To Retain, or Not to Retain? The Importance of Considering the Whole Student

by Rose Gamblin, PhD
Education Administration and Student Teacher Supervisor, College of Education

struggling student

At a recent family get-together, my youngest daughter sat across from me on a futon with her husband. As the parents of three boys, ages four to 11, they were kept pretty busy.

But today, they were concerned about their seven-year-old.

“Mom, they want to keep Jayden back in second grade.”

“Oh, good,” I replied.

It was the wrong answer.

“But Mom, he’ll feel bad because he’s not moving up with his friends. And his self-esteem may be scarred for life.”

My daughter, who is a fifth grade teacher, quoted me the usual statistics about students learning more if they are promoted with their peer group. She concluded with the well-known fact that high school dropouts are more likely than high school completers to have been retained.

“That’s not a cause-and-effect relationship,” I countered. “Just because someone is retained doesn’t mean that they won’t finish high school. It probably means they had some type of learning disability that has made their schoolwork more challenging, causing the retention, and eventually failing to complete high school.

“But that won’t be Jayden; whatever steps you take now to make his schoolwork easier and more attainable will give him the tools he needs to succeed.”

I added, “He has friends in his existing classroom, and I know his teacher, so loving and kind. I also know the third grade teacher – his self-esteem might really take a hit in her classroom.”

Traditionally, I have been so resistant to retaining students; in fact, over the course of 30 years of teaching, I really haven’t retained a student. Maybe a couple of students have repeated kindergarten, or I have done some creative things so students could work to catch up during the summer or receive extra tutoring.

So, why was I giving advice contrary to what I normally practiced?

I was giving advice because I knew the backstory. I knew this little boy had missed over half a year of school because of the onset of epilepsy. I knew that he couldn’t read, even though he was in the second grade. He was either dyslexic or scotopic sensitive, or he had some damage in the occipital lobe from the seizures. He was also short for his age, and he was going to school in a multi-grade setting and would still have many of the same friends.

On the other hand, while he may benefit academically from one more year in that classroom, his social and emotional development would be his parent’s biggest consideration.

Sometimes, parents aren’t given the option to promote or retain. The school makes the decision for them.

But, I would recommend that whoever is making this decision needs to look at the whole child. Make a list of pros and cons, including the spiritual (social/emotional), mental (academic) and physical domains. This decision may impact the child for the rest of their life.

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Read more about Dr. Gamblin:

Rose Gamblin, PhD, was born in Walla Walla, WA to educator parents. At the age of 11, she and her family went to Nigeria, West Africa as missionaries. She returned to the U.S. and pursued a teaching degree. She has a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, master’s of education administration and PhD in educational leadership. She has taught in both public and private schools, infant through college levels. She works as a teaching principal at Baltimore White Marsh Adventist School and Child Development Center, and as an education administration and student teacher supervisor for Grand Canyon University in the Tri-State Area (Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia). She hosts two weekly radio talk shows, Homeschool Companion and Education Currents. She was instrumental in the development of the I Can Read! series and the Safe Kids curriculum. Dr. Gamblin is also a contributing author for the “Collegiate Quarterly,” various children’s evangelism kits and the video series, “Help, I’m a Parent.”

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.