The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Understanding the Results of Grade Retention

on July 4, 2019

Today’s post is a revision of a piece I wrote several years ago, when I was a school principal. The events described are true, and I remember them clearly. My only regret is that I don’t know anything about the later life of the boy involved.

In our schools the decision to retain a child in grade is made by the Teacher Assistance Team (TAT). But in Tommy’s case the TAT had great difficulty in making a decision.

Tommy came to us in mid-year as a 5th grader from a city school where he had been in a self-contained class for emotionally disturbed children. Before that he had spent four years in a residential treatment center where he lived and went to school. When his mother regained custody of Tommy she wanted him in a regular classroom in a public school. We had one week to get ready before Tommy arrived.

After reading Tommy’s thick file, we were all frightened. Especially concerned was his new 5th grade teacher, who already had 27 students, several with problems. But we made a plan for him, hired an aide, cleared a storeroom to be a “quiet place” for him when he needed it, and waited for Tommy to make his entrance.

Fortunately, Tommy’s behavior was not as bad as advertised. He was a smart kid who may have realized that here was a chance for normalcy that hadn’t been offered to him before, and was not likely to come again. Yes, his attention wandered–along with his feet–in the classroom, and he did get into some arguments on the playground. But after a few weeks it was clear that he did not need an aide or the “quiet place”. Academically, Tommy made progress, and by the end of the school year he was almost up to grade level in reading and language arts, and about a year behind in math. Should we promote him we wondered?

That question hinged on academics. Our curriculum, teaching methods, and classroom structure were flexible enough to accommodate students with deficiencies more serious than Tommy’s. But the TAT was concerned about whether his level of social and emotional behavior would allow him to make a satisfactory adjustment to the demands of middle school. In that building Tommy would have to get himself from room to room on time, adapt to the personalities and styles of new teachers and students, go without morning and afternoon recesses, and have to manage his own assignments. Wouldn’t it be better for Tommy to spend another year in the elementary classroom where he had formed strong bonds with his teacher and his playground companions who would also be staying there, than to move on to a more challenging situation? Maybe.

On the other side of the coin was the fact that using the definitions provided by state and federal law for the education of handicapped children, we could provide an “appropriate education” in the “least restrictive environment” by sending him on to middle school. Tommy would be academically grouped with the students in his classroom. An aide would be available to help him get to other classes and do his assignments on time. And the sixth grade teachers were willing to modify their expectations to fit his needs.

After talking through all the arguments, the TAT and middle school council members were still undecided. It was not just a matter of divided opinions; both groups leaned one way, then the other, then back again. Finally, we decided that the critical issue was Tommy’s view of what was happening to him. Would a child who had already been battered by circumstances see grade retention as the worst possible blow, just another minor setback, an opportunity to stay in a safe place, or an insignificant event? To find out, we set a conference for Tommy, his family, and the school counselor who had been working with him and gained his trust.

Surprisingly, the conference was a short one. As the counselor reported to me afterward, Tommy’s mother and stepfather were sure what was best for him and got right to the point: Tommy should stay in the 5th grade because he wasn’t ready for the 6th. Both of them had been held back in grade school and it hadn’t done them any harm. On the other hand Tommy was sure that he wanted to go on to middle school with “his” new class.

Finally, the counselor reminded Tommy that he had some problems getting along with other students. Although Tommy acknowledged that this was true, he said he was ready to try harder. He didn’t argue with his parents at all. He understood that the deal was between him and the school. The counselor did not argue either. He asked if there was anything else that Tommy would like him to tell the school superintendent before she made her decision? “Yes”said Tommy, “Tell her ‘please and thank you.” End of conference and end of dilemma! Tommy started sixth grade the following year with support systems in place.

Although I am aware of the emotional impact of this little drama–which is all true except for Tommy’s name–that is not why I tell it. Through his story I hoped to suggest the the complexity of promotion/retention decisions and make clear that each child’s case deserves to be decided on it’s own merits. I also wanted to emphasize that retention is not, as most adults believe, merely a matter of giving a slow learner more time to succeed or a recalcitrant one a taste of the real world. For a child, retention is an earthshaking event that shouts to him–and everyone else in his world–, that he is not an adequate human being. When a school chooses to “retain in grade” any child, it should do so not only with fear and trembling, but also with a plan to make things better the second time around, so that a negative verdict can be reversed.

As for Tommy’s results, I want you to know that he did well in sixth grade and from then on.

2 responses to “Understanding the Results of Grade Retention

  1. Frankey Jones says:

    I’m surprised at the parents perception that retention didn’t hurt them. Michael Holmes, a University of Georgia education professor, did a macro study on the effects of retention on children. He concluded that the trauma of retention was second only to the loss of a parent.


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