Should I stay or should I go?

Parents and experts sound off on the difficult decision of whether to hold a child back a grade


By Chandrea Serebro

When it comes to children, no decision is easy. And the changing world seems to be making the terrain even rougher for parents and even kids themselves to navigate. Before, the system dictated that the cut-off age for starting school used to be six years old, and the intake ran from July to June. Now it runs from January to December, with many parents of children born toward the end of the year left with the conundrum of whether to send their kids to school or rather wait another year. Sounds like the change in the system to the calendar year should make the decision a foregone conclusion, but like everything, it never is. It’s a contentious issue – but at the end of the day everyone agrees that one has to do what is right for the individual child. Some who have gone down that road realised that they were never aware of the full extent of the issue and the ramifications it might have – whether positive or negative – down the line. So it’s best to be in the know before making any decisions.

“School readiness is most definitely child dependent. It’s crucial to examine and assess the child’s circumstances, personality, genetic loading, and the philosophy of each school that is being considered for a child,” says Heidi Bome, Educational Psychologist. “There are guidelines and set formulas to follow, however a solution for one child is not necessarily the right solution for another child.” Statistically speaking, Heidi explains, isolated IQ and academic scores give a “limited view of a child”, yet looking at this alone is one of Heidi’s “frustrations” – “children are cookie-cut and boxed by statistical scores. A child is not a graph, a percentile, or a score; he or she is an individual little person. I look holistically at a child, examining and assessing all their perceptual, intellectual, and academic layers. It’s crucial that all stakeholders – parents, teachers, therapists – are on the same page and work together in the best interests of the child. This allows a global, holistic view to follow an informed decision.”

“But critically,” says Heidi, “confidence, attitude, the child’s emotional stability, physical and emotional maturity, and the parent’s practical expectations are all factors to consider.” In his best-selling book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell looks at why successful people are successful. One of the examples that he cites is hockey players, who all happen to have been born in the first few months of the year. This slight age difference put them ahead of the pack. Many moms relate of their children excelling academically, emotionally, and in maturity. Lana had to decide what to do for her daughter, a December child. “We thought about it seriously. The problem was that there was absolutely no reason to keep her back. She was emotionally fine, coping beautifully at school, but I was concerned about the future. Life is so hard and stressful as it is, why give her a disadvantage of possibly falling behind or struggling?”

Pam has an “exceptional” son, yet despite this, decided to wait so he “could mature and grow into a more confident boy”. “His emotional well-being is important. We have been given tools to extend him further at home when he feels ‘bored’ at school, and now he is no longer showing signs of anxiety, and is more confident. But we had no support from his school last year regarding our decision not to send him through to Grade 1 this year. They felt that he would be stifled by being held back, yet we decided to trust our gut.” Monica says, “It was the best decision to keep my daughter back. She was excelling at school so it was a difficult decision, but emotionally she would never have coped.”

Yet the jury is out – for every mom complaining of regret and misinformation surrounding the decision to hold a child back, there’s another mom who sings the praises of sending her child up. A recurring theme from moms grappling with this, past or present, is that, “No one regrets keeping a child back, but many people, with hindsight, said they should have.” “I didn’t keep my October daughter back, and it was the biggest mistake. If kids are ready academically it does not mean they are ready socially or emotionally, irrespective of any assessment,” and Julie says that she knows many parents in the same boat as her who regret not keeping their child back.

Debbie, a teacher, who held two of her own children back, asserts the importance of knowing the reason for keeping a child back. “If it’s emotional then there’s no discussion, the kid needs to mature and have time to do that, but sometimes if it’s academic it needs to be assessed if it’s another year the kid just needs or if it’s a remedial problem that time won’t fix. The advantages of keeping back are huge – in my opinion, you cannot regret keeping back, but you can regret sending them if they are not ready, especially when the kid who didn’t stay back starts struggling.”

Yet the reality is there are some moms who now find their children in a sea of problems based on this decision. Even the business of ‘age’ is not as clear-cut as we like to think. “We need to remember that a child will be developing socially and intellectually throughout his life,” says Heidi. And while keeping November or December babies back for the extra year of play might seem a “no-brainer”, as one mom describes it, what about babies born in those “iffy months”? “My son is born in September. We didn’t keep him back and he is thriving, but the first few months of every year are stressful and in the same grade there are children who were kept back, now a year and a half older, managing so much better.”

