Pros and Cons of retention for a 4th grader with special needs
March 26, 2014 11:32 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for research or studies that examine the pros and cons of having a child with special needs (especially Autism Spectrum Disorder) repeat a grade versus social promotion. I'd also like to hear from teachers or educators who've held kids back and any students (especially those that were receiving special education services) that were held back in the 3rd, 4th or 5th grade and how it impacted you.

My son is on the Autism Spectrum and is considered high-functioning in that he has an average IQ and generally doesn't have any severe behaviors that have to be managed. His biggest areas of deficit are attention, communication (both using language and understanding what people are saying to him) and executive functioning. He spends very little time in the regular classroom now because he's so far behind academically (2nd grade level/early 3rd grade in most areas). He's friendly with his classmates (and they seem friendly to him) but he doesn't have any significant friendships that we can see. He rarely talks about his classmates and generally spends his time on the playground by himself. He doesn't seem unhappy or distressed by this.

When we've brought up the idea of holding him back, the teachers and administrators talk about how "studies show" that holding back kids doesn't help them catch up academically. The teachers and administrators recommend promoting him to the next grade and just providing more intervention and modification of his current academic plan. When I did a google search for research on holding kids back, most of the studies seemed to focus on high-risk kids and how holding them back negatively impacts them. They dropped out of school early, they became aggressive...basically, the studies seemed to be saying that many of the kids that were held back SHOULD have been receiving special ed services to get them to grade level and should have stayed with their grade. So, I totally understand the concept of "social promotion" and why that might be preferable for most kids....but I'm not sure it's the right solution for my kid.

Basically, we're really considering having him repeat 4th grade so see if he can catch up on some of what he's missed and maybe (just maybe) be able to spend more time in the regular classroom going forward. His services have increased dramatically this year (4x what they were last year) so he's finally making some headway. We don't expect miracles but we just feel that socially promoting him just will leave him more isolated from his class as the work gets harder and he continues to struggle to catch up.
posted by anonymous to Education (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
ASD-diagnosed former student here. I was held back in kindergarten. It was no big deal. It didn't make the social environment any more or less difficult than it would have been otherwise, at least not from what I can recall. In my case the main reason for retention was because nobody really thought I was ready to sit at a desk and attend to lessons the way first-graders were expected to. This was probably accurate and I think my parents and teachers probably made the right decision -- but at the same time, retention was NOT a magic fix for my executive-functioning and social difficulties.

My take on your son's situation is that retention for one year probably wouldn't hurt, especially if he hasn't really made friends that would be "leaving him behind". It may even help, academically speaking. But if you go for it, keep your expectations realistic. The quality of what his support team can provide is going to be a lot more of a critical factor than what grade he is in at any given time.
posted by aecorwin at 12:39 PM on March 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

We have a son diagnosed with severe working memory impairment. He was never held back a grade for similar reasons as your school board mention.

In 4th grade (with no supports), much of his reading/math/writing comprehension was approximately on par with his kindergarten brother. In 5th grade he moved into the LD class and got a lot of support. With the supports in place he was able to see his own improvements, and suddenly become motivated about school, which also helped improve and he began catching up.

Flash forward, and he'll start highschool next year. He's got an IEP and there are accomodations made for him in class, but for the most part he's mainstreamed in all of his courses now, despite how far back he was a few years ago.

I could see arguments be made either way however, as the LD class shifted his social status, and grades 7-8 he was bussed to a different school for a special program. In 7th grade he was mainstreamed in math, with supports. In 8th grade he's mainstreamed additionally in enlish and science. In high school he'll again be bussed to yes another different school for his program. His social peers keep changing, but he doesn't have to worry about anyone "finding out" that he failed a grade and associated stigma. At least in 8th grade we keep hearing from his teachers he's well liked and relatively popular. Next year, with an entirely new school (the only people he'll know will be a few students in his current program that will also be in his future highschool program), it will be all up in the air again.

I have delievered an anecdote where 1) an extra year wasn't needed to "catch up" and 2) of "success" despite not continuing in the same social group. Essential both sides are right! But, guess which one is cheaper for the schools?

