How To Help Your Child Cope With Being Held Back A Grade In School.

Author of 5 books, podcaster, parent trainer, husband and father.

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We've made it to the end of another school year which means IEP reviews, final meetings with teachers and administrators, and directional decisions for the upcoming school year for foster/adoptive families. For some, it also means deciding whether or not to hold their child back a grade to give them more time, or help navigate their special needs. How do you help your child cope with this reality?

This is a hard one. I’m just gonna say it. Your precious child may already view themselves in a dim light. They may already think they’re stupid or unworthy. The fact that they’ve been adopted or are currently in foster care may overshadow their view of anything positive, and being held back a grade may just drive this viewpoint deeper. That’s why it’s important that you’re intentionally on the scene with them to help them process their grief.

I guess the most obvious place to begin with a post like this is to simply say, don’t shame! Second, it’s time to turn your listening ears on (as our kindergarten teacher used to say). But more on that in a minute. Third, your emotions in this situation are critical.

Your language, tone, and demeanor through this tricky decision is key to helping your child see this in a positive light, or at least come to terms with it. Your children may be broken-hearted over this, feeling as though they are going to watch all of their classmates they just spent the last 9 months in class with pass them by. I know firsthand, because I was one of those kids back in 1st grade, and I also have several kids who had to repeat a grade.

We’ve learned much over the past 13 years. In that time, we’ve had to make the decision to hold a child back a grade 4 different times. A couple of those times were easy. The others? Not so much. If you’re in the boat of this not being an easy decision for your child to grab ahold of, here are some steps you can take to help navigate this season…

  1. Listen with empathy. Undoubtedly your child is going to have a lot of emotions surrounding the decision to hold them back. There will be a mixture of sad, mad, confused, grief stricken, or even fearful. Even if it was a horrible school year, filled with rejection from classmates and more, they will still grieve. The most important thing you can do, initially, is listen. Hold space for them to vent, cry, or scream. This is gonna be hard my friends. They may be extremely angry at you for making this decision. Often times, our kiddos may know they have an IEP, or a special need, or a disability, but they cannot translate that into everyday life. They may feel as though they can move to the next grade, they don’t need extra time, or that they don’t struggle through school work. Through the storm of their emotions, just listen.
  2. Point toward the positive. When the time is right, after they’ve been given adequate permission to dump their truck of emotion (which may be a lot), begin to share some of the positives surrounding this decision. Ask them what they liked about [the grade] they just completed. Have them list off everything positive they can think of. Then highlight the fact that they get to experience all of that again. We’ll talk about this in a minute but, list off the adults they know and love who had to repeat a grade growing up. Talk about how successful they are. Avoid talking about their IEP or special need. It’s irrelevant at this point. If they ask questions about this, answer honestly (as much as you can), but focus intently on how much this decision is going to help them succeed.
  3. Reinforce your belief in them. The bottom line is that you do believe in them, right? Even through major difficulties, and even if they actually did not make the grades to move them on, you still believe in your kid. You believe they have hope and a future, right? This much is true. Tell them this over and over through this entire process. Remind them, every day if you can, what you think about them- “baby girl, you are smart, and funny, and brilliant….this doesn’t mean you’re not. This is just to help you.” Keep this on repeat even if they keep resisting and telling you it’s not true! “It’s because I’m stupid….you hate me….you don’t want to help me….” “Nope, I believe in you sweet girl!” Over and over and over without ceasing. Your words are small deposits in their heart bank. They may not act like they believe you, but they are listening. Trust me.
  4. Leverage the power of endorsements. This may actually sound kinda weird. In the online marketing world as well as the publishing world, we lean into the power of endorsements. These are people we trust, who have authority, and can speak positively into the work we do. You may have seen these in the beginning of both of our recent books. In fact, it’s the very reason lots of people make purchases, or opt-in to a program. And it’s a powerful secret weapon you can use to help our child feel better about the decision. That said, do you know someone successful who was held back in school in their younger years? This person doesn’t have to be a neuro-surgeon (although that helps), just not living on the streets or in prison for grand larceny…you get the idea (the standards are low!). Also- is this person someone your child looks up to? Would that person be willing to “endorse” being held back? In other words, would they be willing to sit down with your child and share the positives they experienced when they had to repeat a grade? I did this with each of my children who were held back. I shared how I probably would have struggled big time later on when I was older if my mom had not decided to hold me back when I was in first grade. I talked about how much I am grateful now, as an adult, that she made that decision. It was one thing for me to say this as my kids dad, but if you know someone who is not you or your spouse or partner, leverage that. Sometimes, the power and influence of another caring adult speaking into your child’s life, is exactly what you need to convince your child.

