- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 17, 2001

Once parents and teachers have agreed to require a child to repeat a grade, the next question is how to break the news to the child. Just as the decision has been made in the best interests of the student, it is important that the child view it as positively as possible.

"Kids are generally fairly aware when they are struggling," says Judy Madden, supervisor of guidance for Montgomery County Public Schools. "Use that as a springboard for a discussion about some things that can be done so school can be more successful. One of those would be that the child would repeat."

She suggests parents present their argument in such a way as: " 'Your teachers and mom and dad want to make sure you know the material really well in order to have a strong foundation to support learning' …

"Sometimes you can pinpoint how and why a foundation got shaky: a divorce, a new baby was born, we were out of the country visiting relatives [for an extended period]. When you can point to a reason, I think that helps. But you can't always do that … so talk frankly and say this will give you a chance to really focus and learn that material," she says.

Frank discussion is key, says Dick Dunning, principal of South Meadow Middle School in Peterborough, N.H.

"Retention can work right through junior high if the child understands what the issue is," Mr. Dunning says.

Explain it to the child by saying, "We are going to ask the school to allow you to do the same grade again. … Giving you the gift of extra time would help you, so we would like to let you stay in the sixth grade to take some more time," he says.

Sometimes, says Mr. Dunning, the student's exhalation is nearly palpable.

"In some cases, you can just see the relief on the child's face when they realize they will not have to swim upstream," he says.

Many parents worry about the effect of grade retention on their child's self-esteem.

"What is nice is for a child to be able to feel that 'Nobody kept me back I knew I needed extra time and I decided to take it,' " Mr. Dunning says.

One Arlington mother says she and her husband made sure to focus on the positive when their daughter's first-grade teacher suggested retention.

"A lot of it depends on what the parents say," says this mother, who as an employee of the county school system wished to remain anonymous. "We told our daughter she was going to practice first grade again. She stayed in the same school and had very good friends that she continued to be friends with.

"Basically, my kids feel pretty good about themselves, so my daughter was able to push off any negative vibes she got from other people," this mother says. "It's usually the parents who take it as a personal attack on themselves. My daughter is now 18. She graduates this year and is making mature and wise decisions about college."

San Diego mother Michelle Burges says she knows her son Ryan, 14, realizes that repeating the fifth grade was the right choice for him.

"Holding your kid back is the very hardest choice to make," Ms. Burges says. "But Ryan is OK about it actually, the best word I can use is that he is comfortable about it. That is the best you can hope for."

Educators say that helping children to continue to develop a strong sense of self is an important piece of the puzzle.

"I have been doing this for 28 years," Mr. Dunning says. "The things we sometimes value in life the homes, the cars, the salary aren't so important. What is important is building the internal fortitude of 'It's OK. I'm not perfect. I'm different. I need extra time.' "

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