When is it a good idea to repeat kindergarten?

The difference between kindergarten and first grade has more to do with skills than age.
The difference between kindergarten and first grade has more to do with skills than age.
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In your parents' day, kindergarten was a pretty laid-back affair. It was mostly a year for "play-based learning," and the idea of a child being "held back" to repeat the grade might have seemed a little silly.

Not anymore. While lots of schools still have a primarily play-based curriculum and relaxed standards, more and more have implemented a more academic approach to kindergarten, not only to get young children better prepared for first grade, when reading and math really take off, but also in an effort to meet increasingly objective and consequential government standards.


As a result, the repeating-kindergarten phenomenon has become relatively commonplace. An estimated 5 percent of kindergarteners spend a second year in the class [source: Mlyniec]. Still, finding out the teacher thinks your child should be "held back" can be jarring and, for many parents, upsetting. Faced with this revelation, it can seem someone is questioning your child's mental acuity.

This is a misconception, and one that can be detrimental to the decision-making process. The recommendation to repeat the year is not a comment on your child's intelligence; it's a comment on your child's maturity. Because children develop at such different rates and the kindergarten age span can run from 4 to 6, there is a tremendous range in social, physical and cognitive development.

The most productive way to approach the topic, then, is from a neutral place. This is not about how smart your child is. It's about whether he or she is ready to make the jump to first grade.

Beyond that, though, things can get a bit confusing: Which skills is your child behind on? What kind of long-term effects, if any, can result from repeating or not repeating a grade?

When faced with the decision, the first step is to meet with your child's teacher (and principal and school psychologist, if possible) to find out exactly why the experts think another year would be productive.

In this meeting, chances are you'll be hearing a lot about frustration, disinterest and confusion ...


Signs Your Child Might Benefit

When a teacher or other education expert recommends repeating kindergarten, it's seldom (if ever) about a single skill your child is behind on. Rather, it's about an overall picture of a child who may be too "young" -- physically, cognitively, socially or some combination thereof -- to thrive in first grade. This may or may not be related to your child's actual age. Rates of development are simply too varied to hang on chronology.

Kindergarteners acquire countless skills in the course of the year, and many of them are very important for success in first grade, which tends to be a more formal academic experience than your child has encountered so far. First graders typically start the year knowing how to count at least to 10 (and usually beyond), reciting the entire alphabet and knowing the sounds of most of the letters, reading and writing simple words, and using "creative spelling" to put their own thoughts on paper. These are only a handful of the academic skills that most graduating kindergartners have acquired, and if your child is lacking in several of them, he or she may be starting first grade with a deficit that can affect the entire year -- and the ones that follow.


Specific pieces of knowledge are really only part of the picture, though. Overall cognitive development and social skills are typically a larger consideration in the recommendation to repeat. If your child is unable to follow simple multi-step instructions, follow a task through to completion without getting overly frustrated or distracted, work as part of a group, listen to a story without interrupting, or sit still for the duration of a short lesson, he or she may not be quite ready for the relative rigors of first grade.

Other signs your child may benefit from another go-around include:

  • a complete disinterest in the kindergarten curriculum
  • frequent bathroom accidents
  • an inability to take turns and share
  • significantly delayed fine-motor skills
  • significantly smaller physical size than his or her peers
  • difficulty handling even slight frustration

If you're considering having your child repeat the year, he or she is most likely behind in more than one of these areas -- and there's little question that a student is better off starting first grade in step with the rest of the class. What many parents have trouble with is whether their student will be better off repeating the year.

And the question of benefit vs. detriment can be a more difficult one to answer.


Pros and Cons

There are no easy answers when it comes to grade retention, and experts are divided on whether repeating kindergarten is more likely to lead to long-term benefit or deficit.

On the positive side, keeping your child in kindergarten for another year certainly reduces the likelihood he or she will begin first grade in a rough spot that could lead to long-term academic and social insecurity. Staying in kindergarten means not only repeat exposure to the curriculum and so a greater chance of picking it up, but it also means being the oldest -- and most knowledgeable, mature and capable -- student in class, which can increase confidence dramatically, setting the tone for long-term positive self-concept and continued school success.


For a child who is behind his or her peers, these potential positives are real and significant. There are, however, problems that can arise when a child is "held back." These same problems are an issue when repeating any grade; but regarding such an early grade as kindergarten, some people question whether the potential benefits can outweigh the potential drawbacks.

And those possible downsides are significant, too. Some children might suffer from the social stigma of repeating a grade and end up feeling embarrassed and ashamed, leading to a negative self-concept. Experts also point out that holding a child back due to developmental delays is, literally speaking, further delaying development. Many of them suggest parents seek independent evaluation for specific developmental delays and then, if the results warrant it, spend time in occupational therapy over the summer to try to catch up.

In the end, it's impossible to predict how any individual will respond to staying back or moving on -- or even how much progress that child will make in the last months of school or over the summer. For all anyone knows, your child could end up perfectly on track by the fall.

There's no right answer, and it's important to keep in mind that we're talking about 5 and 6 year olds here. Few of them will be deeply affected by (or even remember later on) repeating kindergarten.

The most important thing, in the end, is how you react to the situation. No matter what you decide to do, keep in mind your child is looking to you to set the tone. Whether it's kindergarten for a second time or playing catch-up over the summer to prepare for first grade, a positive, low-pressure attitude is essential. This is not about how smart or good or "normal" your child is. It's about how developmentally ready he or she is for first grade at this moment in time -- and children will reach their milestones when they're ready.

For more information on grade school, child development and related topics, check out the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles
More Great Links

  • Church, Ellen Booth. "Repeating Kindergarten." Scholastic.com. (June 5, 2012) http://www.scholastic.com/browse/article.jsp?id=987
  • Help Children Succeed: Make Kindergarten Mandatory in All 50 States. Change.org. (June 7, 2012) http://www.change.org/petitions/help-children-succeed-make-kindergarten-mandatory-in-all-50-states
  • Mlyniec, Vicky. "Should Your Child Repeat Kindergarten?" Parents. (June 5, 2012) http://www.parents.com/toddlers-preschoolers/starting-preschool/curriculum/child-repeat-kindergarten/
  • Perets, Abbi. "Should Your Child Repeat Kindergarten?" Family.com. (June 5, 2012). http://family.go.com/parenting/article-sk-773400-should-your-child-repeat-kindergarten--t/