Jerry hasn't had a very good year at school. He has had a hard time with math, and he hasn't done too well with reading, either. He has gotten bad grades on his report card every time -- although he always gets an A in art. It's not that Jerry doesn't try. He does. And the harder he tries, the worse he feels.
Some days, Jerry feels so mad about going to school that he does bad things on purpose. Like miss the bus so he's sure to be late. Or pick on other kids on the playground. Or throw his math book down a storm drain.
Jerry's teacher has to make a difficult decision. She looks over his report cards and reviews her notes about how he acts in class. She talks Jerry's problems over with the principal. Then she invites Jerry's parents in for a parent-teacher conference.
"We have decided that it might not be a good idea to promote Jerry to fourth grade," the teacher explains. "We think he would benefit from repeating this year."
"You mean you're flunking him?" Jerry's dad asks. "Well, we don't like to use that word," the teacher answers, "but we think it would be good for Jerry if we retain him for a year." Jerry's parents had a long talk with the teacher. Finally, they agreed that their son would repeat his third-grade year.
When Jerry found out, he used the same word his dad had used. "I flunked," he cried. "Now everyone is going to know I'm stupid." Jerry felt pretty ashamed. But he was relieved that his mom and dad didn't seem to be too mad.
Facing up to failure is a hard thing for anyone to do. But it can be especially hard for kids. For Jerry, repeating third grade feels like a really big deal. For a few days, he felt bad. "I'll never go back to that school," he told his mom and dad. "I won't have any friends. I'll be stuck with the little kids." Jerry's mom and dad were understanding and tried to make him feel better. They told him they weren't mad or ashamed and that they loved him just as much as ever.
"Sometimes, people just aren't ready to start something new," his mom said. "After another year in third grade, you'll be ready for fourth grade. You won't feel nervous and scared about schoolwork any more."
Jerry's teacher was helpful, too. She told him that being retained didn't mean he was dumb. It just meant that he needed some help learning new things -- and everybody needs extra help sometimes. She told him he was going to get that help next year. She explained that the school had noticed a lot about him during third grade. They knew what he did well and where he needed help. They planned to use that knowledge to help him do better next year.
She explained that he would have a different teacher next year. She said she had enjoyed having him in her class, and that she would tell the other third-grade teacher what a good artist he was. She said some kids would tease him, but they'd forget about it soon. "Some kids might say mean things, but just remember that you and I know they're not true," she said.
Jerry's teacher was right. Some kids did tease him, but other kids didn't seem to think it was that big a deal when they found out that he would be repeating third grade.
Educators have done many studies about children who repeat grades in school. This research shows that retaining students works best if it's done early -- before sixth grade. It also shows that the way kids react depends on their parents. Because Jerry's parents were sympathetic and helpful instead of punishing him or telling him he was stupid, he has a better chance of succeeding when he repeats third grade. Research shows that kids whose parents who accept the decision and work with their child at home can benefit from repeating a grade and go on to do well in school.
Some educators think that children should be promoted so that they don't fall behind in their friendships and social development. They suggest promoting a child but making sure that he or she gets extra help the next year.
Some schools partially promote students so that they take some classes with one grade and others with a lower grade. Some schools have kids attend summer school and then promote them. Jerry's teacher discussed these choices with his parents. But they decided that Jerry would benefit most from repeating third grade.
He's young for his class, and small, so he probably won't look a lot different from next year's third graders. He'll feel familiar with the material, but he'll have a new teacher to make it seem fresh and interesting. Most important, he'll have his parents' support.
"Jerry's going to do just fine next year," his teacher writes on his report card. That made Jerry feel a whole lot better.
Tips for Parents
Here are some tips from the National PTA and the National Education Association on having a successful parent-teacher conference. You should arrive with a list of questions you'd like answered, such as : How well does my child get along with others? Is my child in different groups for different subjects, and if so, why? Is my child working up to his or her ability? You should also be prepared to tell the teacher what you know about your child: what you've observed of his study habits, how much TV he watches, whether there has been sickness or emotional trauma in the family, and how he seems to be feeling about school.
Catherine O'Neill is a freelance children's writer.