How to Approach Retention for Young Children

Michael T. Coleman
Michael T. Coleman
Elementary school principal; M.A. in K-12 Educational Leadership

What is Retention?

Retention occurs when a student is retained in his/her current grade level for the upcoming year. In doing so, the student does not progress with his/her current classmates and repeats the same grade. Retention can happen for a variety of reasons, but no matter what, it is a very complex and at times challenging decision for parents to make. Many factors have to be considered when a child is being recommended to remain in the same grade for another academic year. Every child and family is different; hence, the pros and cons need to be discussed thoroughly before a determination is finalized.

When is Retention Needed?

Retention can be considered for a variety of reasons. This year has been especially challenging due to the COVID-19 pandemic that drastically affected many students across the world. The thought of retention is certainly on the minds of many educators and parents. There has been significant learning loss for many children. The constant changes in school scheduling due to outbreaks and the loss of time in the classroom has had many negative impacts on education.

Retention may be needed for younger children who are not on the same academic level as their peers. There are benchmarks in every grade and goals that students should be meeting in order to progress to the next grade. When these are not being met by children, teachers may recommend retaining that student for another year.

Another reason for retention is not based on academics. Social maturity is a big factor for retention of younger children. Sometimes, a child may be much younger than his/her classmates due to their birthdate. Their maturity and behavior may not be on grade level. Teachers and parents may feel that the child needs an additional year to gain maturity and appropriate school behavior.

Some parents have even decided on retention for their child if the child is on the smaller size. This can go hand in hand with the child being younger than his/her classmates. There are many factors that can bring about the conversation of retention. However, there needs to be careful conversations in order to come to the best decision for the child involved.

Why has Learning Retention Decreased for Young Children?

Retention used to be very cut and dry many years ago. If a child was not performing well on tests and did not reach the targeted grade, he/she would be held back. Nevertheless, times have changed. Standards, goals, and outcomes have improved. Teachers try to differentiate and individualize their lessons so that all children can interact with the content and find success, hence, the reason for less retention in younger children.

Many in education also believe that there are many other ways to help a child get up to where they need to be whether it’s academic or social/emotional. Teachers, administrators, and parents work together throughout a school year when a child is struggling. There are programs in place to give intense remediation throughout the school year to help the child reach the goals set forth for him/her in a grade level.

In order for these programs to work best, they need to be used proactively. As soon as a student is showing troubling behavior or low academics, a plan needs to be created in order to prevent retention. Small group instruction, summer school, and various types of instructional strategies can get children on par with their grade-level peers. Counseling sessions and group work that targets specific behaviors can also assist in behavioral issues or immaturity. All of these interventions are decreasing the need for learning retention in younger children.

How to Approach a Retention Plan for Young Children

Even though rates of retention are decreasing for younger children, there is still a need for it for some. This can be a difficult conversation to have with parents who do not agree with the need for their child to stay in the same grade. Therefore, teachers and administrators want to make sure that they are extremely prepared for the conversation.

Throughout the school year, teachers need to be collecting evidence to show how students are or are not meeting the standards and goals for the grade. This documentation will be what makes your case strong or not for retention. The evidence needs to show what the child should be able to do and what he/she is not able to do.

Comprehensive communication with parents is also crucial in the retention process. Parent meetings and progress reports during the school year will make sure that the parents are not surprised when retention is recommended. The school needs to ensure that they have the best interest of the child in mind when suggesting retention. Teachers and administrators want to make sure that young children have the building blocks at an early age so that there are no major struggles in reading and math as the child progresses through school.

In many states, the ultimate decision does lie with the parents. They are in charge of their child’s education and they may in fact decide to go against the recommendation of the school. Be sure to help them weigh the pros and cons so that they have all the information they need to make the best decision for their child. The idea of retention can be worrisome for parents. However, if there has been communication throughout the year and concrete evidence to back up the recommendation, it will be much easier for the decision to be made.

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