“Well, to be honest, Chad, I don’t really know your son.” She turned her chair toward me, her hands in her lap, a smile on her face. She’d kept me waiting outside the office for an extra ten minutes while she’d helped a couple of ten-year old girls brush through their hair, the girls having dropped in at the start of the school day unannounced, giggling. She clearly adored her students.
“I wouldn’t expect you to. There are hundreds of students here.”
Amy kept her lips pulled back over her teeth as continued the perma-smile. “But let me restate what you asked me, to see if I got this right. Your son A, who is 6, has struggled emotionally somewhat in his first grade classroom, largely because he is one of the youngest students in the room, but he seems to be fine academically, right? His birthday is in late July? And now that the teacher is recommending holding him back to repeat the first grade for the next year, you are wondering if this recommendation is legitimate? And that’s why you wanted to meet with me, the school principal?”
I nodded, feeling strangely defensive despite the fact that she was kind and calm in her presentation. “Yes. It’s a bit more complicated than that, and there are a lot of details behind all this, but, yes, that is basically my question.”
“Well,” she leaned back in her chair, “given our education methods here as a Waldorf style school, it wouldn’t be uncommon for a teacher to recommend holding a child back. As you probably know, we focus our education on the individual children, and what might be best for them. If a child is struggling behaviorally or emotionally, and they don’t seem to be on par with the rest of the students, then it is common to talk to the parents about the possibility of repeating a year so that the child can have a more consistent learning environment, one more suited to their individual needs.”
I furrowed my brown in frustration. “Wait, wait. ‘It wouldn’t be uncommon…’ Does that mean this is a regular recommendation? You are suggesting to many parents that they hold back their children to repeat a grade?”
Amy clicked her tongue and looked troubled. “Well, it isn’t as if we have a quota to fulfill. But in Wasatch learning environments, we focus on skill levels like integrating the five senses, handwork, hand-eye coordination, and–”
“Miss Lee, I’m sorry for interrupting, but I know about Waldorf learning. I enrolled my kids here. I don’t mean to be adversarial, but I feel as if sixty per cent of my conversations with professionals here are about the Waldorf learning method. I’m not here about that, I’m here about my son. I want to understand how holding him back would benefit him.”
The smile returned. “Well, let’s look at your terminology first of all. Listen to how negative it sounds. ‘Holding him back.’ Could I invite you to switch the words around to realize how much more positive you could make it sound? Let’s try this. Instead of using the words ‘holding him back’, why not try, ‘Let’s give A the gift of another year of childhood among his emotional peers, to provide the best and most effective learning method for his needs, rather than pushing him forward into an arena in which he is not equipped to handle?”
I glowered in frustration, and my tone took on a bit of sarcasm. “Let me turn that right back on you, regarding your terminology here. Can I invite you to switch your words? Instead of ‘pushing him forward’, why not try, ‘Let’s give A the gift of staying among his established peer group, in his ongoing classroom learning environment, rather than holding him back in an arena with a new peer group and covering material he has already effectively learned?”
Amy bit her lip, considering my unexpected words, and I kept talking.
“And honestly, I came in here to discuss concerns, and I feel like you are advocating for holding my child back when you began our conversation by admitting that you aren’t at all familiar with him! How do you know what he is ‘equipped to handle?” I noticed my voice had risen a bit, in both volume and passion, and I took a deep breath calming myself.
“I apologize.” Amy’s voice was soft, placating. “Let’s start again. Tell me your concerns.”
My words rushed out quickly. I explained how A had struggled emotionally in kindergarten the year before, being the youngest in the classroom, and how his teacher, though well-intentioned, had responded to his small outbursts by putting his name on the board and taking away privileges. “So his mom and I brought him here, to a new and more supportive learning environment, where he might thrive better. The learning environment here, with gardening, knitting, and story-telling in the classroom, is so much better suited to his personality. We love it here for him.” I talked about how A’s teacher was loving and supportive, but how she frequently provided behavioral reports on A that focused solely on his negative struggles and none of his strengths. “For the first two months of school, A wasn’t eating school lunches, and she never told us, so of course he was struggling with outbursts every day, he was super hungry. Since we have been packing his lunches, his behavioral struggles have dropped significantly.”
