Miss Night's Marbles

Musings, mumbles, marvels, and sometimes mockery, live from kindergarten.

Ask Miss Night: Sending a child back to kindergarten?

on 1 September, 2012

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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10 Responses to “Ask Miss Night: Sending a child back to kindergarten?”

  1. Amy says:

    Thank for this. I’ve had two conversations with parents this week (initiated by them!) about this very issue…. I appreciate, and concur with, your wisdom. Thanks for the online solidarity today – I needed it. 🙂

  2. […] know that at the end of  last week’s Ask Miss Night, I promised that this week would focus on a situation where a teacher is counting bathroom trips as […]

  3. Jen says:

    Read “Trajectories of math and reading achievement in low-achieving children in elementary school: Effects of early and later retention in grade.
    Moser, Stephanie E.; West, Stephen G.; Hughes, Jan N.
    Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 104(3), Aug 2012, 603-621. doi: 10.1037/a0027571″
    They essentially found ” Retained children received a 1-year boost in achievement; this boost fully dissipated by the end of elementary school”.

    Here is what is important as in my experience, sometimes parents are so upset they don’t hear all the teacher says–is he having any other problems? If he is only having difficulty in one isolated area, maybe he needs more differentiated instruction. If he is having global problems such as behavioral, social, math, reading, etc, then maybe it is something to possibly consider. I don’t see how based on one skill alone the teacher can discuss a demotion.

    What is the district’s curriculum and expectation for first grade? What was the Kindergarten curriculum? Was mastery of letter sounds expected last year? Do they have Reading Recovery? Are they doing daily word work such as word sorts, making words and the like? What supplemental services are available? What has the teacher already tried? (Or is she trying to avoid having to expend extra effort?)

    In my school, students were left back for not being able to read on a guided reading level 1 or 2 by the end of kindergarten. In the old days one learned to read in first grade. It may not be great policy (I could go on all day) but in a lot of modern kindergartens they are essentially running a first grade program, so it is expected children know their alphabet and all letter sounds and read and write complete sentences before they are considered “ready” for first grade.

    Coming from a very developmental program, the first grade he is in may be a poor match. He may not understand all the procedural “how to do school” stuff the other kids already know. I hate how there are Montessori or High/Scope kindergartens on every block, but everyone then sends their kid to a regular, non-developmental grade school. Where is the corresponding primary grade school?! Why not teach them Spanish for two years and then send them to a French immersion program, what’s the difference?

    Ugh.
    So I would suggest she gather more information, get the bigger picture and talk to other parents or teachers and find out what the context is locally before making a decision to pay for tutoring, get extra help in school, leave him back or pull him out of that class or school.

  4. katie says:

    Many, many issues need to be looked at when considering retention. Once a child has been placed – it needs to be looked at even closer. I think it would have to be an incredibly EXTREME situation to pull a child out of one grade after the year has started. The damage this could do is huge. Based on the information your friend gave, this child is just taking a little longer to put together a reading processing system. The teacher needs to be responsive to his needs and take him from where he is – not put him back in K. Perhaps it’s how he is being taught, rather than what he is doing. Just a thought…

    • Miss Night says:

      Thanks so much for commenting, Katie. The more I think about this case, the more I’m surprised that the teacher even suggested moving the child down for something as minor as not knowing all of his letter sounds at age 6. Having taught first grade, where (even in a private school where all my students attended a strong kindergarten program), I still occasionally had students who started the year without knowing all of their letters. I never dreamed of sending them back to kindergarten! I met them where they were and we progressed from there. The first few days are far too early to have any sense of whether a perceived lack of knowledge is in any way predictive of longer term reading progress. I also worry that this teacher is feeling pressured in regards to test scores….

  5. Mme Kathleen says:

    After reading the opening lines of Suzybelle’s issue, I thought immediately that it was silly to hold back a student because they are having difficulty in one area. I agree 100% that a student needs to be demonstrating difficulty in several areas in order to have to repeat kindergarten. One of those areas they are struggling in also MUST be social interaction. If the student is meeting expectations in regards to their social skills, that just means their other weaknesses will need to be worked on during the grade 1 school year. I have also had good experiences with 2 students who were in my class for 2 years in a row. Both of those students were missing basic social skills and were struggling with occupational therapy and/or speech language therapy.
    It’s a very difficult decision to make. A decision that needs to be agreed by everyone.

    • Miss Night says:

      Kathleen, I completely agree that social skills need to be a deciding factor, especially since there is a strong relationship between social and academic skills in young children. I’m still sort of stunned that the teacher even broached the possibility of moving the child back to kindergarten – it’s not like fishing where you can throw the little ones back!

  6. Melva says:

    As a Montessorian at heart, although I teach in a public, non Montessori school, my first thoughts were to wonder whether the child is really missing phonics skills or just having difficulty with phonics worksheets. As you mention, if kindergarten is not mandatory there is no justification for moving this child back at all. To me it sounds as if he might need some extra help for a bit if he is truly missing some letter sound connections but moving back is not warranted. I have had a couple of students retained in grade one who did well having a second year, and some who did not. Our school stopped any kindergarten retention many years ago, and this year has gone to almost no retentions except in a few situations with input from parents, admin, teacher, special ed, and student support workers. I do agree that in almost all cases students who repeat should stay with the same teacher. This boy sounds ready for grade one to me, and I hope that his teacher can get ready for him.

    • Miss Night says:

      Melva, I LOVE your point about worksheets! I never even thought of that, and it is SO TRUE. It also makes me sad that, in some schools or classrooms, children have to learn HOW to do worksheets in order to be considered competent…

  7. Faige Meller says:

    I agree, always a difficult decision, never to be taken lightly. Most importantly, whose needs are best met with this decision. Some have no imput in the matter.

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