Ask an Expert

My daughter's school would like her to repeat second grade. When is it good to keep a child back, if ever?

Rarely. A child who is falling behind needs help with whatever is interfering with learning  

Matthew Cruger, PhD

Senior Director, Learning and Development Center
Child Mind Institute

Q: My daughter has been diagnosed with selective mutism, anxiety, and dysgraphia. The school would like her to repeat second grade because she is behind in math, reading, and writing.  She sees an occupational therapist and has a tutor after school twice a week for an hour. At school she gets a special-ed teacher for a half hour five days a week, and is in a social group twice a week. Is she simply inattentive, or is the anxiety causing inattention? When is it good to keep a child back, if ever?

A: For most kids, repeating a grade is not a great idea. It can be a demoralizing experience and should be approached cautiously.

Most often when I hear of a child being asked to repeat a grade it's because the school or the teacher or the parents—or all of them—think she is "socially young" for her age and behind their peers, or because she hasn't mastered the academic skills from the grade.

However, most of the kids I hear about who are too "young" or "immature" or not taking in enough information are kids who have some issues making it hard for them to learn, either socially or academically. They could be inattentive or hyperactive, or seriously anxious, or have a learning disorder that is getting in the way. So the idea of repeating the year doesn't really make sense because what these kids need is specific help or targeted interventions for the things that are getting in their way.

In your daughter's case, you've already taken an important step and identified three separate conditions that could be causing her to fall behind her peers. The supports your child is being provided are a great start; if they're not allowing her to keep up with her classmates, she may need a higher frequency of services or more individualized services. For instance, if she gets services in a small group, it might be more beneficial for her to meet one-on-one with the therapist. Learning disabilities like reading, writing or math disorders can be successfully managed by interventions that help a child compensate for weaknesses and find effective strategies for keeping up with academic demands.

If your daughter has selective mutism, it's important to make sure she gets treated by a team that uses the best evidence-based approaches, which can be very effective (Here's a link to the approach we use at the Child Mind Institute and an interview with parents whose daughter was successfully treated). Not speaking or participating in class can certainly lead kids to underperform.

Anxiety can cause inattention, but there are also kids who are anxious and inattentive. Further evaluation may be required to rule out whether her inattention is occurring separately from her other issues, and needs attention.

In general, holding a student back is not a first-choice approach for a kid who is falling behind. The best thing is to get a clear sense of diagnoses and to find the best treatments to manage those disorders.

Published: January 2, 2013

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