Friday, June 5, 2009

Hard choices

My oldest son has been struggling with school, in particular his reading and writing. He's in the second grade and this is the third year we have struggled with the same question. Do we hold him back? My reasons for holding him are numerous, the reasons for not are mostly for the possible social repercussions.

He has two younger siblings that are (almost) 2 and 3 years younger than him. Since he didn't start daycare until he was almost 4 this means his access to kids his own age were limited and he interacted a lot with children younger than him on a day to day basis. I believe that this contributed to him being socially behind his peers.

In kindergarten he struggled to keep up with his class. He had an attitude at the time (which is now starting to go away) that "it's just too hard and I can't do it" and because he was in a classroom of 36 students he didn't get much one on one time. So, when the school got funding for an extra classroom a few months into the year and wanted to place him in a class of only 12 kindergartners we jumped at the chance. At the time I was still new to being a mother of a school age child and assumed that the school, with all the many years of experience, would know what was best to help him. But... He was placed in a class with all of the other struggling students. This means he was with kids who don't speak English, 2 children who couldn't hear, and several students who had behavior issues (ADHD and other issues). While he could be afforded more one on one time I think this was still less beneficial and possibly detrimental since the teacher still had to instruct to the lowest common denominator. The school placed him on an IEP (Individualized Education Plan), which meant he spent part of his time in the resource room instead of with the rest of the class. The teachers reassured us that with an IEP we could get him caught up and holding him back was not necessary.

The first half of first grade was no better. His confidence was still being hacked to pieces as the teacher went on without him and he understood NOTHING that was being taught as he didn't have the foundation to go under it. He was still going to the resource room but since he didn't understand what was happening in the classroom he was falling further behind. In the middle of that year we moved to the other side of town and switched him into a new school which started to be better. The teacher started giving him assignments that were different (easier) from his classmates because she recognized that he wasn't at a level to keep up yet and, more importantly, his biggest problem was self esteem and feeling like he couldn't do it. With the easier assignments his confidence started to improve and the "I can't" attitude started to go away. The teacher and the school said he could go on to second grade and continue his IEP and he could catch up.

When he got to second grade he was still very behind in reading/writing (starting 1st grade level) but we were working on it. His math caught up to his peers and he made huge strides in confidence. But although he's progressing in reading and not falling further behind, he is not catching up either. Third grade will mean harder assignments and book reports and in my heart of hearts I know that he isn't ready (and the book reports scare him).

He's socially behind his peers by about a year. His reading ability is behind about a year. And his confidence still needs a lot of work. All of these are reasons to be held back. I worry about possible teasing but his best friend is a student who was held back last year so I know he won't be teasing my son about it. This calms my fears somewhat. Also, if you're going to hold a child back it should be done sooner rather than later. This is mainly so they won't notice it as much and it helps to minimize teasing from their peers.

So we decided to hold him back this year. My sister, who teaches elementary school herself, warned me that if I chose to hold him back I would have to fight for it because the schools prefer to push the kids through no matter what. Last week I spoke to the teacher again about holding him back and she said I'd have to talk to the principal for final decisions (the teacher having no power here anyway). The principal of his school pulled up his record, saw 'IEP' and started talking about how "children with learning disabilities don't benefit from being held back because the disability is still there". Did you READ his record? He has an IEP because he has confidence issues and fell behind. There is nothing in there that says he can't learn (aside from having the confidence to try). In fact, he IS learning in the environment, he just isn't catching up in it. "Well", she said, "statistics show that kids who are held back usually don't graduate high school". In my opinion many of them, though admittedly not all, don't graduate because the issues that caused them to be held back are still the case (like home life problems, etc). And personally, I knew several kids who dropped out and NONE of them were held back. If they had been held then maybe they would have finished school but their attitude was very defeatist after being behind their peers for more than a decade and they quit. My son is in the second grade and I have a chance to prevent that.

