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Should We Always Say NO to Retention?

by Pam Wright

Social promotion  never works for anyone.  But is retention always harmful?  If the school is going to give the child extra services which were never given before, wouldn’t retention be a good idea?

We get hundreds of emails about retention every year. I don’t recall one in which the school proposed to provide more intensive services.

Pete and I teach a special education law and advocacy course. One of our law students is typical.

The school proposed to retain his daughter in the 1st grade. The school would not change her program, but said retention would give her “more time to learn 1st grade material.”

When the parents met with school officials and requested that the school evaluate her to determine if she has a learning disability or another problem that is contributing to her reading problems, the school refused to evaluate. On the prior written notice (PWN) was this statement:  “student is making some progress in one-to-one Reading Recovery sessions.”

So they want to retain because:

  • she needs “more time to learn the material”

But they won’t evaluate her because:

  • she is “making some progress”

We know how this story usually ends. Evaluation for special ed in 3rd or 4th grade – reading skills still at the 1st-2nd grade level. Most special ed teachers don’t know how to remediate or don’t have time to provide remediation. So there is a good chance this youngster will become another Shannon Carter, illiterate when she enters 10th grade.

You’ve heard us say before, Reading Recovery is not designed to be used for children who may have a learning disability. There is very little research that supports its use with any population. If a child drops out or is withdrawn, that child is not counted in the success rates. If children make gains in the program, most or all disappear by 3rd grade.

We also get emails that are somewhat pro-retention from parents whose children have more severe disabilities and are very far behind their peers.

I don’t believe in one-size-fits all solutions to problems. I think there are children for whom retention may not be harmful. I also think these kids are a very very small minority.

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16 Comments on "Should We Always Say NO to Retention?"

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03/20/2015 1:02 am

There is a small population for whom retention can be beneficial: students who are younger than their classmates and also smaller, who have low-average IQ’s, who have no processing deficits, and who have parents who support retention. If the parents do not support it, retention will not work. Our students with learning disabilities must be allowed to advance in grade level with appropriate remedial measures in place. It is appropriate remediation – effective, direct instruction – that will make the difference for our students. Failing to promote students with appropriate supports in place will only add to our problem of… Read more »

03/18/2015 11:23 am

My daughter is in 5th grade with math skills of a 1st or 2nd grader. We have asked about retention every year. From district cuts, large size classrooms, maternity and medical leaves affecting continuity of learning, struggles with teaching to the state test and lack of important curriculum due to principal mandated on-line homework/assessments – writing of weekly blogs, study island assignments, fast math program that crashed and failed on a regular basis, to finding there wasn’t a language arts curriculum being followed in the classrooms. Even with modified work, she still achieves 20% & 0% grades.… Read more »

03/17/2015 10:00 pm

I wonder if the perceptions change with the age and grade fo the child. Is Early childhood a good or bad time to retain.

How about a child who had a special ed program for pre-K and team wants to move to less restrictive but teacher and feels moving student to general ed pre-k is a good way to introduce this larger more inclusive setting.

I still think the decision should always stay outside of IEP discussion. It is not an intervention but in some cases it might be a good decision.

03/17/2015 9:12 am

This is always a hot topic this time of year and one I seem to be fighting all the time. As a school psych. getting through to people that the “halo” effect of retention will be gone in a year and you are back to where you were now and the child has no had social/emotional issues with being retained as well.

I have ONE student this year who I “might” agree with retention for out of the over 600 that I serve, but the jury is still “out” as I am still gathering information and continuing with some developmental… Read more »

03/17/2015 9:12 am

I am a mother to a 4th grader with dyslexia, social anxiety disorder, and selective mutism…I am also a special ed teacher. I was amazed to have her IEP team on my side with possibly retaining her this year. She is also wanting it (she is still reading at a 1st grade level, only has 1 friend-a 2nd grader, and will have to change to the middle school in 5th grade). We just started using Barton at home this year, and we have an appointment to discuss anxiety meds this month. If she gets motivated and shows her teachers she… Read more »

03/17/2015 8:57 am

I work for a school district and we rarely discuss retention, especially for older students, as the research does not support it unless you are going to provide something different, as this article says. However, this year, we have a 6th grade student who has been homeschooled until February and has first grade reading, third grade math skills. We immediately placed in intensive reading and math programs, and he is making progress, but we only have four months to try to catch him up before junior high school. For this student, if his emotions can handle it, retention… Read more »

05/31/2012 2:04 pm

How do you get the school to look at your child as an individual. We want to retain our 6th grader and the school won’t allow us. He is too young and not ready to move along. He wants it also. How do we fight for this when they just talk about the research and not our child?

