Should We Always Say NO to Retention?

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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 If a child drops out or is withdrawn, that child is not counted in the success rates.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.

  1. My son is supposed to be a senior this year but we wanted to retain him. He has ID then autism but is high functioning in many ways. He is still very immature and can not do simple math or read more than a third grade level. With the covid he regressed and missed almost half a year. He has a sister that is a junior so its not like he doesn’t know anyone. he is 18 and he wants to go to school another year. they said no he has to graduate. I thought he had the right to go to school til 21? now there is a long complicated process they are making us do to fight it. the grievance form is confusing and I think I need an advocate quick bc I? ONLY HAVE 10 DAYS! The extra year would really help with him socially and to raise his reading and math skills.

    • Hi Mendy, I recommend that you follow Chuck’s advice. The law and regulations about these issues is somewhat different, depending on the state you live in.

      We have heard from several parents who have kids in high school who were working on transition plans when COVID-19 shut schools down. These kids are not ready to graduate.

      The purpose of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is “to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate education … [to] prepare them for further education, employment and independent living.”

      The IDEA also says a child continues to be eligible for special education services until he or she graduates from high school with a regular HS diploma or ages out (usually at age 21-22, depending on state regulations).

      Since you don’t think your son is ready to graduate with a regular HS diploma and he is not prepared to make the transition from school to life after school, you need to put your position in writing in a letter (NOT EMAIL) to the school. State that you do not agree that he is prepared to graduate from high school. Describe where your son is functioning in the basic skills of reading and math.

      You don’t mention a transition plan in your question. If he has a transition plan, it’s time to revisit that plan. If he doesn’t have a transition plan, you need to request one.

      Please read these articles:
      Making the Transition to Life After School at

      Transition Planning: Setting Lifelong Goals,

  2. My school (I do not know how other schools in my distract approach this) wants a child retained before even considering testing for a learning disability. Even after trying various remedial strategies, Reading Recovery, Hillrap, Guided Reading and Mclass instructional tools etc…. I have serious problems with this policy, but am not getting through to anyone. I have never worked for a school that would rather retain a child first than go through the MTSS process. Is it legal to recommend retention before even considering testing? I am really struggling with this and do not feel comfortable discussing retention with parents, when I do not believe it is what is best for the student. However, my administration is telling me that I need to do. Thoughts?

    • Child Find is a requirement of the federal law, IDEA, that must be followed. If the parent requests special ed testing, the school must respond yes or no in a prior written notice giving reasons for their response. If the parent’s request went to the district special ed office that might help. A complaint to the state education agency is also an option.

    • Many parents are not aware of their rights or advocacy. I was ignorant until some teachers whispered in my ears. I was able to advocate for my kids and stop bad practices and system errors and my children made progress. I used Wrightslaw to speak the language of special ed and my kids excelled. However, the “whistleblower teachers” whistleblowing was safeguarded by me and they changed the trajectory of my kids lives who are now in college and excelling. I also collaborated with the school district and turned anger into advocacy. I am thankful for those brave teachers as they risked their jobs and became secret change agents. Teachers walk a fine line and not all parents will keep secrets as some “blow up.” I simply took the information they passed on to negotiate and advocate.

      • I would really like to hear more about how you approached your advocacy efforts. I am considering doing the same. Can you tell me more about what you did?

        • I simply collaborated with teachers and administrators. I became an expert on my children’s issues. Looking back, it was my collaborative approach coupled with a high level of knowledge (thanks to Wrightslaw) and setting strong boundaries. I also listened more than I talked and used data strategically. It was exhausting at times and self-care was/is important. I also understood the teacher’s perspective.

  3. 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 being a “drop-out nation.” Yes, retain where appropriate. If you retain a student with learning disabilities who is of comparable age and stature with his grade mates, retention will most likely end in drop-out.

  4. 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. How can this child keep moving along? She has a Dec b-day & is a little older than her classmates. Socially, she is well liked, but she is much less mature than her peers. Middle school is up next and I cannot imagine her moving on-HELP

  5. 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.

  6. 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 checklists, etc. Our evaluation is not being based on an IQ but on other types of information, such as adaptive skills, school readiness skills, etc. this student is only 5-9 at this time where some kindergarten students are almost 7.

  7. 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 is going to make an effort, than she will probably repeat 4th next year. If she continues to only work with her teacher at her side (she has regressed back to this from last year) then they feel it is pointless to consider. Her therapist even wrote a letter supporting the decision…We must remember they are individuals.

  8. 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 might be good for interventions.

  9. 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?

  10. 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. Unfortunately, we are not going to live forever and always be there for them. I just pray to God and ask him , PLEASE” always be there and to watch for my son. Drew I hope hour son is doing better and God Bless you all.

  11. 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 him back in the inclusion. our school system has a seal diploma which is a college prep seal no more general or vocational seal. if my 8th grader can not due 8th grade math how in the world can he do college prep next year in the 9th grade. is my child being discriminated against? what can i do? please advise.

  12. 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 9 years later my wife and I chose to retain our son, who is autistic. It was best thing for him., he repeated the 4th grade (four years ago) we felt the state school system was behind the times and our many moves (due to military) he needed a change for the better. Since retention, he has blossomed.

  13. 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.

  14. 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 research clearly shows, if you’re going to retain a child, you can’t do it with the simple idea that “it’s another year to catch up or learn the material.” You need to make meaningful changes for the child!!

  15. 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 in Outliers suggests that sometimes whether a person is at the top of some skill or struggles may be solely their age. I do NOT give this advice for parents of children when there is a family history of learning disabilities., in the absence of identification and app. service

  16. 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 one year, this child is successful for the first time. Also, the district agreed to keep the arrangement while the child transitions to the next grade level in order to give the child a more solid foundation for the future.

  17. 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!

  18. 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.

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