the academic stuff. They're more likely to have behavior problems or miss school. When a group of sixth graders were asked about negative life events (of course, they didn't word it like that), the sixth graders rated being held back as one of the most stressful, on-par with the loss of a parent or going blind. Children who have been retained are also much more likely to drop out of high school. 

The good news is that we know what matters most is figuring out why your son hasn't been successful and what can be done about it. We school-people love our jargon, so here's one more gem for the jargon pile: We need to provide these students with interventions that will address their issues. Interventions could include things like receiving individual tutoring or attending summer school, but must be designed especially for your son, based on his needs. Just holding him back without giving him the right support isn't the answer.

This is yet another example of how education is still evolving, but in some ways, our knuckles are still dragging.

Got a question about school learning or behaviors for Dr. Mary? Leave it in the comments below or email us, and Dr. Mary may answer your question in a future post.

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