Schools probably think of it as a cost/benefit thing. Holding him back a year is more costly, and especially if he's got more supports in place now they really want to get him out of the system. They'll need a very convincing reason/evidence that repeating the year is the way to go. They have many anecdotes, like mine, where the kids will either catch up, or at the very least graduate without needing that extra catch up year. I suspect that they mainly bring up the peer thing to make the cost savings sound better / less selfish towards the partents. At the same time, being held back a grade definitely would have hurt our son's self esteeem (back when he was already regularly calling himself stupid), which might have prevented the success he's had.
posted by nobeagle at 12:46 PM on March 26, 2014

It sounds like what they are trying to communicate to you is that they do not actually believe that one more year of these services is actually going to catch him up to grade level and allow him to keep pace with that going forward. Even the way you describe this, he's doing better but you don't sound terribly optimistic. It is a huge, huge difference to hold back a kid who really just needs that extra year to sort a few things out, and to hold back a kid who would, at best, be behind again the next year. And the former does mostly happen earlier on.
posted by Sequence at 12:54 PM on March 26, 2014

Like you (I think) I didn't find much research online that was specifically about holding kids with ASD back a grade, as opposed to holding back kids struggling academically in general. Might you want to email or telephone an autism or special-ed professional and ask for their input?

My first thought was whether Stephen Shore, a special-ed professor who has autism himself, has written about this, but I didn't find it if he has. On the other hand, kids with ASD can be so different from each other, he might just say the answer depends on your individual kid. It doesn't sound like you think your son would be upset or distressed if he had to repeat a grade, so that's good if you decide to have him do so.
posted by homelystar at 1:07 PM on March 26, 2014

As a former teacher my recommendation is to speak to his Inclusion Advisors. If what is being proposed is a promotion to 4th grade, with continuing support, I honestly don't think holding him back a grade will profit anyone, anything.

What you want is the best IEP for your kid moving forward. If that's tutoring and more intensive interventions outside of a mainstream classroom, it's all good.

I don't think having him sit in the 4th grade again, with less intervention, will achieve what you're hoping to achive.

There are kids with no impairments who are behind their peers, especially at that age. Boys and girls develop differently and the 3rd-4th-5th grade is actually one continuous grade that catches kids of all abilities within that age range.

Anecdote: I was moved from 3rd to 4th grade because of my superior reading ability. My math...I was an adult before I started really understanding math.

If the administration is advocating advancement, and there's no talk of diminishing services, I'd roll with it and see where it goes.

FWIW, don't be too fussed about "reading at grade level" your child may be gifted in some other way, does he draw above grade level, play piano above grade level, sing above grade level, or dance above grade level?

You can revisit this next year, or in future years. At this age, as long as he's getting good support services, I'd let it go.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:30 PM on March 26, 2014

From an anonymous commenter:
My daughter is also on the spectrum and has a learning disability. She repeated 5th grade. It didn't have a big social impact because she moved schools but the extra year really helped her academically and gave her more time to mature both socially and academically. It wasn't a magic bullet but she's now in college and doing well so from my perspective it was the right move.
posted by restless_nomad at 2:31 PM on March 26, 2014

My sister repeated 2nd grade because she was very behind in reading (because of what I believe was undiagnosed mild dyslexia.) For her, I think it really helped, and going forward she was mostly on par with her peers. Socially, I think she didn't mind because her closest friend also happened to be held back that year, and she went on to be popular and well-liked. I think in your son's case it sounds like there aren't a lot of drawbacks, and a lot of possible benefit. In more social kids it has the potential to be devastating, but probably not in his case. I feel like schools really discourage repeating grades, even when it's not in the child's best interest. Make your own decision. It's certainly better for him to stay back now rather than later, and I can't see why having extra time to catch up is ever really going to be academically detrimental.
posted by catatethebird at 4:16 PM on March 26, 2014

I absolutely think you should follow your instincts. The cynic in me thinks it's possible that for the school (are we talking public school? sounds like it) an extra year of 4th grade means an extra year of special ed services for your child. If they keep him moving along, they spend less money. Your reasons for considering holding him back sound valid; if his services have increased, then he'll have an opportunity to catch up some.

If you get resistance, ask to see the studies they're citing. You sound like a very caring and involved parent. I know how hard this is - feel free to memail me if you'd like. Good luck to you.
posted by Kangaroo at 5:55 PM on March 26, 2014

I think you should absolutely do what makes the most sense for you and your child, both academically and interpersonally.

However, on a personal note, I was skipped ahead a grade (from 2nd to 3rd) and socially, it had ramifications that lasted through until graduation. It was something that made me "different" and therefore open to mocking/criticism. (I was "the little fifth-grader" in sixth grade, "the little sixth-grader" in seventh grade, etc.)

Middle schoolers are ruthless, and being held back is a social liability. However, if your son doesn't care about that -- and it sounds like he may not -- then he may coast through any adverse stuff unscathed.

Good luck to you and to him, no matter what you decide!
posted by harperpitt at 10:02 AM on March 27, 2014

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