A rule of thumb we stick to with our kids is this: As far as it depends on you, stay positive personally. As I just shared, it’s extremely important to point to the positive- how another year means you get a chance to do even better, etc. etc. But what about you? The parent, who lives day in and day out with this child? You will go through a lot in helping your child cope and navigate these tricky waters. In the coming months, especially as you near the beginning of the school year, emotions will begin to stir. You can bet there will be high emotions now when the decision is made, and then the summer will kick in and your child will be distracted by summer break. But then, it’s time to shop for a new school year and those emotions will rekindle. That same wave of grief and anger they took out on you now, will come rushing back. That’s the time when you must remain as positive as possible. This will be hard. You’ll need an outlet. Press into that outlet heavily before your own emotions get the best of you.

You can do this. We know because we have several times. It’s never easy, but it’s possible.

Are you facing this decision with your child? Share your story with us in the comment section below.

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Mike and Kristin Berry are the Co-Founders of The Honestly Adoption Company and have been parents for nearly two decades. They are the authors of six books, and the host of The Honestly Adoption Podcast.

Sarah Gray

Sarah Gray is the executive assistant to Mike and Kristin Berry. And she is the best in the land. In addition to providing a warm and friendly response to the many emails our company receives on a weekly basis, she also manages Mike and Kristin’s speaking and meeting schedules, and makes sure that team events go off without a hitch.

Nicole Goerges

Nicole Goerges is a Content Contributor & Special Consultant for The Honestly Adoption Company. She works with Mike and Kristin as a recurring co-host for the Honestly Adoption Podcast, and co-host of Kitchen Table Talks, exclusive video content for Oasis Community, along with Kristin. She is a fellow adoptive mom, and former foster parent.

Matt McCarrick

Matt McCarrick is the Content Production Specialist for The Honestly Adoption Company. If you’ve loved listening to our podcast, or enjoyed any of the videos trainings we’ve published, you have Matt to thank. He oversees all of our content production, from video edits, to making sure the tags are correct on YouTube, to uploading new videos to Oasis, to hitting publish on a podcast episode, he’s a content wonder!

Karen Anderson

Karen Anderson is the Community Engagement Specialist for The Honestly Adoption Company. She spends the bulk of her time interacting with, and helping, people through our various social media channels, as well as providing support for Oasis Community members through chat support or Zoom calls. In the same spirit as Beaver, Karen is also passionate about connecting with parents and making them feel loved and supported. Karen is also an FASD trainer and travels often, equipping and encouraging parents.

Beaver Trumble

Beaver Trumble is the Customer Care Specialist for The Honestly Adoption Company. Chances are, if you have been in need of technical support, or forgotten your password to one of our courses, you have interacted with Beaver. He is an absolute pro at customer care. In fact, he single-handedly revolutionized our customer care department last year. Beaver is passionate about connecting with parents and making them feel loved and encouraged.

Kristin Berry

Kristin Berry is the co-founder of, and Chief Content Specialist for, The Honestly Adoption Company. She spends most of her time researching and connecting with guests for our podcast, as well as direction, designing and publishing a lot of the content for our social media channels, blog and podcast. She loves to connect with fellow parents around the world, and share the message of hope with them.

Mike Berry

Mike Berry is the co-founder of, and Chief Marketing Specialist for, The Honestly Adoption Company. He spends the bulk of his time and energy designing and building many of the resources you see within our company, as well as social media and email campaigns. His goal is to use media as a means to encourage and equip parents around the world. He is also the co-host of The Honestly Adoption Podcast.