Stigma of dropping back a year may hurt self-esteem

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 August, 2011, 12:00am


My son is one of the youngest in his Primary Two class. He is finding his school work very difficult and is behind his peers, particularly in reading and writing. I feel he should be moved down a year group even though he has lots of friends in the class. I have discussed my worries with his teacher and she agrees he's struggling with his work. But she told me that children have to stay in their own year. Should I talk to the principal and insist that he is moved?

This is an old chestnut. There is no doubt that for some students, moving down a year can help them consolidate concepts and skills. But regarding your own son, there are other factors to consider. School is not just about nurturing academic ability, it is also about social and emotional growth. Being placed in Year One may have a detrimental effect on his self-esteem.

Every student reacts differently. Some may not be affected and adapt very quickly. I have experienced cases where students benefit from feeling they are the oldest in the class. It helps them cope better with their work. Often, the younger the child, the easier the transition. All these factors need to be considered, and it is important to discuss them with both your son and his teacher.

In younger year groups, it is not uncommon for boys to achieve less than girls, especially in language and fine motor skills. Also, concentration levels are often lower, as boys tend to be more immature. Your son may simply be a late bloomer, or his readiness to learn might develop at a slower pace. Remember that general expectations are higher in Hong Kong than, for example, state schools in Britain or Australia. So your son may appear to be struggling more than he really is.

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 is generally little scope for flexibility if classes are full. Under exceptional circumstances, children are moved at the discretion of the principal. Schools generally try not to make it the easy solution.

Organising year groups by age, helps schools ensure students learn in a manageable and organised way. It is difficult to set the precedent of moving children, as it opens the floodgates to requests from other parents.

I suggest you talk to your son before taking this any further to see how he reacts. Also, have a more detailed discussion with his teacher. If you still feel strongly about moving him, approach the principal directly. If possible, get the support of the class teacher. Work samples, recent test results and anecdotal evidence may also help.

Educational research shows that children have a better chance of succeeding at school if their birthday is near the beginning of the school year. Your son's self-esteem is the most important thing at this stage and he needs to be confident and positive about attending school.

Do everything you can to support him with school work and make sure he has lots of opportunities to enjoy activities and build on his strengths outside school. The impact might be dramatic.

Julie McGuire teaches at an international school