To repeat or not to repeat a school year

Many parents of students who have learning and developmental differences consider grade retention; repeating the year as we call it. Is there evidence for its effectiveness?

The characteristics of students who are retained in a grade are wide and varied and there is very little Australian-based literature. However, it is safe to say that those who are retained are more likely to be:

  •    Male
  •    Experience academic failure or delay
  •    Have poor classroom conduct
  •    Display emotional immaturity
  •    Perceived as being less competent by both parents and teachers.

Does grade retention improve student outcomes?

Academic achievement

There have been scores of studies on repeating since the 1970’s. However all suffer from significant methodological and statistical flaws. One should be careful therefore in relying too much upon the data from a single study. Fortunately a number of reviews and meta-analyses have been conducted which reduce the need for interpretation of individual studies (e.g., Holmes, 1989; Holmes & Matthews, 1984; Jackson, 1975; Jimerson, 2001). However, we still need to be cautious as these reviews are summarising flawed data.

If we pretend for a moment that the data aren’t flawed, reviews have indicated that repeating either has a negative impact on academic achievement (relative to equivalent peers who go up a grade) or that the effect is nil. That is, using repeating as an intervention tool has little effect on academic achievement. When positive effects on academic achievement are reported they tend to diminish over time. Indeed, any benefits on achievement seem to be lost when the retained children and their equivalent promoted peers face new material (e.g., Jimerson, Carlson, Rotert, Egeland & Sroufe, 1997). That makes sense. The repeated child may do okay early in the year with material they mastered the previous year and which their new peers had not. However, repeating doesn’t change the personal characteristics and the poor person-environment fit that caused the problems with new learning in the previous year. Therefore, one would logically expect the child to continue to have difficulty (on average) with new learning even in their repeated grade.

Mental health

Two studies have reported that older primary school children view grade retention as being in the top three stressful life events: along with losing a parent and going blind (e.g., Anderson, Jimerson & Whipple, 2005). Young children view retention as a punishment and experience sadness, fear and anger when not promoted. In the short-term retained children can face social isolation. For example, there is some evidence showing that peers choose younger same age peers with whom to play rather than the older retained child. In the longer-term retained students tend to experience poorer social adjustment and emotional health, including lower self-esteem and perceived competence, than equivalent promoted peers (e.g. Jimerson et al., 1997).

Student behaviour

The presence of behaviour problems is a predictor of grade retention. Yet the evidence suggests that retention in a grade actually exacerbates the problem (e.g., Jimerson et al., 1997). In male students, grade retention can have long lasting adverse effects on inattentiveness, oppositional behaviour and aggressiveness (Pagani et al., 2001). A similar ‘spike’ in disruptive behaviour is typically seen in female students. However, unlike their male counterparts females display these behaviours for just a short period.

Does timing of retention affect outcomes?

Some authors have argued that age and maturity are significant factors in early school success and that perhaps holding young children back early in their school career will lead to better academic outcomes. Despite the intuitive appeal of holding back a young student seen as immature, the evidence does not support the practice. While retention in later grades may be more harmful than when conducted in early grades, the effect is relative and does not mean that early retention is useful or effective.

What’s the answer?

Like so many things in mental health and education we don’t have perfect information to guide us.

To settle the question of repeating forever we would have to conduct a study (actually multiple studies to be confident) with four equivalent groups. Group 1 is retained with no additional intervention. Group 2 is retained with the “intensive intervention”. Group 3 is promoted with no additional intervention. Group 4 is promoted and given “intensive intervention”.

Of course, this study will never pass an ethics committee and therefore will never be conducted. We are therefore stuck with making decisions on less than perfect evidence. In other words, it’s a guess. We will only know if repeating has been good or bad for a child by making a decision and trying it. we will only know when we know; a very uncomfortable place for. apparent to be.

On balance, we suggest following the following guidelines:

  1. Only consider repeating in early years.
  2. Consider moving school to do so.
  3. Repeating can be a good idea if moving States as, despite the National Curriculum, there can be considerable differences between the emphasis given to parts of the Curriculum by different states and education systems.
  4. In all though, we generally favour grade promotion. We never really “fix” anything in mental health or education. The main problem being that there is an interaction between student characteristics and the environment (the curriculum and teaching). Neither are easily changed. Therefore, we can reasonably expect that the student who has learning and developmental differences will always have some difficulty at school. In facts, some studies have reported small benefits for promoted students over retained peers. However, both groups perform more poorly than control students (those without any learning, emotional or behavioural difficulties; Silbergitt, Jimerson, Burns, Appleton & James, 2006). In other words, in the best possible case the promoted student will do slightly better than the retained student. However, both will continue to experience significant difficulties within the areas of function identified as being impaired. Our job is therefore more one of harm minimisation. Identify the child’s weaknesses and work on them. Give them specific skills that they can replicate and use to control their environment. Identify their strengths and multiply them. Give them areas in school or out that make them feel competent and make them feel like they have control over their environment. Overall, our intent should be to get these kids out of school as quickly as possible; something repeating doesn’t achieve. Adult life will be far easier for most. It allows the individual to specialise, which cuts down on the total amount of things they have to learn. They generally have more time to develop mastery over these smaller sets of skills/information. Finally, adult creates drive as the individual realises there is a need to develop mastery and to work because they need to pay the rent, afford movie tickets for their next date etc.


Anderson, G.E., Jimerson, S.R., & Whipple, A.D. (2005). Students’ ratings of stressful experiences at home and school: Loss of apparent and grade retention as superlative stressors. Journal of Applied School Psychology, 21(1), 1-20.

Holmes, C.T. (1989). Grade-level retention effects: A meta-analysis of research studies. In L.A. Shepard & M.L. Smith (Eds.). Flunking grades: Research and policies on retention (pp. 16-33). London: The Falmer Press.

Holmes, C.T. & Matthews, K.M. (1984). The effects of nonpromotion on elementary and junior high school pupils.: A meta-analysis. Reviews of Educational Research, 54, 225-236.

Jimerson, S.R. (2001). Meta-analysis of grade-retention: Implications for practice in the 21st  century. School Psychology Review, 30, 420-438.

Jimerson, S. R. Carlson, E., Rotert, M., Egeland, B., & Sroufe, L.A. (1997). A prospective, longitudinal study of the correlates and consequences of early grade retention. Journal of School Psychology, 35, 3-25.

Pagani, L., Tremblay, R.E., Vitaro, F., Boulerice, B., & McDuff, P. (2001). Effects of grade retention on academic performance and behavioural development. Development and Psychopathology, 13, 297-315.

Silbergitt, B. Jimerson, S.R., Burns, M.K., Appleton, J.J. (2006). Does the timing of Grade retention make a difference? Examining the effects of early versus later retention. School Psychology Review, 35(1).

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