Your Kid's Brain Might Benefit From an Extra Year in Middle School

By Jessica Lahey

The practice of voluntarily delaying school transitions, either by red-shirting kindergarten, repeating twelfth grade, or introducing a gap year between high school and college, is a well-established tradition in the United States. The extra year gives students time to mature athletically, academically, or developmentally.

Although kindergarten entrance and the transition from high school to college have long been seen as the ideal times to take an extra year, recently eighth grade has been seen as an opportune time for kids to catch up with—or maybe even gain an advantage over—their peers.

Sports coaches have debated and defended their stances on voluntary repetition of eighth grade for sports-related reasons for years—most believe it offers a real athletic advantage. But the decision to repeat eighth grade is increasingly becoming an academic choice for some students. The tantalizing lure of “stronger, larger, faster, and smarter” has not been lost on academically-minded parents, and as the pace of American education gets more intense, some have opted to give their kids an extra year between middle and high school. An informal poll reported by the Wall Street Journal found that “74 percent of 313 respondents said they would consider having their children repeat a grade, even if school officials said the student could be promoted.” 

Some parents cite increasing pressure on middle school children to distinguish themselves earlier and earlier for college admissions. Others point to the demands of standardized testing. Most understand that this heightened rigor, whether from new Common Core State Standards or pressure for college admissions, only increases with each passing year of school. They fear that if their child is not fully prepared for those demands, high school and college will be a Sisyphean endeavor.

The recent push for increased academic rigor also means kids need more well-developed executive-functioning skills, or the ability organize, plan, schedule, and self-regulate. These skills originate in the prefrontal cortex, one of the last areas of the brain to develop, and are vital to student success, particularly as students shift from the relatively low organizational demands of elementary school to the more complicated an onerous demands of middle school. Ellen Galinsky, author of Mind in the Makingnotes, “Executive-function skills predict children’s success in life and school” because “they enable us to control ourselves, to reflect deeply, and to consider things from multiple points of view.” These skills vary a lot from student to student in middle school, particularly those who struggle with its increased demands. This time can be incredibly stressful for kids are unprepared for the increased academic and organizational pressure, and this, too, can slow down the development of executive functioning skills. An additional year of middle school, with its lower stress and relatively relaxed academic rigor, can be an appealing option to these students and their parents.

The available research on the effects of grade repetition is largely based on cases of involuntary grade retention and probably has limited relevance in discussions of the relatively new trend of voluntary repetition. That said, according to a report on all grade repeaters—mainly involuntary, but including some voluntary—compiled by UNESCO’s International Academy of Education, a small percentage of students repeat a grade in any given year in the United States. “15-30 percent repeat at least one grade by age 15,” and in a “national sample of high school sophomores (age 15), 16 percent of the white boys, 21 percent of the black boys, 10 percent of the white girls, and 17 percent of the black girls had repeated at least one grade.”

Opponents of voluntary grade repetition point to the cost to the many in order to benefit the few. It costs taxpayer money to educate students twice, and most districts’ budget projections do not account for voluntary grade repetition. As one critic of voluntary grade repetition wrote, “That we are all paying for successful students to repeat a grade in a public school is bad practice and an abuse of public funds. Add this one to the long list of policies that denies protection of taxpayer investment in education.” UNESCO agrees. “Grade repetition represents inefficiency and wastage of resources for society, but its voluntary forms may be beneficial to students in certain circumstances,” its report said.

When I spoke with one of my former students and his parents about the choice to repeat eighth grade, they were overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the experience. Sam Strohbehn is now a freshman at Hanover High School in Hanover, NH; last year was his fourth year in middle school. His parents pushed for the voluntary repeat due to his relatively young age, and at first, he refused. But he eventually agreed, realizing that repeating eighth grade would give him more than he would lose.

What made me change my mind was realizing that I could take a year and focus less on grades and more on learning new things. There was something appealing about learning just to learn rather than learning to get a grade.

Sam admits that his initial resistance was about social concerns: being one year behind his friends, and what they would think of his decision. But in the end, he said, “the pros definitely outweigh the cons.”

Sam’s mother, Judy, who had already seen two sons through high school, thought Sam needed more time before tackling new challenges in high school. 

Sam is our youngest boy, and the youngest child in his grade. We knew what was coming academically and socially, and that to navigate high school, he needed some time to become a mature learner, to appreciate all that high school was going to offer. Sam had not yet developed strong organizational techniques, study skills, and time management tools. When his teachers weighed in, they stressed that he simply needed more time. We were told to consider a gap year after high school, but decided not to wait and give him that time now.

When Sam finally entered high school this year, he had, according to his mother,

…matured academically and socially. His study skills, writing, organizational skills, and diligence had all improved. Having this year to mature, helped give Sam confidence and more of a voice for himself. About halfway through his second eighth grade year, Sam told his mother, ‘Mom, I think every student should do an extra year between 8th grade and high school.’ I asked why? Sam said, ‘Well, I think everyone would do better in high school if they had another year to prepare.’ I knew at that moment that we had made the right decision...that Sam could see what this extra year, this gift of time, was going to do for him.

Sam clearly benefitted from the gift of time his parents were willing and able to give him, and as his teacher, I loved seeing his growth first-hand. But as a teacher who has spent much of her career in the middle-school trenches, I wonder whether the solution to slow development lies in granting an extra year to a precious few or in redeveloping curricula to focus more on executive-function skills. Voluntary grade repetition is an attractive and useful Band-Aid for the few who can afford it, but for the rest of the American student population, it only draws attention to the gaping holes in the education we provide to the many.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/05/your-kids-brain-might-benefit-from-an-extra-year-in-middle-school/371814/