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Kindergarten Retention: A Difficult Decision

By Tiffani Mugurussa on March 5, 2013
  • Grades: PreK–K

Most kindergarten teachers at one time or another have to have that difficult conversation with parents in regards to retention. In the course of my 20+ years as an educator, I too have had this conversation. Recommending retention for a child never comes easily. There are many factors that need to be considered.

Within the United States, the cutoff age for kindergarten entrance varies. For example, in Washington, Georgia, and Texas, children must be five years old by September 1. In California, the date was just recently changed from needing to be five by December 2 to November 1. It will continue to roll back one month each year until it becomes September 1.

Many school districts are now offering a TK/JK (transitional or junior kindergarten) program for those children whose birthdate falls near the cutoff date. These programs offer a two-year kindergarten experience, giving the child the needed time to grow emotionally and socially in order to be better prepared for the rigorous educational road that lies ahead. Programs of this nature are best suited for children who have had very little socialization experiences with other children of their own age, who may not have attended any type of preschool program, or who are socially and emotionally young.

For school districts that do not offer a TK program, the responsibility of meeting the social and emotional needs of young students falls upon the classroom teacher. At the beginning of the school year, it is appropriate for kindergarten teachers to have choice-time built into their daily schedule. Choice-time usually consists of age-appropriate playtime, which might include centers that focus on blocks, dramatic play/housekeeping, LEGO construction, coloring/painting, and play dough. This time allows children to interact with their peers and develop social skills. For some children this is natural and easy; for others who have not had prior playtime experience, this can be a difficult time.

As the school year progresses, the opportunities for these types of centers may fall by the wayside. With new and more rigorous standards, the focus in kindergarten has turned from the development of social skills to skills that are more academic in nature. For students who aren’t developmentally ready to tackle the rigors of kindergarten and the academics, it can be overwhelming.

These emotionally and socially young children often express their frustrations through a variety of undesirable behaviors. Examples of this are children who:

  • Cry repeatedly or have tantrums
  • Show signs of not wanting to attend school
  • Wet their pants
  • Scribble on classwork
  • Do not focus or pay attention
  • Continuously interrupt
  • Show aggressive behavior towards other students

Although these students typically make progress, they are still far behind their peers. Some students are late bloomers and during the second half of the school year show immense growth socially, emotionally, and academically. However, what does a teacher do for that child who isn’t making growth in all three areas? This is when some teachers might be thinking about the possibility of retention.

When considering retention, many factors need to be weighed. This is a decision that has the potential to either negatively or positively have a lifelong effect on the child. It is important to look at the child’s age, their academic progress, and their maturity. A child who exhibits social and emotional behavior that is age-inappropriate and is unable to attend to academic tasks might be a good candidate for retention. Another year of kindergarten could be considered as a “gift of time” to allow the student to grow and develop social and emotional skills. However, a child who is considered to be on the older side of his or her peers, both chronologically and socially, may have other learning issues that need to be addressed through academic testing for learning disabilities. In this case, retention may not be the best solution.

Another factor to consider is the age the child will be when they graduate. Do we want children who are 19 or 20 years old in high school? Something else to consider is the possibility of a second retention. Some states have mandatory retention laws. If a child is unable to pass state testing in certain grades, they will be retained. With this type of mandate, it is very possible that a child might be retained twice. While states have guidelines that only allow a child to be retained twice, we need to consider the ramifications and ask ourselves if we really want a child who is 20 years old at school with students who could be as young as 13 or 14 years old.

While there isn't just one indicator that determines whether a child is ready for kindergarten, there are several factors that need to be considered. A child’s development needs to be evaluated in several different areas. Some schools offer kindergarten screenings before a student is enrolled into the kindergarten program. Depending upon the programs school districts offer, it is possible to screen children to recommend whether they would benefit from a one-year or a two-year program. The two-year program would most likely be of a transitional or junior kindergarten nature.

Ultimately, parents know their child best. Some parents opt to postpone their child’s entrance into kindergarten to give them the advantage of being older; this is sometimes referred to as “redshirting.” The term is borrowed from collegiate sports where athletes will practice with the team for the first year, but do not compete. This gives them time to become bigger, stronger, and more competitive. Often it is boys with summer birthdays who are redshirted. Some parents will hold their child out because they feel that the child is not ready cognitively, emotionally, or socially. Other parents may delay their child’s starting year because they assume that by being a year older, their child will be more academically advanced. 

The following is a list of indicators that includes a range of cognitive, social, academic, and developmental factors to consider when deciding if a child is ready to enter school:

Social/Emotional Skills

  • Separates from parent/caregivers without excessive upset
  • Plays/shares with other children
  • Listens to stories without interrupting
  • Pays attention for short periods of time to adult-directed tasks
  • Waits his turn
  • Attends to an adult-directed task for at least five minutes
  • Recognizes and responds to other people's feelings
  • Follows directions

Literacy/Phonemic Awareness Skills

  • Enjoys being read to/listening to stories
  • Recites the alphabet
  • Identifies some letters and knows some of the sounds they make
  • Recognizes own name in print
  • Is able to or attempts to write own name or other ideas using symbols or letters
  • Can draw a picture to express an idea

Math Skills

  • Counts from one to ten
  • Knows basic shapes (circle, rectangle, square, triangle)
  • Beginning to count with one-to-one correspondence
  • Can sort items by one or more attributes
  • Can identify basic colors (black, blue, brown, green, orange, red, purple, yellow)

Language Skills (Expressive and Receptive)

  • Expresses needs and wants verbally
  • Speaks in complete sentences (five to six words)
  • Is generally understood by adults
  • Uses words, not physical action, to express emotions
  • Understands and follows two-step directions

Self-Help Skills

  • Can use the bathroom independently and complete accompanying hygiene tasks 
  • Is able to dress self (puts on jacket; fastens buttons, snaps, and zippers)
  • Knows full name and age

Fine Motor Skills

  • Holds pencil/crayon in a non-fisted grip
  • Cuts with scissors
  • Copies basic figures such as a circle, square, and a straight line

Gross Motor Skills

  • Bounces a ball
  • Runs and skips
  • Jumps with feet together
  • Hops while balancing on one foot
  • Climbs stairs with alternating feet

Teachers do not generally make the recommendation for kindergarten retention lightly. Often a teacher will make a referral to the school’s Student Success Team to gain advice and suggestions. The decision of retention is ultimately left up to the parents. In order for parents to make an informed decision, it is our job as educators to offer them information, guidance, and support.

Comments (5)

This article is so timely, and the bulleted section is a powerful way to help parents in deciding when to send their child to K. Thank you for such a poignant article! Perfect timing as always!

I agree that, not just putting parents at their ease, but getting them on board with the decision is key to the student moving forward.

This could not have been posted at a better time. I have been trying to figure out how to have these meetings this year. These bullets have helped me how to facilitate and hopefully put some parents at ease.

great article Mrs. Mugurussa. I was lucky enough for my son to have this amazing teacher when he was a 3rd grader. Her love for teaching and willingness to work with her students in all situations allow them to grow. Love Mrs. Mugurussa.

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