What happens to kids who fail Grade 1?

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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.

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Note: Posts on Family Anatomy are for education only, and are not intended to replace professional or medical advice. If you need to talk to someone about family or mental health issues, you can get a referral from your family doctor.