Why we opposed grade retention and why it was the best decision for our daughter
Delaying, retaining, repeating, holding back or redshirting. Call it what you want; it is a topic that sparks widespread debates and is a controversial issue. Opposing grade retention or deciding to retain is a decision that parents need to make.
In South Africa children may start school early. They can start at age 4 and a half providing they turn 5 by 30 June in Grade R. Likewise for Grade 1, they can start at age 5 and a half providing they turn 6 by 30 June. However, legislation in South Africa stipulates that children must start Grade 1 in the year they turn 7. Irrespective in which month they celebrate their birthday.
Our youngest daughter Mika has a December birthday. So in 2014 we applied to enroll her at her current school to start Grade R the following year. Although not rejected; she was placed on a waiting list. The main reason was that she was too young. That ultimately her immaturity would affect her academic performance. The admission officer and principal recommended we hold her back another year and only apply for enrollment in 2016. We decided against it and wrote a motivation letter. Giving reasons why we as parents felt that our daughter was ready to start Grade R in the year she turned 6.
Our daughter attended an excellent preschool. Placing focus on learning through play. This enabled better development of fine motor and gross motor skills. It also helped in physical and cognitive development, emotional and social skills. In a motivation letter, her preschool teacher indicated that she was ready to start school. Attaching both motivation letters to support her application. She was accepted to start Grade R in 2015.
She did very well in her Grade R year with no red flags raised by her teacher. Her assessment reports for all three terms showed that she was doing well academically and socially with favourable comments from her teacher. Then at the end of October of Mika’s Grade R year, the teacher requested a meeting with my husband and me. Putting our minds at ease that there were no actual concerns but that she would like to discuss an issue with us.
On meeting with the Grade R teacher she informed us that Mika was doing very well. Surprised by how well she was coping academically and socially. Seeing that she was the youngest in the class. Upon uttering these words, I was waiting for the BUT to come out.
She then said it. But she is still too young with her birthday falling in December and that she (teacher) had a “gut” feeling that come Grade 1, Mika was going to struggle. Her gut feeling was telling her that due to our daughter‘s young age she was not going to be mature enough to cope with the workload and social pressures. Noting that our daughter was going to turn 7 in Grade 1; the legal age for this grade.
The teacher informed us that the school cannot decide to retain her. With no evidence indicating that our daughter was struggling, this was going to be difficult to proof. If there is no concrete evidence that a child is struggling academically, the WCED officials will not allow retaining a child. Thus, placing the ball in our court. Giving us the responsibility to make a decision on whether to retain or not.
Given a few days to think about the request. We had to inform the school by the second week in November what we decided. Discussing it further and asking my mom, who has been and educator for over 50 years for advice on the matter. After considering the pros and cons and doing research on the topic of grade retention. We decided not to retain our daughter. We had to give her the opportunity to progress to the next grade.
What we based our decision on?
As parents we take both our children’s education very seriously and we want what is best for them and their future. Not presented with any concrete evidence that our child was struggling and had inappropriate maturity development. Maturational development includes sustained attention, emotional regulation, following instructions, social relationships and social cognition. This all develops within time and so there was no evidence proving that she lacked any of the before mentioned. By simply going on a ‘gut’ feeling was not enough to swing our decision in the other direction.
Our daughter’s academic achievement was on par. She met the grade level standards. She was coping well emotionally and socially. Although young, our daughter was aware of the fact that she was doing well in Grade R which boosted her confidence. Exited to progress to Grade 1 with a new uniform already bought. We feared that retaining her would harm her self-esteem. We also feared that she would start disliking school. Boredom would kick in due to her repeating the same academic work resulting in low motivation and behavioural issues.
What does research show?
Research studies show that grade retention does not help children and it does not improve their academic achievement over time. Research on the topic is inconclusive that a child’s maturity level will determine his/her success in future grades. Treating each case on its own merit. It has also revealed that children’s level of maturity develop at a different rate and time. Therefore no two children will ever be at the same level of maturity at any particular time. Resulting in them acting differently to the same situation. Bearing in mind, a child eleven months older can still have less of the emotional maturity level of a younger peer due to a lack of parental involvement, socio-economic issues as well as lack of knowledge from the parent and child, abilities and cognitive stimulation.
Findings on grade retention with regards to academic performance are twofold. One study revealed that older children have a modest academic advantage over young children in the first two grades but that this advantage disappears in a few years. The other revealed that younger peers make the same academic progress as older peers. In some cases younger peers outperform their older peers. It also found that age is an insufficient factor when it comes to teaching mathematics and reading skills in Grade 1.
According to Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt, the authors of “Delay kindergarten at your child’s peril”, school gives young children an academic advantage and makes them smarter. Interaction with older children influences maturation. Young children learn from older children. Having an older sibling speeds up maturity and social development.
When to delay school or to retain?
Ultimately it is the decision of the parents when to delay or to retain. The school should inform you within the second term that your child is struggling to cope with the pressures of preschool or the grade. Highlighting the areas of weakness. Putting interventions in place at school and at home to assist your child.
If all else fails and you have explored all avenues and the interventions are showing no improvement in your child’s development and academic performance. Then consider retention. Not coping academically and being far behind their peers could justify delaying school or grade retention. Unable to follow instructions, interact in class, low levels of concentration and showing no interest in school.
Currently, Mika is in Grade 2. She is doing very well academically and within a space of a year we have noticed a significant growth spurt. She has always been a very independent child but improved changes has been noted in her physical and emotional development. Having an older sibling, from who she learns, sparks continuous social and intellectual development. Deciding against retention was the best decision we could’ve made for our child.
Bottom line… Age should not be a predictor of school readiness and age let alone birth dates should not be a sole criterion to determine school readiness and subsequent retention. Also bear in mind that boys and girls develop differently. Each case is different and should be treated on its own merit. If you are currently faced with making a decision on whether to retain, take your time to think about it. Weigh up the pros and the cons. Make the right decision for your child.