If your child struggles in school, it is likely that at some point a teacher or school official will recommend that he be retained and repeat a grade. Grade retention is almost never a good idea for a child with dyslexia, as the possible negative consequences far outweigh the benefits. Dyslexia is not something that can be outgrown or cured by waiting for a child to mature; repeating the same curriculum a second time around will not help your child improve his basic skills.
What the Research Shows
Retention is far more likely to hurt your child than help him; this is especially true in the early elementary years. Dozens of research studies conducted over 25 years show that students who are retained because they are performing poorly usually fall even further behind over time. Children who are promoted despite concerns about their academic skills may still have difficulties, but their performance is usually somewhat better than their counterparts who have been retained.
Of course, statistics don't tell the whole story — some children do benefit from retention. However, researchers have found that the students who benefit usually have mastered reading skills and had been held back for other reasons, generally because of a large amount of absenteeism or a mid-year transfer to a new school. In other words, a student who is a capable learner but needs to make up for missed instruction may benefit from repeating a grade; a student with learning difficulties needs a different sort of help.
The long-term effects of grade retention can be devastating. Students who are retained for a year are more likely to drop out of school, even when compared to students with equally poor performance. Retention can also be emotionally traumatizing. In one study, 84 percent of retained first graders said they felt “bad” or “sad” or “upset” about the retention and many reported being teased by their peers. In another recent study, children indicated that they believed grade retention was the worst thing that could happen to them, even worse than losing a parent or going blind.
Studies show that grade retention increases the likelihood that your child will not complete high school by as much as 40 percent; if your child is retained more than once, there is an almost 100 percent likelihood that he will later drop out.
Studies of middle and high school students also demonstrate a high social cost of retention; students who are old for their grade level reported higher levels of emotional distress, substance abuse, involvement with violence, and suicidal thoughts. No matter how well-intentioned, holding a child back a year can send the message that he is a failure and that the teachers do not believe him capable of keeping up with his peers.
When Retention Is Appropriate
The only time you should favor retention is when you have positive answers in your own mind to the questions “What will be different in the coming year?” and “What plan is in place that will help my child learn in the coming year?” If retention will make your child eligible for services that she cannot receive with promotion — for example, if promotion means moving on to a different school site or if there is a specialized program only available to children in certain grade levels — the prospect may be more appealing.
One consideration that may favor retention is if your child will be placed with a specific teacher that you feel is particularly wellqualified to help your child, either because of the teacher's reputation or because of specialized training she may have. Consider your child's feelings as well: in some cases, a child may prefer retention because of fears or uncertainty about her ability to perform in the next grade. While such fears should not be the sole consideration, often children have a valid basis for their concerns that should be explored.
You may also consider retention if your child is moving to a new school where the curriculum or standards are somewhat different — in that case, while the child may stay at the same grade level, he is not truly “repeating” a grade. This situation is common when children move from public to private schools, as many private schools have a more demanding curriculum. Some parents have also found it valuable to delay entrance into middle school or high school for a year, home schooling their child in the interim. Because of social ramifications, this choice should only be made when the child agrees to the plan.