The issues to consider are complex. “Is the child emotionally mature enough to handle the demands of school? I always ask parents not to just look at the year ahead, but at the child’s entire school career. Deciding to repeat or advance will impact on the child emotionally, socially, and intellectually throughout his academic career,” says Heidi. “I’m a November baby pushed up a grade at school, so I was two years younger than some in my year. It was incredibly difficult for me socially my entire schooling. I wasn’t emotionally mature enough, and I even feel this struggle has defined most of my social interactions throughout my life.”

Ruth Sacks, a teacher who guides parents in this decision, says that social and emotional readiness plays a great part. “Whenever I need to put it into perspective for a parent, it is a matter of understanding the potential to be at the top of the class versus the lower end. But there are other issues. Kids are exceptionally perceptive, and we need to protect their confidence. It can be very damaging to a child’s self-esteem when he is aware that he has been held back.”

Another mom describes her decision to hold her child back as “the worst decision of my entire life”. “We kept my child back in grade 0 at the recommendation of the school. My child was acutely aware of the fact that he was older, and this was very demoralising for him. Many people and professionals I have spoken to since feel that if your child is displaying difficulties or issues, holding the child back will not change anything. We had my child reassessed in grade eight and, with a big push and support from the school, were able to skip a grade and ‘right the wrong’.” But few get the opportunity to fix things like this.

Leah, a mother whose child is in high school, has been experiencing the ramifications of the decision to hold her son back ever since she made it many years ago. “Sometimes teachers and other professionals will justify their recommendation by saying that a child is emotionally immature, but years later, after holding your child back, you find that the child is still emotionally immature and that it was just part of who that child is, like a character trait, so this really shouldn’t be a basis for a holding a child back. Most parents don’t understand the implications for later in life. I held my son back and it has been a very challenging and draining experience over the course of many years. Kids have to justify the age difference, and often feel inadequate, wondering why they were held back in the first place, questioning their age, their size, why their friends went up and not them, etc. The sports issue is critical. Kids can no longer play with the friends in their grade, forced to play with children in a different year. This is a battle I’ve personally been fighting for years, and I’d love to beat the system, for the sake of all kids past and present.”

Sports coaches have ‘rules to follow’, yet these rules don’t seem to be evolving with the changing landscape of modern kids and decisions such as these. “Some children thrive playing sport in different age groups, others feel left out and isolated when their peers are discussing ‘their’ game and the other child is not a part of it,” says Heidi, and for Leah, her child would sooner give up his sport, despite his ability on the field and his great love of the game, rather than have to play with kids he doesn’t know, with the stigma of the discrepancy in age. “Friendships, bonds, and brotherhoods are made on the sports field, and if you’re playing with a different age-group, you are excluded from all of that, and it’s very disheartening. An entire social network is made on these fields, with a child forced to play with kids outside of his class being excluded from all of it.”

Physicality is another thing to consider. Should your child repeat a year, he may “tower above his peers, highlighting the fact that he is older”, and not fitting in physically might “shatter a child’s confidence”, says Heidi. Puberty is an important factor to consider too, both physically and emotionally. And the decision to repeat or progress may influence the child in his/her bar/batmitzvah year, which might leave the child celebrating alone in that year, without the understanding, support, or camaraderie of friends.

There is also strong argument that suggests that we may be creating an issue by giving people the choice of holding back, which, says Beverley Berger, a grade one teacher, “has become a safer option”. “Now, one is no longer comparing apples with apples. If everyone (except those with problem areas who need to be held back based on professional findings) went to school in the year he turned 7, we wouldn’t have the issues we have today. Keeping back just because they are young changes the dynamics of the class, distorts the average age, and can cause problems.”

“As parents, myself included,” says Heidi, “We always want our child to be the proverbial doctor, accountant, engineer; we must remember, and not lose sight that a happy child is a successful child. This means being honest about our child’s reality versus our parental expectations. I always ask, ‘What do you hope to benefit from repeating a year?’ The reasons have to outweigh the negatives.” And above all, make yourselves fully aware of the issues. “I don’t know if I would do things differently if I had all the information that I have now, but at least I would have known what we were in for, and been able to start him off on a different footing.

*Names have been changed

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