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Repeating a Grade: Will It Help or Hurt?

A CHILD'S WORLD: What shapes the way we grow up. One in an occasional series.


Any way he looks at it, repeating first grade hurt Sergio Yamayo.

"Students would say things like 'Hey, flunker, what's up?' That would really get me mad," says the Canoga Park teen-ager, now 15.

"Sometimes I hit them. Then I would go to the principal. He suspended me two or three times."

The taunting intensified his loneliness. "It was hard looking for new friends," he says. "I didn't know anyone in the new class."

He acted out his frustration by refusing to work. "I didn't do anything for the teachers," he says. "I thought I had done all the work last year, so I didn't have to do it this year. . . . I didn't think it was fair."

Worst of all, repeating the year didn't help him academically. In fact, his mother, Rosalie, thinks it has haunted him. "It was devastating for him, and he's never been able to catch up," Rosalie says. "He can barely read. He will see the first letter and just guess. He doesn't even want to try."

Experiences like Yamayo's have helped prompt new questions among elementary school parents and educators about retention--holding a student back a year because of academic or behavior problems.

Having students retained was popular at all grade levels until the 1950s, when educators decided the children would be stigmatized by their peers, says Jim Grissom, a state education consultant.

But interest boomed again in the late '70s, when many people blamed lower Scholastic Aptitude Test scores and other educational problems on "social promotion," the practice of advancing students regardless of academic standing, says C. Thomas Holmes, a University of Georgia professor who studies retention.

Now, the advisability of holding students back is being reconsidered. Current studies say retained students are not only stigmatized by classmates but also more likely to drop out. Those who are held back and stay in school score lower in academics and self-esteem than students with similar problems who are promoted, says Lorrie Shepard, a retention expert from the University of Colorado.

Even with such concerns, some experts say retention still can be the best answer in certain circumstances.

Taking an extra year between kindergarten and first grade because of social, emotional or physical immaturity may help children, says Professor James Uphoff of Wright State University in Ohio. (Programs for such children are often called junior first grade or kindergarten-plus.) He agrees, however, that retaining a child for academic reasons can be harmful.

Retention also might help children who missed a lot of school and are committed to improving, says Kathleen Reilly, a first-grade teacher at Canoga Park Elementary School. She says such students include those from countries "where the school system has been devastated by war, or the economies are so bad . . . that if the students get to a school, it's a miracle."

Parents of problem students, then, must wonder what's the best course: to let their children continue to slog it out or to try to resolve things early but risk longer-term effects.

Maya Washington is one parent who says retention helped her daughter. After Daphne struggled to grasp concepts in kindergarten, her mother hoped the problems would vanish in first grade. They didn't.

"She had problems with writing and comprehension," Washington says. "She would be asked to write the word cat , for instance, and the a would be left out."

After a while, Daphne's frustration spilled over.

"She started becoming more aggressive toward other students," her mother says. "She would pick fights, and other kids would pick fights with her. Sometimes she would write sentences backward."

Medical specialists found no dyslexia or other problems, but Daphne's troubles snowballed.

"The teacher started calling me for more conferences," Washington says, "because my daughter started crying when things were too hard . . . and students started teasing. They were saying, 'You're a dummy. . . . Your mommy and daddy are dummies.' "

"We decided to hold her back for a year. . . . Her grades were poor. Things that first-graders should know, she couldn't comprehend."

Fights between her mother and stepfather bothered Daphne, Washington says. The mother ended her marriage and found a boyfriend who loved Daphne and helped with homework.

"After that she started coming home with certificates," Washington says. " 'I got 100% on my math.' 'I got a 100% on my spelling.' . . . Her new teacher called and said she's a great student."

"Being held back in the first grade isn't bad," Washington says. "It's better than being held back in the 11th or 12th. You have to nip (the problem) in the bud."

Daphne, 7, says repeating the year was a mixed blessing.

"Sometimes my new friends make it harder for me because they tell me what to do when I already know," she says. "It makes me kind of mad. They don't know I'm smart enough to know that already.

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