the sand between my toes

MSR Learning Support – Information and references for supporting learning differences in a Montessori classroom

Does Student Retention Work? Let’s ask a psychologist…

Dr. Rebecca Branstetter

Every March, I get a slew of new referrals for testing students for learning disabilities, ADHD, and other disabilities, as the sheer panic of “What is going to happen to this student in X+1 grade???” (Where X is the child’s current grade, plus one. See? Algebra is useful after all.) I hear parents and teachers wonder out loud how the kid who is not meeting grade standards is going to make it next year. I hear murmurs in the teacher’s lounge about retention. And I cringe.

I don’t mind the referrals for testing.* As a parent or teacher, I would want to know if the student had a learning disability before I made a big decision about retention or promotion. No, I don’t cringe because of the 8 hojillion referrals I will be getting. I cringe because Over 100 years of research does not support retention as an effective intervention for kids who are not learning, missed a lot of school, or are socially immature. That’s right, I said it, and I italicized it too. The research does not support retention.

Before you write me with your anecdotal evidence saying it worked for so-and-so, I have to prefend (pre-defend? New word?) my position on the matter. Ironically, I will also cite my own anecdotal evidence. I’m above the law. But I will also cite the National Association of School Psychologist’s position statement on the research as my source as well.**

1) Social promotion without any other intervention is not effective either. I never subscribe to the “Let’s do the same thing that didn’t work twice!” model. The research shows that “promotion plus” (i.e. Combining grade promotion and effective evidence-based interventions) is more likely than retention to benefit children with low achievement or behavior problems.

2) Initial academic improvements may occur during the year the student is retained. There is celebration and validation of the retention. We made the right decision! However, many research studies show that achievement gains decline within 2-3 years of retention. This means that kids who are retained do not end up doing better than similar children who were not retained, but were experiencing similar academic problems.

3) In adolescence, retained students are more likely to experience behavioral and self-esteem problems, and are 5-10 times more likely to drop out of school. I get to see the long-term effects of retention, and it is not pretty. Retention is one of the most powerful predictors of high school drop out. Plus, anecdotally, I am working with a student who is in 8th grade and is ALMOST 16 YEARS OLD. He was retained twice and now can almost drive himself to middle school. Seriously. It’s not right. He is not doing well.

4) A study of 6th graders’ perceptions indicated that they consider retention as one of the most stressful life events. I have consoled many a crying student on the first day of school when they are told they are still in the same grade as last year. It’s devastating.

5) Retention may help students who have missed many days of school, but only if their attendance improves and if the child will not be considerably older than the other students.

The take home message is: At this time, however, there are no specific indicators that predict which children could benefit from retention. So yes, maybe a few kids here and there could benefit, but by and large, we don’t know which ones, and the research is pretty clear that overall, retention doesn’t work and it may be harmful in the long run.

I should also note that I am equally adamant about not retaining students with IEPs (students with disabilities). Why? Because the whole reason they are behind grade level is because of their disability, and there is a 8 hojillion page plan on how to support them in the next grade. Special educators help the kid access whatever grade level curriculum they are doing in the general education environment anyway. If the student is making progress toward their IEP goals, then I don’t think they should be retained. Plus, did I mention one hundred years of research doesn’t support it? I think I did…

I’m a bit feisty tonight, as you may be able to tell. I just want parents and educators to have the research in their minds as they come to March Madness decisions. I get it. I am in the same meetings you are in, where you just can’t imagine how a kid is going to make it in X+1 grade. Especially for the students with really poor attendance. It’s really hard to come up with a promotion plus plan, I know. But that’s what our job as school psychologists is—to inform, educate, and roll up our sleeves to help figure out what to do for these struggling students.


Dr. Rebecca Bell Branstetter is a Licensed Educational Psychologist in the San Francisco Bay Area. When she was little, she loved school so much, she played it on the weekends. Now, she works with kids who hate school and writes about it in her blog, Notes From the School Psychologist.

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ADHD and Executive Function – Dr. Russell Barkley

This is a great overview of Executive Functioning and what areas are inhibited by ADHD.  It is from the Child Mind Institute.

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How to Hold a Pencil, correctly – the natural way!

