When is retention in first grade beneficial?

Kindergarten teacher helping student with reading skillsIs retaining students in first grade always a bad idea, or are there cases when it is beneficial to students in the long term?

A new study in The Elementary School Journal finds that retention may benefit first graders who have academic problems as well as problems with learning related skills (LRS) such as self-regulation, prosocial skills and conscientiousness.

The longitudinal study of 125 ethnically and linguistically diverse retained children found that children with poor learning-related skills performed better in math and reading in grades 1-5 than retained children who did not have problems with learning-related skills.

“Although short-term academic and social benefits of grade retention diminish over time for the ‘average’ retained child, the current study suggests the existence of a class of retained children for whom the short-term benefits of retention may be more durable,” the researchers write.

“Specifically, those children with the poorest LRS and academic achievement in their first time in first grade may have the most to gain by repeating first grade, both academically and socially.”

This research studies examined the trajectories of retained children to see if there are subsets among the retention population based on learning-related skills.  The researchers found that students who progressed the most after retention did in fact have poorer effortful control, the ability to focus and shift attention, persist in tasks in the face of challenges and delay gratification. The researchers also considered other attributes such as ego resiliency, conscientiousness, prosocial skills and hyperactivity.

In preschool and elementary school, boys score lower than girls on measures of effortful control, and African American and poor children also score lower.  The association between poverty and effortful control is thought to be a result of the deleterious effects of stress on aspects of brain development and self-regulation.

Participants in the study attended 3 school districts in Texas (one urban, 2 small city). The researchers used growth mixture modeling with unknown groups to model individual and group trajectories of math and reading development over 6 years, beginning when children were in first grade for the first time.

Early intervention on learning related skills could help buffer children from low achievement and possible retention, the authors write.

“Differential growth trajectories for achievement among children retained in first grade,” by Qi Chen, Jan N. Hughes and Oi-Man Kwok, The Elementary School Journal, 2014, Volume 114, Number 3, pp. 327-353.

3 Responses to “When is retention in first grade beneficial?”

  1. E. Smith

    Please tell me the % of African American males and females, who graduated from HS after being retained in the 1st grade.

  2. Judy Eledge

    As a thirty year educator and many of those in bush Alaska I will tell you that a stringent K-1 intervention program works wonders for many children. Children who are young entries and many with speech language problems benefit greatly with retention in grades K-1. Of course targeted instruction and teacher change in instruction must happen. Tracking the data for improvement is a must. I have always wondered why we thought a child that could not do kindergarten or first grade work could do the next grade successfully.

  3. Carol

    What research is out there about repeating first grade when a child moves from a Language Immersion to an English Speaking school?


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