01/21/2011 2:53 pm

To Drew, as a mother of an autistic child, I appreciate so much your words. I completely agree with your opinion about retention. I also feel the same way. I personally fell that some districts are in the rush to push and simply keep moving this students with special needs to the the next grade. Where the best interest for these students go?? If we do not do anything about it, then who will?? The most important thing is the they learn and hopefully learn to survive and live on ther own some day.… Read more »

01/21/2011 2:38 pm

my child is in the 8th grade and has struggled since 1st grade in which 3rd grade he was place and again in 5th grade and he is falling in math and reading. we did have him tested in 3rd or 4th grade and per the school he did not qualify for special ed but qualifies for the 504 plan. i’m upset because in the the 6th and 7th he was in an inclusion class with 2 teachers but some how this year was put in a regular class. we had a team meeting yesterday and luckly they are putting… Read more »

01/19/2011 1:10 am

What is one year for a child that will let them germinate for year? Sew the seed for the future now. Why won’t parents and educators consider that retaining for one year could be the best thing for their child.? It seems that everyone is in such a rush to “push” to “grow up” fast to get into the work force now. Consider the consequences of progression without the proper social or academic skills. The literally could be children in an adults world. I was special teacher for five years until after 9/11 chose to join the military. Now… Read more »

01/18/2011 10:14 pm

I think retention should be considered on a case by case basis. Is the child at the young end of his peers? Does the child need more time to process information before moving on? Is the child ready to be assessed for standards right now? Retaining at a younger age is so much better than waiting till middle or high school. Look at the child. Observe. They will tell you.

01/18/2011 10:40 am

To Colleen,
Great story, but what I read still begs the question of whether it was the retention that was successful or all the meaningful, research-based interventions that were put into place (“district staff changed for unrelated reasons and creativity was considered. The district contracted with an organization specializing in autism and engaged a trained behavior specialist as the child’s 1:1 aide…”). My guess is that promotion to the next grade, coupled with the various creative changes you described, would have been just as successful, without the risk of the negative consequences often seen with grade retention. As the… Read more »

01/18/2011 10:05 am

Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers gave me pause about my absolutely NEVER retention stance. Now I tell parents of children who were born just before their school cut off date, are the youngest in the class, and are small in stature to at least consider accepting retention in 1st grade (never kindergarten because they don’t start being held accountable for teaching reading until 1st grade) IF they can get the kiddo into a classroom with a teacher who is really good at the structure of a good curriculum for that second 1st grade year. The data discussed… Read more »

09/22/2010 12:42 pm

I am aware of only one meaningful and successful retention. This child had been bounced around into various placements because his district did not how to meet his needs. The parents felt a due process hearing was their only alternative after years of the district’s failed attempts to meet this students unique needs. Finally, district staff changed for unrelated reasons and creativity was considered. The district contracted with an organization specializing in autism and engaged a trained behavior specialist as the child’s 1:1 aide, while agreeing to the parents’ request to retain the child. After… Read more »

09/21/2010 7:41 pm

Thank you for this article. This reaffirms what I’ve been telling my schools since I started as a School Psychologist 7 years ago. I constantly hear parents and teachers say that their child is not “the norm” so the research doesn’t apply to him/her and my child just doesn’t “look like a…(insert grade here).” I love the ending to your article: “I think there are children for whom retention may not be harmful. I also think these kids are a very very small minority.” Amen!

09/21/2010 10:34 am

As an educator for over 37 years, this scenero seem to be an on going problem in public education. When will we get the fact that education is to be individualized for the children. Educators violate the civil rights daily with children when we don’t meet individual student needs. For years I wore the blinders and neglected the needs of this small minority of children. However, wisdom is appearing and these parents and children need our help. We can no longer close our eyes to a major problem in the educational system in this country.