What Research Tells Us

Every year, approximately 2.4 million children are retained in elementary schools. Cumulative research shows that the negative effects usually outweigh the positive ones. Most children do not "catch up" when they are held back, and weakened self-esteem may affect how well they cope in the future.

Thinking About Readiness

To get a clear picture of how well a child may do at the next level, it's vital to look at as broad a picture as possible of the child's capabilities. The National Education Goals Panel states that there are at least five major factors to consider: 1) health and physical development; 2) emotional well-being and social competence; 3) approaches to learning; 4) language development and communication skills; and 5) cognition and general knowledge. These five dimensions parallel early childhood development and can be used as the basis for assessment.

Gathering Assessment Information

Include the following steps in this process:

  1. Observe the child in different settings and participating in a variety of activities and routines. Check any notes that you've kept throughout the year as well as the child's portfolio. Consider the five areas listed above: What are the child's strengths? Are there areas in which he is not up to an appropriate developmental level?
  2. Talk to parents. This is extremely important. Ask how they see their child's strengths and needs. (If you come to the decision later that the child should be held back, you will have already begun important communication.)
  3. Talk to the child's classroom teacher about how the child relates to others, as well as his involvement in curriculum and activities during the year. Together, explore the child's current capabilities and the teacher's insights on how they will translate into the skills needed for success next year.
  4. Call in specialists if you feel additional evaluations are needed. Experience and intuition are valuable tools at this stage; however, most early childhood educators are not experts in specific developmental assessments. Use Child Find or a local team in your community to gather helpful insights and vital identification.

Making the Decision

Now that you have gathered as much information as possible, and have taken time to think about what it tells you, it's time to make the best possible decision for the child. Consider the five domains identified by the Goals Panel and then ask specific questions to help you get a clearer picture of the child's chances for success. For example:

  • Does the child get along well with his peers?
  • Can the child focus on a task he finds interesting?
  • Can the child follow a series of directions?
  • Can the child communicate his or her needs?
  • Did the child connect with the themes and projects covered during the year?

Editor's Note: Research shows that boys are held back more often than girls. We also know that boys often focus on active learning and physical development. This does not mean that boys will not be successful learners in next year's settings.

Talking to Parents

Because you've involved parents in the evaluation, they are aware that you are in the process of making this important decision. If you've decided to move the child to the next level, parents will enjoy hearing the details of why their child is doing well and progressing to the next stage. However, if you still have areas of concern, now is the time to share them. Most parents want to know how they can support their child's development in specific ways.

If the decision is made to hold the child back, don't put off your conversation with parents because you feel apprehensive about their reaction. Your earlier conversation most probably focused on concerns that were the basis for your final decision. Here are some suggestions to keep in mind:

  • Before you meet, take time to think about what you want to say and how parents may hear it. In other words, put yourself in their position.
  • Share the reasons for your decision. Invite parents to ask questions, voice concerns, or just talk. (They may have fears and reservations that, once discussed, can be resolved.)
  • Avoid blame. Make sure everyone knows that it is not anyone's fault that the child needs more time at the current level.
  • Talk about how development differs with each child and discuss why this decision is in the best interests of their child.

Remember: Early childhood should be a time when children feel accomplished and have fun. Programs and families working together can nurture each child's self-esteem and, at the same time, support individual achievement through wise decisions.

Additional Reading

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Preschool, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Kindergarten, and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About First Grade by Ellen Booth Church (all Scholastic Inc.) and the NAEYC Position Statement on School Readiness. To obtain this document, write to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1509 16th Street NW, Washington, D.C., 20036; visit the Web site, www.naeyc.org/about/about index. htm; or call 800-424-2460.