What happens to kids who fail Grade 1?

A study in a recent issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology looked at outcomes for kids who were held back in Grade 1. Researchers carefully matched retained students to those who were promoted and then tested their performance in reading and math.

When grade-based scores were examined, retained students were found to improve more quickly than promoted kids in reading and math, in the short term. Their “growth rate” in both subjects declined over time, with large drops occurring in later years, compared to smaller drops in rate of progress for the promoted group. The study concluded that the short-term gains shown by retained students “eroded” when they encountered unfamiliar, complex curricula. The researchers expressed concern about the possible impact that the “failure, success, failure” pattern might have on students’ academic self-image.

Way back in Episode 12 of The Family Anatomy Podcast, Dr. G and I talked about retention versus promotion (we’ve gotten more comfortable behind the mics since then). Many people can think of someone who failed a grade and went on to become more successful in later grades or later in life. However, years of research has suggested that there are negative consequences of failing. Research is done in groups, meaning that, although individuals might overcome the negative impact of grade retention, the majority will experience some consequences. We talked about protective factors on the show.

So, there is a short-term positive impact of being held back, and there are negative consequences in the long term. I think most people would agree that not everyone learns best in a classroom environment – some learn better from experience. If a student is having trouble learning, and they fail a grade, does that address the learning problem? Of course not. It does ensure that they spend an extra year in a classroom environment before they get to high school where they can sign up for co-op classes and experiential learning experiences. It also increases the likelihood that they will drop out, according to some studies.

At Family Anatomy, we’re biased in favour of promoting kids. But if a student is already having trouble and you move him on to the next grade, what then? It is essential that the underlying learning problem be addressed, and I think there should be a balance between practicing to develop weak skills and finding strategies to work around weaknesses. If you promote a student who is having trouble, you have to develop a program to help him to move forward. Your student has memory problems? He might need to learn memory strategies and to have written reminders. Handwriting problems? Maybe he needs to learn keyboarding and word processing skills. If you can put interventions in early enough, you might have a better chance that the student will maintain a positive attitude towards learning, AND feel that he is in control of his academic achievement.

You can read the study here.

Let us know what you think – leave a comment!

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2 Responses to What happens to kids who fail Grade 1?
  1. Tamar Chansky
    January 24, 2009 | 10:08 am

    As a child psychologist, I am often asked by parents whether it would be better to retain or promote– thanks for highlighting this study, now I will refer parents to it as well. I agree completely that it isn’t just “being’ in a class an extra year– as if just more exposure to the material will do the trick, it’s about identifying the underlying learning issues– processing, memory, retrieval etc that will be the tools for this and all future learning. The other variable though that often comes up is whether there are also social maturity issues– when a child is not on “grade level” with social-emotional skills sometimes this combined with learning issues may tip the skills in favor of retention– has this been studied?

  2. brianmacdonald
    February 7, 2009 | 10:16 am

    First, thanks for your comment. Sorry for my delay in responding – I knew I had a review article on this subject, but I had trouble finding it.

    The U.S. National Association of School Psychologists (http://nasponline.org) published a position paper reviewing the literature on grade retention. They identified several factors that were protective against the negative impact of being held back. Students with a positive self-image, who had social, emotional and behavioural strengths and good relationships with their classmates may be less likely to experience negative effects of retention. Students who have trouble because of poor attendance (e.g., due to medical concerns) may also be less likely to have problems later.

    To me, these findings suggest that students who have social difficulties should be promoted with their peers; perhaps they’ll benefit from positive age-appropriate role models. Again, if there are social skills deficits, some form of treatment might be more helpful than retention.