Inside: What to do when your child has an IEP but is still failing. Can a child with an IEP be held back? Can a teacher fail a student with a 504 Plan? Learn more.

This question often comes up in different formats. Sometimes the parent wants their child to repeat a grade, but the school disagrees with the idea. Other times, the school wants to hold the child back, but the parent does not agree.

And, when a parent ponders the idea, there is certainly never a shortage of opinions and incorrect advice. So, let’s take a look at this issue.

Despite having an Individualized Education Program (IEP), my child is still struggling academically in their grade.

I hope to answer all your questions about grade retention regarding IEPs and 504 Plans.

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Can a student with an IEP be held back?

The short answer is yes. An IEP does not guarantee that a child will not fail a grade. Nor is there any wording in IDEA that prohibits a school from failing a child because they have an IEP. So let’s just put that to rest. There is nothing “illegal” about this practice.

However, it’s a huge red flag that something is going on. In my mind, no child should ever fail. Failing a child assumes “won’t” instead of “can’t.” And in most cases, the child “can’t” do what is expected of them to pass.

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What the data says about Grade Retention.

Pretty much no matter where you look, you’re not going to find any data that says that grade retention is a positive thing for the student.

Many studies show that students who are retained are more likely to experience bullying, more likely to drop out of high school and so on.

That being said, there certainly are some families who have experienced success in doing this. While the data leans one way, it’s not absolute or 100%. (In other words, you don’t need to email me and tell me it worked for you.)

But the data just isn’t there to support this practice as a whole.

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Special Education Students Failing Classes

Einstein’s definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” At least he is the one who is credited with saying it.

My point is that if you hold a child back, and that is the only change, nothing will change. If the child has learning difficulties or disabilities that go unaddressed, and the second time they experience the grade level, it is exactly the same, do not expect progress.

Grade retention is not an intervention.

Can a Teacher Fail a Student with a 504 Plan?

Much like the answer above about an IEP, the answer is yes.

Nothing in Section 504 prohibits a teacher from giving a student a failing grade, or multiple failing grades.

But, my sentiments are the same as with an IEP. Failing a child means you believe the child “won’t” do what is required of them to be successful, when the likely answer is the child “can’t” do what is required of them.

A 504 plan may not be sufficient for your child. Consider asking for an IEP evaluation.

504 Plans were never intended to be an “IEP Lite” but that is how they are used these days. It’s a cheaper way to get a parent to stop asking for an IEP. However IEPs and 504s are very different documents.

Read the differences between a 504 and IEP and make your decisions.

I also want to remind you that a child is not required to “fail first” before getting an IEP.

iep fail first

“But he just needs to mature a bit.”

This sentiment is very common. However, many kids with autism and other developmental disabilities are known to lack age-appropriate social skills and can be immature.

Will the child really catch up socially and emotionally in one year? If he hasn’t, then what? Are you going to hold him back again?

And, as IEP parents, we have to budget our educational years carefully. Would you rather take up one of your years of eligibility now, when he’s 8 or 9? Or how about when he’s 20 or 21 and needs job skills?

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Many parents say, in hindsight, they’d rather have the extra year during the IEP transition.

Age 21 will come at you, regardless of what grades your child repeats.

I want to hold my child back, but the school doesn’t.

Read your school district’s policies on this. Be realistic about what will change for your child during that repeated year and what will be different about it.

Again, I will steer you toward your school district’s website and policies on this. I just had to look this up for a client, and the policy was really hidden on the website.

How to proceed with your district will vary depending on your state and district. But, you can always ask for this as an intervention on the IEP. Then, you would make the request in writing to follow up with the PWN.

Have a conversation with your child because this can be very hard on them socially and emotionally. In the end, in most cases, it is ultimately the parents’ decision.

The school said they would hold him back or fail him this grade.

Ask them to show you the data showing that this is an effective intervention. Demand that they show you what will be different during the repeated year so your child will be successful.

Re-read your Present Levels section and ensure every area of need is identified. If not, request more evaluations.

If Present Levels are solid, then something isn’t right.

Can your child be reasonably expected to do passing work with supports?

Then why aren’t they? Where is the disconnect? Ask the team what they use to determine grades when you have an IEP.

Is there a denial of FAPE?

Not always, but if a child has an IEP, and can be expected to do passing work with supports, yet is still failing, you may have a case of denial of FAPE.

As I stated above, failing a grade is a huge red flag that something isn’t going right.

As a parent, you need to really engage in this and get the team to fix it. Either they are not addressing the correct learning issue, or the supports and services are not in place to help the child achieve success.

Also, your Progress Monitoring on the IEP really needs to be redone, as you should not be told that your child is failing a grade when it is too late to regroup and track a different course.

Someone should have told you that your child was not doing well somewhere along the line. Not when it has snowballed into failing the entire year!

A hand holding a red flag on a white background, symbolizing the potential to fail a grade while receiving support through an Individualized Education Program (IEP).


I find myself recommending this option more often, and I don’t like that trend. But, sometimes the fastest and easiest way to reach the destination is to do it yourself. Consider it if you can hire a tutor, pay for after-school or summer schooling, or some other remedy.

I have a friend who ended up pulling her child home, learning to teach OG, and doing it as a homeschool. She got her child caught up and restored her child’s confidence and self-esteem.

Keep the Child Engaged.

This is going to affect the student more than it is going to affect anyone else. The damage to self-esteem, confidence, and well-being can be extremely detrimental and take years to repair.

Keep your child involved in all the conversations and even allow them to help you brainstorm solutions. It will help them in many ways, including in their self-advocacy skills.

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Also read: 7 Red Flags that your IEP is Garbage.

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