I saw Amy jotting notes on a pad of paper. “Besides,” I went on, “despite his struggle in the classroom with transitions, such as from recess back to classroom activities, and despite the fact that he picks up material slightly slower than the other, older, kids, he is thriving academically and making major strides. He learns on his level, at his speed. Five months ago, we had a parent/teacher meeting to discuss his concerns in the classroom, and every one of those concerns is no longer a factor. The teacher told us that herself, on the same day that she recommended holding him back.”
Amy nodded. “And why is it that you feel so strongly against having him repeat a grade?”
I breathed deep again, slowing my words. “That just feels like it should be a last resort, not a common recommendation. I’m a clinical social worker, and I regularly meet with kids who are behaviorally or emotionally disturbed. I’ve done this for over a decade. And in all my time, when I see a kid struggling in the classroom, I’ve never recommended that they be held back. Instead, I see help the teachers and parents come up with a learning strategy that helps the kids succeed where they are. An individualized education plan, with strategies in place during times of trouble. I also talked about this with my mom. She was an award-winning first-grade teacher for over twenty years. She had kids in her classroom who didn’t speak English, who were in extreme poverty, who had major anger issues, who had developmental disabilities, and who had extreme difficulties with hygiene. She couldn’t recount cases where she recommended holding a child back as a first line of strategy, particularly a kid like A who is already doing so well academically, and who has so much support at home.”
Amy looked up from the page where she’d taken a few notes. “To be honest, when we have kids who have long-term struggles, perhaps an Autism diagnosis or a significant developmental struggle, we wouldn’t recommend they be held back. Those are cases where an individualized education plan would be more actively recommended.”
I felt my frustration boil over again. “So kids who are actively struggling stay where they are, but kids who have minor struggles are recommended to repeat a grade! I am sorry, but that is infuriating!”
There was silence as Amy considered my words. She nodded, jotting another note. “Okay, the key difference here is that the teacher feels a certain way and you have reservations. That is fine. It is only a recommendation. Normally if a parent disagrees, we would simply advance the child forward. But in this case, your kid’s child’s mother, who has primary custody, feels like holding A back is the best plan for him. And in cases where one parent disagrees from the other, we have to follow the primary custodial parent.”
I nodded several times, ignoring the anguish in my gut over all of this. “I will work out co-parenting concerns directly on my own. But I do want to have a clear understanding of why this recommendation has been made for my son. Was protocol followed? Did he get the help he needed this year? What are the costs and benefits of holding him back versus having him move forward?”
Amy reasoned with me. “I’m a mom, too. And I can see how much you love our son. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to feel like you don’t get a say, or that you aren’t being considered.”
“I had a nightmare a few days ago,” I told her. “I pictured taking my sons to the first day of school this coming year. They were in their new clothes, with new backpacks full of new supplies, with fresh haircuts and huge smiles on their faces. We take J, my older son, to his class in fourth grade and wish him well for a new year. And then we take A back to the first grade class, and he turns to us, tears in his eyes, and asks why we are having him do first grade over again.” I paused, clearing the image from my head. “In reality, he’ll likely be fine no matter what. But I also worry about years down the line, when he explains to others that he was held back as a kid. This becomes a permanent part of his story from here forward. If it is right for him, then I’m all for it. But I just can’t understand the pressure I feel to hold him back when it doesn’t feel right. I don’t understand why we are even having this conversation. I see him as succeeding right where he is. He’s beautiful, smart, creative, compassionate, and a leader. He’s already a huge success.”
The teacher shook my hand and showed me out. I walked through the school with a nervous feeling in my heart, to the sounds of children playing in classrooms all around me. And, with the thought of all of the parents out there advocating for their children to succeed, I felt my love for my children expand within me, occupying a larger space than ever before, something I never thought possible.