I explained to the principal that this was not a decision made lightly, that we've fought with it since kindergarten and that I've read everything about it that I could get my hands on. So she changed tactics. "How does his father feel about it?" she asked. I imagine that she thought I was trying to do hold him back on my own. Now, my ex and I have our differences (obviously, or we wouldn't be divorced) but when it comes to our kids we are very communicative and discuss everything going on in their lives on a weekly and often daily basis. Of course he and I have talked about this and I told her so. I had even talked to him again that morning before going in to meet her. Realizing I wasn't to be persuaded in this manner she tried categorizing him into a learning disability category again. So I was insistent. This was a decision we as parents (you know, the ones who see him every day) had made and he was going to be held back. She said she would have to speak with his teacher and the resource room teacher and she'd call me in a couple of days. So on Tuesday she called my ex and tried to talk him out of it. Was she trying to go around me? Well, it didn't work as he told her the same thing I did. We spend every day with him and as the principal she doesn't spend any time with him. We know what is best for our son and he's being held back. She relented.

In my opinion I believe that the principal works for the greater good of the school and the majority of the students. Holding a child back looks bad for the school, the teachers, and her (which is sad because I believe this school has been great and it was his FIRST school that wasn't). It could, if it happens to a lot of kids, lead to less funding for the school or change it to a less desirable category (schools are reevaluated every year) and therefore hurt other students. To be fair, I believe that in not wanting to hold him back she was trying to do what was best for the greater good of the other kids. But I'm his mother. I work in the best interests of 3 (and soon to be 5) kids. I spend my time with 3 children, not hundreds, and I'm going to do whatever I need to for them. I'm sad that he's being held back but I'm making sure I emphasize to him that this is an opportunity for him to catch up. He didn't do anything wrong and this isn't a failure. I'm making sure he knows that we are extremely proud of him and that we do think he's smart (he is very smart and I think the teachers will be blown away by the difference when his confidence picks up). I think we made the right choice.

So, in a related story that is somewhat funny in a OMFSM that's SAD kind of way: This morning my son was having a hard day and we got to school a little late. If you're late you must have a note from the front office before you can go to class. So we stopped in the office and when asked why we were late (they write the reason on the slip) I told her that we were having a rough morning. She gave him the slip and we walked to class. I looked at his slip and stopped walking... On it she had written "ruff morning". No wonder my son can't read! I expect misspelled words to happen frequently most of the time but she works in a school! These people are shaping my children's lives on a daily basis! And what would be considered a ruff morning, anyway? Is that when the dog ate your homework? Or you were chased by dogs on the way to school? Sigh...


  1. I can't imagine how difficult this is. If it helps I will tell you this. My parents held my youngest brother back one year because he was a young 6 year old. It turned out to be the best thing as he matured to the levels of the students in the class and it gave him confidence socially to attack the learning materials. He went on to become a great student and a star quarterback for the football team. He quit football in high school so he could concentrate on his studies. Got scholarships for college and now works as a Senior VP for his company. All of this before he's 40. He is very successful. Too often being held back is seen as too negative thing when it can be very beneficial.

  2. Don't be sad; you really are making the best decision for your son. We held our daughter back (she repeated the third grade) because of significant challenges in math. I didn't want her to go on to the fourth grade and have her struggles in math impact her performance in her other subjects. It was the best decision we ever made. In her second year of third grade, her math skills improved and more importantly, her confidence and self-esteem blossomed. There's nothing like a child feeling like they're dumb (her feelings because she felt she "couldn't get math") to batter down the walls of self-esteem. As you are doing, we emphasized that being held back was not a negative thing, but rather a positive one, an opportunity for her to have more time to work through the math issues and really understand the concepts. We've never regretted the decision.

  3. School is about getting children to conform. My daughter is a talker, always has been and very much socially oriented. Because of this, she was difficult to get to focus on work assignments. Many "educators" wanted to label her hyperactive, ADD, yadda yadda. I refused to allow it. You must do your best to control the experts. They have their usefulness but are not infallible.

    And I just can't bring myself to comment on your last paragraph.


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