Today’s Ask Miss Night question is from one of my real-life friends in California (don’t worry, she submitted the form following the proper channels. No favoritism around here!), who is asking on behalf of another friend of hers. Let’s call my friend Suzybelle. It is relevant that Suzybelle is also a public school teacher, and while she is teaching 3rd grade this year, she has taught first grade in the past. She has a ton of experience with kids in general, as a riding instructor and summer camp counselor. She is also a fun and lovely human being, but that may be of less interest to you all.
Suzybelle sums up the situation very well:
I was approached by a good friend (who is also a public school teacher but in special education). Her son has been in Montessori pre-school and kindergarten but is enrolled in public school for 1st grade. After 4 days of school, the teacher approached my friend’s husband (at Back to School Night) stating the child is missing some phonic skills and should be moved back to kindergarten. My friend says that he knows letter names and sounds, but not all of them. She says they just don’t seem to be “sticking”. From my observation and interactions with him (horseback riding lessons), this boy is at a 1st grade maturity level, has above average vocabulary and communication skills. He seems to be handling the math work in class well, has made many friends and so far, seems to be enjoying school. From what I understand, the teacher is only concerned with his reading issues. I have my own opinion on the situation, but would love to hear your thoughts. Also, in general how do you feel about “retaining” students for a second year in the same grade?
Ok, this question pushes all kinds of buttons for me. If you check out my post on kindergarten readiness, you’ll probably be able to guess that, as a general rule, it is my belief that it is a teacher’s job to be ready for children, and not vice versa. This philosophy holds through at grade levels long past kindergarten. Teachers at all levels are going to get students who are strong in some areas and weaker in others, and it is OUR JOB to teach all of them. That said, a few related thoughts:
(First, a moment of full disclosure: In the last 4 years, I can think of two situations where a child was enrolled at my school in 1st grade, and within 2 days, a unanimous decision between parent, admin, and teacher was made that the child would be better served in a kindergarten environment. It is significant that both of these children had underlying developmental challenges, had no previous exposure to French (we are a French immersion school), and were sobbing heaps of frustrated exhaustion at the end of the first two days of first grade. Both of these children are still at our school and doing well in their current year level.)
- Is kindergarten mandatory in California? If not, the teacher really has no business even suggesting that the child needs to return there. In places where kindergarten is not mandatory, public school first grade teachers need to be prepared for the possibility of being a child’s very first school experience. (We can talk about whether kindergarten or prekindergarten SHOULD be mandatory in another post, if that would be interesting to all of you…) If I taught public school first grade here, that would be my reality, too.
- Based on my own experience, I have found that children who have attended a strongly Montessori-based program prior to attending a more teacher-directed program often have an adjustment period as they adapt to the new classroom structure. I assume the same would be true for a child moving from teacher-directed to Montessori. This adjustment time is completely separate from a child’s ability to handle the content of a new grade level, and is analogous to an adult moving from, say, a punch-the-clock work environment to a set-your-own hours situation.
Those two thoughts aside, my overall instinct from Suzybelle’s description of this little guy is that he is doing just fine in first grade, and should stay there. HOWEVER: if the teacher has made up her mind that he doesn’t belong in her class, that may make her less likely to work with him to develop his phonics skills and ensure he has an overall good first grade year. I think that his parents will need to pay close attention to his general attitude toward school and reading, and intervene if necessary. That intervention may involve extra academic support, or an honest conversation with the teacher and/or principal. Also, I don’t know if it is possible to explore other classroom placements, or how disruptive that would be to this little guy at this point. In general, I think that changing classes or schools mid-year is disruptive to kids, and shouldn’t be taken lightly. If kiddo seems to feel happy, safe, and connected in his current classroom, that is meaningful feedback. Should that change, then a new teacher or school may be worth exploring.
As to the larger question of retention: first, I think that there is an important difference between retention and demotion. It is one thing for parents, teacher, and admins to decide that a child’s needs will be best met with another year of kindergarten or preschool. It is quite another for a child to start at one level and then be demoted after a few days or weeks, especially if that demotion occurs within the walls of the same school building. Kids know what that means, and I think it is extremely difficult for them to experience it as anything other than a rejection.
In terms of true retention, where a child repeats an entire grade level: I think that it is better for it to happen earlier in a child’s career than later, as the social stigma only grows; that it is better to have an extra year of kindergarten than to repeat first grade. I think that, in some cases, with some children, the best way to deal with it may be to start in a new school setting. And, even with all of that in the background: I believe that retention needs to be considered only in situations where a child shows significant challenges in multiple areas of development, where those challenges are best addressed in a kindergarten setting, and where everyone: teachers, admins, and parents has articulated the goals and purpose of the retention very clearly. In other words, lack of mastery of one particular skill or concept is NOT grounds for retention. In contrast to popular practice, I am starting to believe that children who are retained in kindergarten may be best placed with the same teacher for both years, to ensure that their academic progress continues from where it left off. I also think that children who are vulnerable to being retained may benefit from that consistent sustained relationship. I have had 2 students who have done 2 years with me. Both were traumatized children who needed the security of knowing they would be back in a familiar setting, and who could only make good academic progress once they felt safe emotionally. In both of those cases, I feel retention was the right choice; however, my first reaction any time a teacher brings up the possibility of retaining a child is still to push back, to question them hard, and to dig DEEP into the reasoning. Retention should not be common practice, it should not be taken lightly, and it should be considered only when a child has received every possible support and strategy to be equipped for the next grade level.
In other words: retention should be considered only when it is the best possible way for the school to meet the child’s needs, NOT when it is the best way to ensure the child fits the school’s needs.
Ok, Suzybelle, I don’t know if this answers your question, but I hope your little friend is doing well. Give us an update in the comments if you can. As always, readers, feel free to share your thoughts – what is common practice around retention in your school or district? How do you feel about it?
Next week: Should going to the bathroom during the school day be considered a behaviour issue?
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