In 2010, the Wall Street Journal published an article titled “The Parental Push to Repeat a Grade” explaining the story of a mother who made the decision for her daughter to repeat the second grade after she was continually struggling with her math homework and lacking social connection with her peers. While I am not able to state whether this was a helpful choice for the family and their daughter’s education, the mother did include that after repeating second grade, she was pleased with the progress her daughter had made. After looking deeper into the topic of grade retention, I was surprised to discover that numerous parents make this same decision to hold their children back due to mental, physical, social, and educational development. This is separate from the number of children who are held back as a result of standardized testing. According to the National Association of School Psychologists,
“Most struggling students should be promoted, but given special help to erase deficits, such as different teaching methods, tutoring, small-group instruction, summer school, after-school programs or diagnostic assessments for possible learning disabilities.”
Well what does this mean for students with learning disabilities? In our schools these are students who are often overlooked in terms of evaluations surrounding cognitive-ability, language, and psycho-educational assessments, receiving additional attention once they are falling severely behind in the classroom. These are students who are facing challenges in the classroom that are not resulting from behavioral or social development. These are students who need specialized and individualized education. And these are students who could be hindered by repeating a grade.
By repeating a grade, either as recommended by a teacher or a parent, students with learning disabilities can face an array of adversities. These may include: humiliation, emotional trials related to their self-esteem, or even thoughts of being a “failure” for having to repeat a grade, just to name a few. By repeating a grade, a child will be forced to learn skills in the same ways, resulting in what could be merely minimal steps towards learning the material. Speech-Language Pathologist Linda Balsiger from Bend Language and Learning notes that the primary reason students are held back is as a result of their reading. This is the foundation to learning and the basis for all other subjects within our education system. Later in the article “Should You Hold your Child Back a Grade?” Balsiger includes the official position on grade retention from the National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities. These three stances outline why it may be counter-productive for a student with a learning disability to repeat a grade:
“The weight of the evidence of literally hundreds of students shows that retaining children does not produce higher achievement.”
“Neither social promotion nor retention address the problems faced by children who find school learning difficult.”
And my personal favorite, “More of the same does not work.”
More of the same work does not work! We, as those backing these education systems, need to recognize the importance of gearing towards remedial interventions and specialized education plans. These interventions can specifically target skills such as reading, writing, and math for a student with a learning disability, ultimately preparing them to succeed in future grades. Literacy programs such as Reading Rockets provides additional ideas for instructing students with learning disabilities such as: reading one-on-one or within small groups, working on word recognition, segmenting readings, setting straight-forward objectives, and targeting word comprehension, to list a few.
So don’t fall into the mentality that students with learning disabilities are “just not trying hard enough” or that “they need to try learning this material again next year” as every student learns at a varying rate and by different processes. Let’s strive to keep our students in school, continue to educate ourselves on intervention research, instruct specifically towards the needs of those with learning disabilities, and refuse to settle on the “solution” of grade retention. We need to place value in our differences, build confidence, and recognize the strengths of EACH student in the education system.