"My son's teacher says he needs to repeat his grade next year. I just don't know about that.  How do I know if that's the best thing to do?  I want him to do well in school, but this has to be a terrible blow to his self-confidence, and it's hard enough to keep him thinking positively about school.  What do I do?"

I hear this question over and over each spring.  It's parents agonizing over the welfare of their kids.  It's an expression of frustration and anger about the fact that their children's achievement problems haven't been solved.  It's a time of shattered dreams.  It's also time for some very serious decision making for both school personnel and parents.

ChoicesThe decision to retain a student is a decision that must not be made lightly.  The fallout from this decision will have a lasting impact on the child.  We have seen good results, with lives changed for the better, in cases where children have been retained appropriately.  However, these stories are in the minority.  The research in this area indicates that the highest number of retentions turn out to leave scars that do not heal easily.

Many students who become candidates for retention are the ones who either fail or refuse to turn in written assignments.  It is important to remember that uncompleted written assignments are not proof that a child is not learning.

I have seen many children score high on achievement tests at the end of a year even though they have a history of not completing their written work.  This is a major frustration for teachers.


The temptation in these situations is to do something to the child to show that he/she is not going to get away with this.  Retention and/or threats of retention are often the first things that come to mind. If we buy into this way of thinking, it means we believe the child has all the abilities and skills needed to be successful, has no self-concept problems, is not dealing with any emotional issues, and just wants to be unsuccessful in school and in life.

I wish it were that simple.  If so, all we would have to do is occasionally threaten children with retention, and good grades immediately would follow.

The root causes behind lack of success in school are not easily discovered.  These causes hide deep in the subconscious minds of children.  Profes-sionals just recently have discovered that 97 percent of the children who avoid their schoolwork have problems related to self-concept or self-concept problems with emotional overlays.  These kids are not part of "organized crime" but are children who are damaged, discouraged, or disenchanted with the possibilities of success in school.



Identifying the root causes of the problem is something that requires the cooperation of both teacher  and  parent.  It cannot  be  done  by  either teacher or parent alone since it requires looking at family patterns and the reactions of the child at school.  Caution!  Do not consider retention until this first step has been achieved  



Until  a solid plan that indicates a 90 percent to 100 percent chance of success is developed, retention not only will be wasted but permanently damaging.  Once the root causes are identified, a plan can be developed.  It usually includes changes in family patterns at home, strong cooperation between school and home, some individual counseling for the child, as well as different teaching and relationship strategies at school. Do not consider retention until this step has been achieved.

People often say, "Let's retain this child.  I just think he/she could profit from another year of maturity."   This looks at only one aspect of the problem and does not guarantee that the root causes have been considered, nor does it indicate there is any plan of action that might lead to success.


H. Wayne Light, Ph.D., discovered there are 19 different aspects of a child's life that need to be considered before deciding to use retention.  He has developed a scale that is very helpful when parents and professionals work together to make the retention decision.           

This scale looks at age, sex, knowledge of the English language, physical size, present grade placement, previous retention, brothers and sisters, parents' school participation, child's life experiences, family moves, school attendance, intelligence, history of learning disabilities, present level of academic achievement, student's attitude about possible retention, student's interest in schoolwork, immature behavior, emotional problems, and history of serious behavior problems.

Needless to say, Dr. Light warns us there is much to be considered before making the crucial decision to retain.  Information about this scale is available from Academic Therapy Publications, 20 Commercial Blvd., Novato, CA 94947.


Discussing ReportIt is important that child, parent, and teacher each feels good about the retention. If any one of these does not, it is doomed. It is especially important for the youngster to feel good about this decision. Children who are not adequately and effectively helped with their beliefs about retention usually suffer long-term self-concept problems, resulting in additional learning problems as the years go on.

Children must frequently hear, and sincerely believe, that their parents will continue to love them regardless of their success in school.

Retention is rarely a solution for under-achievement problems.  It is effective only when all of the following questions can be answered with a resounding YES.


1. Have the root causes of the problem been discovered?

2. Has an effective plan of treatment been developed and accepted by both the professionals and the parents?

3. Does the Light's Retention Scale indicate the child is a good candidate for retention?

4. Does the student feel good about the retention?

5. Do the parents feel good about the retention?

6. Does the school feel good about the retention?

If any one of these questions receives a negative answer, forget about the retention until all six questions receive a resounding YES.

©2010 by Sylvia B. Rimm. All rights reserved. This publication, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without written permission of the author.