You probably know how hard it can be to communicate to a child exactly how a pencil should sit properly in his or her little hands.  So try this –

1.  Take a Kleenex and tear it two pieces (a full Kleenex is too large, so just use the half piece for this trick.)

2.  Have the child pinch the Kleenex piece in his/her pinky and ring finger.

3.  While the child is still pinching the Kleenex in those two fingers, tell him to hold the pencil in the remaining three fingers.

4.  Remarkably, as long as the Kleenex is still “occupying” their 4th and 5th fingers, the child will naturally hold the pencil the right way.

It really works!



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Slow Processing Speed

This is general information for educators on how to work with students who have visual or auditory proessing difficulties.  These are strategies to be used in understanding the child and accommodations for the classroom.

Information Taken from:  Merridee Michelsen, PhD Assistant Headmaster – Internal Affairs Director of Academics Brandon Hall School 1701 Brandon Hall Drive Atlanta, GA 30350

Processing speed affects how the brain organizes information.  It impacts upon a person’s ability to focus on important things while ignoring less important items, and is what allows the brain to shift from one activity to another.  There are many ways the brain receives information. In school, the two most common ways students receive and process information are through auditory and visual input (National Center for Learning Disabilities).

How well a student understands what someone is saying, his ability to keep up when someone talks quickly, to block out distracting, interfering sounds, to distinguish one voice from another, remember what he has heard, and sequence sounds correctly are a just a few of the procedures involved with auditory processing. Auditory processing is not a problem with the student’s hearing, but rather it is with how that information is interpreted by the brain.

Some of the components of visual processing include how quickly and easily he can understand what he sees, his ability to picture things in his head, and remember what he sees. It also includes a student’s ability see words and numbers as meaningful units and to understand the difference between b’s and d’s or p’s and q’s. Visual processing is used when a person coordinates his movement with what he sees. If there is a disconnect between what is seen and how the body responds, the person will appear to be awkward or clumsy.

How quickly someone can look at visual information and make sense of it is impacted by processing speed.  If a person processes more slowly than the people around him, there may be negative repercussions with his level of awareness, his working memory, how he interacts with his peers, and how comfortable he feels in social situations. Because it takes the person longer to process material, he may have difficulty linking new information to his prior knowledge. If a person has weak or undeveloped social skills due to a slow processing speed, as time goes on and more is expected of him, he may become frustrated.  Frustration only compounds the problem and a downward spiral begins.  Parents often see the impact of their child’s processing speed when the child seems unable to begin and complete household chores or homework.

Richard Lavoie, in his Fat City video (Frustration, Anger and Tension), shows how students with processing speed issues are often still processing a question when the teacher expects an answer.  Even if a student knows the answer, he may have slow word retrieval problems, so he is unable to participate in the same manner as his classmates.  Lavoie explains that for a student who processes language slowly, note taking is a nightmare. It is not a matter of motivation; the student simply cannot respond as quickly as a classmate that does not have processing difficulties. (Note: I have a copy of this DVD in the Resource room.)

First and foremost, the student needs the gift of time.  In all reading and math tasks, be they tests, quizzes or homework, the student needs more time to show his proficiency and less laborious assignments to prove his knowledge.

