Middle school students are more likely to face discipline problems when surrounded by large numbers of students who are repeating grades, according to a new study from researchers at Duke University.
The findings explain that suspensions and behavioral problems, including substance abuse, fighting and classroom disruption, escalate among students across the school community as the number of older or retained students increase.
“What makes this study different is taking the focus away from the effects on individual students and looking at peer influence,” says Muschkin, an associate director of the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy. “It’s an area that’s been studied much less, but has important policy implications.”
The findings come at a time when educators and policymakers are debating a new North Carolina law that could increase the number of older retained students. The “Read to Achieve” program, which went into effect this year, requires all third-grade students to read at grade level or risk being held back.
Muschkin, the study’s lead author, says older and retained students tend to be at greater risk for behavioral problems, which can heavily impact other students. If 20 percent of children in seventh grade were older than their peers, for example, the chance that other students would commit an infraction or be suspended increased by 200 percent.
“Middle schoolers are particularly vulnerable to influence of their peers,” she says “The influence of the adults of their lives is a bit diminished compared to elementary school.”
The study looks at 79,314 seventh-graders in 334 North Carolina middle schools. Researchers chose to analyze data from 2001 that was collected by the North Carolina Education Research Data Center at Duke University.
The findings also take into account external factors, such as a school’s socioeconomic composition or the parents’ educational status.
Discipline problems increased for all subgroups in the study when around more older and retained students, but white students and girls of all races experienced the largest jump in discipline issues.
“There’s a strong relationship here that we think is likely to be causal,” says Muschkin.
Researchers don’t take a stance on whether retention is harmful or beneficial, but suggest that schools do more to help students who are held back, offering ideas like peer mentoring, tutoring and summer school.