Retention: Fighting the Good Fight Against Holding Kids Back (or how I learned to stop worrying and love RtI)

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Parents have to choose their battles wisely. That repetitive math homework that seemed a little pointless? Ignore it. The writing assignment that seemed at least B+ worthy, but got a C? Let it go. But if in-grade retention is being discussed for your child, it is time to roll up your sleeves and fight the good fight!

superman retention2
A great writer would never begin a piece with a cliché, so I beg your forgiveness in saying that in-grade retention is the epitome of Einstein’s overused definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Yet every year, students like Jesse, a second grader who struggles with reading, will do, “the same thing over,” and repeat the same grade while watching his classmates move to third grade. This traumatic event leaves Jesse feeling like a failure and his parents broken-hearted while people such as your humble narrator wonder, “Why do we keep doing this to our children?”

Even more maddening than the obvious “insanity” component is the fact that in-grade retention is an extremely well researched practice, and the research overwhelmingly concludes that holding kids back is not an effective intervention for students who are struggling at school. I would challenge anyone reading these words, especially parents or educators who are considering retaining a child, to google “in-grade retention research,” and see for yourself. (To jumpstart your search, here is a helpful article describing much of the research from the 70s to the mid-2000s.)

Digging into the treasure-trove of research, here is what you will find: Kids who are retained (who, by the way, are disproportionally black children and boys), may appear to show gains in their first couple of years after the retention, but after 2-3 years, their gains level off and they achieve at similar levels to students who also struggled but were promoted. The true differences between the retained child vs. the promoted child, however, are found within the negative byproducts that research shows retained children receive such as significantly increased risks of dropping-out of school, future drug and alcohol use, poor attitudes towards school, as well as difficulties with self-esteem and emotional issues.

To be clear, this article is not a call for “social promotion,” which is also an ineffective practice. Students should not be blindly moved grade-to-grade while their deficiencies are ignored. This is a call to eliminate the ineffective practice of in-grade retention and replace it with promotion that meets children where they are developmentally and academically. This may sound idealistic, but there is actually a vehicle in place already designed to facilitate such a practice: Response to Intervention (RtI) / Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS).

If your school is utilizing RtI / MTSS correctly, a child who is performing below grade level should be promoted to the next grade where he will receive either Tier 2 (increased remedial instruction) or Tier 3 (intensive, individualized instruction) in the area(s) of need. If retention is an option being discussed and RtI / MTSS interventions are not a frequent topic of conversation in your conferences, that school has a serious problem on their hands that might need to be corrected at a higher level.

If your child is at-risk of becoming a victim of the damaging practice of retention, arm yourself with research and alternatives. Fight the good fight! See below for a couple more resources to help inform as well as provide you with strategies for fighting retention:

10 Strategies to Fight Mandatory Retention

Retention and Social Promotion Discussion


Matthew Wiggins, Ed.S
Licensed School Psychologist