Do kids need a ‘gap year’ before high school?

Some parents are giving their children an extra year in eighth grade to prepare for the rigors of high school, writes Jessica Lahey, a middle-school teacher, in The Atlantic.

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.

Sam Strohbehn’s mother, Judy, thought he wasn’t ready for high school in Hanover, NH. He agreed to spend a fourth year in middle 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 had “matured academically and socially” by the time he started high school, his mother writes.

Still, the “gift of time” is expensive for taxpayers, who have to pay for that extra year of schooling. Lahey thinks it makes more sense to put more time and effort into teaching students to organize, plan, schedule and self-regulate.

These are very useful skills in life, not just in high school.

About Joanne


  1. Since IEPs allow students to remain in school for four extra years (they can stay until they are 22) , I am less than worried about parents retaining their children an extra year in 8th grade.

  2. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Academic redshirting.


  3. Michael E. Lopez says:

    OK, so that’s apparently a thing:

    I had no idea.

  4. So why not just go full bore and get rid of the ridiculous marching students through school by age group? You progress when you meet the requirements. That would definitely help mitigate the drowning of students who hit a tough spot when the class moves on and the interminable boredom many students suffer as they must mark time while the middle of the class catches up on a topic.

  5. I agree with JKB, you master the material, you advance, so that if you can finish high school by the time you’re 16, you get your diploma and move on.

    Unfortunately, most districts would never allow this since their funding is determined by enrolled students, not students who have graduated due to faster progress.


  6. Cranberry says:

    It’s not uncommon at private high schools for there to be a wide age range in each grade. Freshmen might range from 14 to 16, particularly the boys.

    The most common reason (in my opinion) would be maturity for sports, though. Some parents want their sons to play varsity from the start, if possible. Then there are the students who lose most of a year due to illness, often mononucleosis. For boarding schools, many parents are reluctant to send “young” 9th graders away from home.

    The %s of students who do repeat seem to be in line with the numbers in the UNESCO report, anywhere from 10 to 25%, depending on the school.

    And to add to the age range, some schools take students for a “postgraduate year.” They are often known as PG years. So the overall age range at a high school can span between 14 and 21.

  7. Elizabeth says:

    Unless there are severe learning disabilities, the idea of being in HS at 19+ is ridiculous.

  8. Ann in L.A. says:

    If it were actually aimed at helping those kids who can’t make it through 9th–which is a major drop out year–that’s one thing. “My little darling isn’t ready for high school!” (or is it: “I’m not old enough to have a kid in high school!”) is something different. The Atlantic article seems to be talking about the latter–middle class parents looking for an advantage for their kids.

    For those kids who are poor students, ninth is when learning the basics is mostly behind you and you start applying what you’ve learned. School is no longer arithmetic and 5-paragraph essays. A lot of kids who skated through K-8, or were victims of social promotion, or who were already held back a couple of times and are now 16-year-old freshmen, hit the wall in 9th.

    An intensive remedial year for these kids might make sense.


    […] ninth grade, where you’ll find schools awash with boys. Ninth grade is the “bulge” year, in which nationally there were 113 boys for every 100 girls in 2007, according to the Southern Regional Education Board, which tracks such statistics. Depending on race, ethnicity, and location, the ninth-grade bulge for boys gets even bigger: Among black Americans, there are 123 boys for every 100 girls; among Hispanics, 122. Geographically the bulge is larger in the 16 states covered by the board, with Florida registering 117 boys for every 100 girls.

    […] At this point you’ve probably guessed the cause: Incoming ninth-grade boys unprepared for the college-track rigors of high school get slammed and held back for a repeat “experience.”

    […] Nationally in 2006-7, approximately 250,000 male students (12 percent of all ninth-grade boys) and 178,000 female students (9 percent of the girls) repeated ninth grade, says West. So about 72,000 more boys than girls repeated ninth grade that year.

    On the surface, holding back unprepared students seems logical. Perhaps, but the downside is the steep dropout numbers that result. In the highest-poverty school districts, as few as 15 percent of students held back in the ninth grade make it to graduation day, according to other research from Johns Hopkins.

  9. Thoughtful Heretic says:

    Note that this idea has gained popularity at a time when the academic demands of each grade level have increased. It’s not the high school we remember that this kid has to be ready for, any more than kindergarten is. Basically, parents are creating an academic black market, where developmental ages are matched with the curriculum that fits, regardless of the inflated standards decreed by the government.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      Well, yes and no.

      High school is a lot tougher in some ways, but it’s also easier in others.

      I recently spent a great deal of time observing classes at the high school and junior high school level, and in many cases the “AP” and Honors classes that I was observing were like kindergarten compared to the AP and Honors classes that I took over 20 years ago.

      Nor am I looking at things through uphill-both-ways-colored-glasses. I was looking at some of my old papers and thinking about the reading loads and the sort of work we did.

      It just wasn’t any contest.

      So things I think are probably much harder for the rank and file, but less rigorous at the very top.

      Some of that probably has to do with the “growth” of the students considered honors/elite. It’s a less exclusive club than it used to be.

      That may be a good thing. Or not. I don’t know.