  • For reading, I strongly suggest the student become a member of RFB&D (see online information).  This is a government subsidized program that was started in the forties to support the visually impaired but now has extended their services to students with all sorts of reading handicaps (of which reading fluency is part).  By listening to tapes (even ones of text books), and following along with a highlighter, The student can more correctly pace reading intake and enhance comprehension, increase comprehension, and eliminate anxiety (which interferes with the successful completion of all human behaviors).  This is also a very positive accommodation for students with ADHD.  Therefore, the student should be allowed to have all his books, text and novels, on recording devices.
  • He should be able to have a reader and scribe for testing purposes.
  • He should be kept on a very regular schedule, avoiding transitions and disruptions.
  • Directions should be made in short and clear commands.
  • Give the student only one task at a time.
  • Don’t over schedule – teach the student how to set priorities.
  • Well-established and understood daily plans will help the student to sequence his educational expectations, reducing anxiety.  Anxiety can decrease processing speed.
  • Instruction should be repeated and non-verbal directions should be employed, as students with auditory speed deficits can often perceive spoken language as coming at them too fast to process correctly.
  • Peer and cooperative learning opportunities can assist the student since processing the information becomes a shared responsibility.
  • Assess authentically – considering the quality of the student’s work and not the quantity.
  • He must have direct instruction on those targeted weak skill areas identified in his most recent psycho-educational battery.  After school tutoring is the most desirable, as the “pull out program” has been proven to be unsuccessful in accomplishing the goal of academic advancement.
  • The student should be taught how to skim while reading – specific techniques are required and should be directly taught by the learning specialist in his school.  While improvement takes effort on The student’s part – the instruction must come from a person well-versed in reading methods.
  • Specific time to practice the development of reading and math fluency should be provided within the school day.
  • Math manipulative should be used and with variety, especially when teaching new concepts.  This will also reduce an overload of verbal commands that often become jumbled for students with slow processing capabilities.
  • Model all math procedures – slowly.
  • Revisit new vocabulary a minimum of 6 times in multiple ways to increase working memory capabilities.
  • Emphasize hands-on real-life learning for problem solving – which decreases the need for auditory input.

Additional Website for resource:

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Wider Letter Spacing Helps Dyslexic Children

ScienceDaily (June 7, 2012) — Increasing the spacing between characters and words in a text improves the speed and quality of dyslexic children’s reading, without prior training. They read 20% faster on average and make half as many errors. This is the conclusion reached by a French-Italian research team, jointly headed by Johannes Ziegler of the Laboratoire de Psychologie Cognitive (CNRS/Aix-Marseille Université).

These results were published 4 June 2012 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science(PNAS). In parallel, the team has developed an iPad/iPhone application, available under the name “DYS.” It allows both parents and children to modify the spacing between letters and thus test the benefits of these changes on reading. This will enable researchers to collect large-scale, real time data, which they will then analyze and study.

Dyslexia is a learning disability that impairs an individual’s capacity to read and is linked to difficulty in identifying letters, syllables and words — despite suitable schooling and in the absence of intellectual or sensorial deficiencies. Dyslexia, which often causes writing problems, affects on average one child in every class and 5% of the world’s population.

In this study, the researchers tested the effects of letter spacing on the reading ability of 54 dyslexic Italian and 40 dyslexic French children aged between 8 and 14 years. The children had to read a text composed of 24 sentences, in which the spacing was either normal or wider than usual. The results showed that wider spacing enabled the children to improve their reading both in terms of speed and precision. On average, they read 20% faster and made half as many errors. This progress could stem from the fact that dyslexic children are particularly sensitive to “perceptual crowding,” in other words the visual masking of each individual letter by those surrounding it. The results of this study show that this crowding effect may be reduced by spacing letters apart.

This finding opens interesting perspectives in the field of dyslexia treatment techniques. Indeed, reading better means reading more — yet it takes one year for a dyslexic child to read what a “normal reader” reads in two days. This is because reading can be “torture” for dyslexic children, whose decoding difficulties cause to stumble, putting them off reading on a regular basis. The researchers have found a simple and efficient “trick” that helps these children break the vicious circle and correctly read more words in less time.

An iPad/iPhone application known as “DYS” has been developed in parallel with these research results by Stéphane Dufau, CNRS research engineer at the Laboratoire de Psychologie Cognitive. Available initially in French and English and downloadable free of charge from Apple Store, it enables both parents and children to adjust the spacing between letters and to test the benefits of such modifications on reading. The researchers for their part hope to be able to collect large-scale data that will allow them to quantify and analyze whether optimal spacing exists as a function of the subject’s age and reading level.

Download available:

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‘Brain Breaks’ for the classroom

Great ideas to give active students a ‘brain break’ between work.  My favorite is – hand washing before a writing activity – to energize the hands for writing!  I recall in my CH training using hand washing to sensitize the fingers before sensorial activities – seems perfect here!

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Misunderstood Minds (PBS)

This site is a companion to the PBS special Misunderstood Minds, and profiles a variety of learning problems and expert opinions. It is designed to give parents and teachers a better understanding of learning processes, insights into difficulties, and strategies for responding.

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