Children attend compulsory school beginning around age five and continue through age 18. The grades, separated after kindergarten, as grades one through 12, offer progressively more challenging materials with specific proficiencies identified at each level. For example, first graders should generally be able to read around 150 sight words (those frequently seen) by the end of the school year in addition to being able to read and understand first grade level books according to a recent “Parents” publication. They should also be able to read, write, count, and order numbers up to 100 and add and subtract numbers up to 20. Two, short years later, students are expected to exit third grade so versed in reading that they can read independently, explore fables, use a dictionary, write in paragraph form, use reference books, add and subtract numbers up to 10,000, memorize multiplication tables, use mathematical tools, and analyze charts and graphs (scholastic.com).
Obviously, given that these are but a few excerpts of the expansive set of skills that each grade must master, a great deal of learning and practice must transpire during these two school years. While most students are able to work on-pace and reasonably master the required workload, some students find it beyond their abilities. What becomes key during these developmental years is the support of parents to ensure that the school work is reinforced at home to embed it into the students’ lifelong learning repertoire. Unfortunately, not all students begin school adequately prepared to begin the standard institutional learning protocols. For some students, especially those in poverty, they may not have been prepared for school by attending a preschool or experiencing an academically enriched home environment where they were introduced to numbers, colors, letters, and proper classroom behaviors prior to traversing the kindergarten threshold. These children, however, are still expected to process the scholastic curriculum at the same pace and absorption as a child who has been acclimated via two, full years of preschool learning. Naturally, the outcomes, therefore, are not all that surprising.
According to expansive research studies, students from minority and/or low income backgrounds are much more likely to struggle in school and be retained in an attempt to allow them to try once again to master the objectives (Information Capsule). Specifically, this research revealed the following factors associated with a child’s increased risk of retention:
• Younger than peers
• Parents of low educational level who are not involved
• Single-parent household
• Frequent school changes/absences
• Attention/behavior problems
• Reading challenges
• Conflict with teachers
While one clearly can recognize how struggling learners need to be able to keep pace with their peers, there is tremendous literature available which shows that retained students continue to perform at decreased levels, have worse social and emotional outcomes, and are much more likely to drop out of high school. Detailed data is available at Brookings.edu. Ironically, these effects are exactly the results that retention efforts were designed to avoid. Therefore, educators, administrators, and parents alike need to work cooperatively to avoid this outcome, if at all possible.
One option is to ensure that the child is “school ready” before sending him or her into the classroom setting. For parents who struggle to afford a preschool class, other options like HeadStart are worthy channels to explore. Furthermore, educators cannot expect parents who did not succeed in school themselves to be avid supporters of their child’s learning. Therefore, educators must embrace and anticipate the challenges that children with one or more of the risk factors listed above. Those children must be watched more closely and monitored more gently as they are likely to be experiencing the entire school process with limited support from home. Some additional tools available to educators include breakout sessions where they can work in small groups with struggling learners to ensure that they don’t feel lost or left behind. It is not a case of needing to try harder if one doesn’t understand what he or she should be doing. Students whose backgrounds place them in a risk of failure category, can benefit immensely by the adults in their world offering support and praise for their progress. The earlier this approach begins, the more likely it is to be successful. Additional supports include the inclusion of such students in before and/or after school programs in conjunction with summer support initiatives to prevent the summer slide, a phenomenon witnessed when children forget the critical items taught to them the preceding year, making the following school year an even larger challenge.
Collectively, school is critical for student success. However, one size doesn’t fit all when examining how to ensure that all children learn the necessary objectives in order to be prepared for the next step in the journey. Often times, subtle adjustments and reinforcements early in a child’s educational path can help keep them on-track and avoid retention, which can often be first step down a pathway which leads to an early exit from the school environment and a lifetime of limited opportunities.
Dr. Angela Farmer is a lifelong educator, an author, and a syndicated columnist. She serves Mississippi State University as an Assistant Clinical Professor of Honors Education where she can be reached at email@example.com