Holding children back a year can do more harm than good

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 June, 2012, 12:00am


My son is one of the youngest in his Year Six class. He is doing quite well academically, but his teacher says he sometimes finds it hard to concentrate for long periods. He is very immature and finds it impossible to look after his things. When he recently went for a day visit to his future high school he lost his bag and sweatshirt. I think it would benefit him to do an extra year in primary school. Should I talk to the principal?

You would not be the first parent of a Year Six boy to feel this way. Generally, the maturity of boys is way behind girls at this point in their education and they can sometimes appear very young and even silly. This immaturity can lead to a lack of focus in class or difficulty concentrating for periods of time, as well as behavioural decisions that are not wise or thought through.

However, you would be surprised to see that many of them mature after only a year at high school. They have often matured significantly and responded well to the new structures and routines.

The most important thing to consider in this case is your son's self-esteem. The effect of keeping him down a year could be very detrimental as he watches his friends move on. Often, it is the case that the younger the child, the easier the transition, if it must be made. Year Six is late to consider this move.

Remember also that the other children in his current primary school would know the situation and not all of them would understand. Children can be very cruel.

There is no doubt that, for some students, repeating a year can help them consolidate concepts and skills, but in your son's case there are other factors to consider. His social and emotional development is vitally important.

Every student reacts differently. Some may be quite resilient and adapt very quickly, benefiting from feeling that they are the oldest in the class. This can help them rise to the challenge of being more responsible and a role model in the school.

Your son needs to learn the value of organisation - maybe the hard way. There will probably be some disasters in the first few months at his new school and he will need a great deal of support initially. This needs to start now. Help him to be responsible for himself and his belongings. Be very strict about him packing his own bag and keeping his belongings tidy at home. Do not be tempted to do it for an easier life.

Help him to reframe this as a chance for him to prove that he can do it. Remind him that first impressions are important.

There are good reasons why children are rarely allowed to enter a class outside their chronological age in international schools. The current high demand for places does not help this situation, as there tends to be little scope for administrative flexibility. Under exceptional circumstances this is waived, usually at the discretion of the principal. Your son's situation is unlikely to be seen as exceptional.

If children are struggling academically there may be more of a case but even then schools are not generally keen for students to go outside their age group. Organising year groups by age helps students learn in an organised and manageable way. Moving children opens the floodgates to requests from other parents.

I suggest that you have a detailed discussion with your son's teacher about his demeanour in class and personal qualities. I would not talk to your son at this point as it may panic him and spoil the last few weeks of primary school. If you still feel strongly about keeping him in primary school, approach the principal directly.

Although educational research shows that children have a better chance of succeeding at school if their birthday is near the beginning of the school year, there are many children who prove this wrong.

Your son needs to feel confident, positive and excited about moving to his new school. Do everything you can to support him in becoming more responsible. Talk to him about the importance of focusing in class to reach his full potential; the teacher could help in this respect. It may be difficult to imagine but in a couple of years he is likely to be a well adjusted and more mature young man.

Julie McGuire teaches at a Hong Kong primary school