Let’s call him Sam. With a birthday two days before the school cutoff, his parents knew that he was young for kindergarten, but they decided to take a chance. By January, however, Sam still wandered the room while the other kids sat for rug time. At writing time, Sam couldn’t hold his pencil. Then, when the class was adding stacks of colored cubes, Sam just threw them. Working together, Sam’s parents, teacher and school psychologist tried various adjustments, but by April, Sam was still miserable.

While Sam’s predicament is not typical, it does seem to be on the rise in today’s standards-driven schools. Now and then, kinders—especially young ones, like Sam--just aren’t quite ready for school yet.   Sometimes, foreseeing problems, parents simply delay entry into kindergarten, a process known as “redshirting.” Some school districts also offer a “young fives” program. But for kids like Sam, schools and parents may make a more difficult call: to repeat kindergarten.  

As a rule, school professionals strongly avoid this practice of “retention.” In its current position paper, for example, the National Association of School Psychologists urged instead that schools take a careful, case by case look at exactly what a child under consideration for retention needs, and instead of changing his grade, provide the supports necessary for him to continue along with his classmates, and succeed.  

But especially in cases like Sam’s, in which a child is new to school, young for his grade, and feeling overwhelmed, teachers, parents, and school psychologists may give serious consideration to holding a child back. If you find yourself in this situation, you’ll want to consider the following:

  • Age and Physical Development. Is this child young for the grade, especially with a birthday after the start of the school year? And is the child physically small in relation to classmates? A small, young child may welcome a younger class. 
  • Academic Level. Does the child struggle with routine academics in kindergarten, such as writing the alphabet, handling numbers, or sitting in groups? Has the child clearly not attained the state standards by the end of the year? Some children, especially boys, develop small motor and social skills somewhat later than girls. They may benefit from an extra year to mature.  
  • Social Development. Has the child succeeded in making friends this year? If not, another year of kindergarten may offer reassuring chances to develop social skills.

Whatever a school decides, a child should of course not just be dumped into a lower level; all the adults who care for him should work together to address the child’s specific learning needs. Learning disabilities will especially need to be addressed; research has shown that they will be critical factors regardless of grade, and will not be helped by retention. And finally, if a child has developed a strong group of friends, there may be additional reasons to keep him where he is—while simultaneously taking steps to give whatever academic adjustments are needed in order to help him catch up.

So…if you’ve got a Sam in your life and you’re looking for simple answers, you probably aren’t going to find them. But that’s a good thing, after all: it means your school knows that each child is unique, and deserves the very best personal care.