Two Twins, Two Different Grades: What Do You Do When Only One Twin Struggles in School

Each year parents of twins grapple with the question of whether they should separate their kindergarten-bound twins or keep the pair together. As hard as that decision is for some, just imagine if that question suddenly became, “Should we hold just one child back for another year?”

If one twin is struggling academically or socially in preschool (or even kindergarten) while his co-twin is right on target, the decision of what to do can be agonizing. It’s a predicament that Melissa Schroeder of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. knows firsthand. Five-year-old son Michael lags socially behind his twin sister Madison and still struggles with speech. “Madison’s very interested in learning but Michael gets more frustrated,” Schroeder says. “He’s very intelligent but his skills are scattered.” Yet Schroeder and her husband never considered holding Michael back in preschool while promoting Madison to kindergarten. “It’s one thing to separate your children by classroom but it’s quite another to separate twins by grade. It would be an irreversible trauma.”Fraternal twin girls laughing

But is it fair or prudent to push a struggling preschool twin ahead just for the sake of preserving the twin bond? “Psychologically, if you separate twins into two different grades, there’s no way that one’s not going to feel smarter than the other one,” says Melissa Mullin, Ph.D. and an educational psychologist and director of the K & M Center in Santa Monica, Calif., an institute that diagnoses and remediates learning disabilities. “There’s no way around that.” Although Dr. Mullin believes that parents should do everything they can to keep their twins in the same grade, even if that means holding both back in preschool or kindergarten, she cautions that parents first need to understand the type and the degree of the problem that the struggling twin faces.

Diagnosing the Learning Problem

The first order of business for parents is to get their child tested and assessed to find out if the trouble is a developmental delay or a learning disability. The difference between the two, Dr. Mullin explains, is significant when deciding what to do. “The problem is determining if this is a long-term difficulty or a catch-up process,” she says.

On the one hand, a developmental delay is a life long difference in learning capacity and learning ease. This is a child who would benefit from a special class or a special school specifically for children with learning issues. Furthermore, if a twin has a developmental delay, it is clear that his learning needs will be different from that of his co-twin. If a child is temporarily lagging behind, however, that is not called a developmental delay. For instance, if a twin is delayed in language but his speech is developing in the right sequence just at a slower than normal pace, more than likely it’s not a developmental delay. With proper and timely therapy, most twins with delayed speech will catch up.

On the other hand, if a twin has a learning disability and his IQ is in the average or above-average range, you’re talking about only a slight difference in ability. This is when parents need to consider the emotional impact of holding one child back. “The studies on children with learning disabilities show that holding a child back is not the answer, intervention is,” Dr. Mullin says. “Once the learning issue is addressed and with the correct intervention, the child should be able to function in the classroom without being held back.”

A correct diagnoses and subsequent remediation made all the difference for Sonia Fox’s twin son John. When teachers told the Falcon, Colo. mom that she should consider holding her then first grader back a year because he struggled with reading, Fox looked into her son’s learning issue on her own. “John couldn’t control his eye movements. I watched him as we would try to read and noticed he couldn’t keep his eyes on the page,” she says. “He’d get lost and then frustrated and didn’t want to continue reading.” John was finally diagnosed in second grade with a tracking and convergence deficiency and started intense visual therapy. Today in third grade, he’s reading just a few months behind grade level. “It’s been a hard slog to get to this point,” says Fox, “My son is a very sensitive and I feel the damage to his self-esteem of repeating would have been great.”

Staying Together While Being Apart

Since most kindergarten classes are more developmentally challenging these days, another alternative is to look at two different schools rather than two different grades. “Some schools are easier, and some are harder,” Dr. Mullin explains. For a twin with delays, for example, choose a school that’s more developmentally progressive, one that will be a bit gentler in its approach to teaching and one that will let your twin develop at his own rate. For the twin who is on par for her grade level, the local elementary school may be a good fit. “Since you have two different types of learners, match each child with the right school.”

That’s the approach that Lori Lynch of Montgomery County, Penn. took with her six-year-old fraternal twin boys, Joey and Johnny. When April of their kindergarten year rolled around, it was recommended that Joey repeat while cotwin Johnny was ready to advance to first grade. Although it didn’t come as a shock, the Lynches were nonetheless disappointed. “Separating them meant one would be able to join Cub Scouts a year earlier, one could make made their religious sacraments a year earlier, and one would be college hunting a year earlier,” Lynch says.

They told the school district that splitting the boys was not an option. Instead, both boys would repeat kindergarten but in different schools and in different classroom settings—Joey in a more nurturing pre-K program and Johnny in a more challenging one. “After much debate and many meetings, both will be starting first grade together next year,” she adds.

For Dee Whisnant’s boy-girl twins, five-and-a-half-year-old Scarlet and Perry, the separate-but-together track began back in preschool. Both had delays in speech, explains the Salisbury, North Carolina mom, but Perry’s was more challenging. After attending different preschool classes, the Whisnant twins are now in different kindergarten environments as well—Scarlet is in a traditional class but Perry attends a school that promotes academics through communication and social skills. “Until and if he is able to be mainstreamed, he will be different from his sister,” she says. “He’s come a long way since starting this year but has a long way to go, too.”

The Gift of Time

If parents recognize now that one or both of their twins is struggling in preschool, simply give them the gift of time by holding both twins back for one more year. This is especially helpful for twins with a late summer or fall birthday, and even more important for preemie twins whose true age should be based on their due date, not their birthday. “Most twins who are developmentally behind will always be behind—they’ll be late talkers, late walkers. So those children would probably benefit from being held back because you are giving them more developmental time to catch up,” Dr. Mullin explains. If your twins are not five by September 1st, hold them back in preschool.

But what if twins differ? What if one’s on target while her co-twin is not? Is that fair to the developmentally ready twin? “How is it unfair to give your child the advantage of being the strongest academically, the most developed in the classroom?” she asks. “Sure, she may be done with her work quicker, but she can pull out a book and read while she’s waiting. Compare that to being the youngest in the class, always stressed out, always a step behind, and the last to develop especially when it comes to motor skills.”

By the time middle schools rolls around, age doesn’t matter. What’s more important is if a child is self-confident and can get along well with others. “I’ve never heard any parents say they were sorry that they held their children back in preschool or kindergarten,” says Dr. Mullin, “but I’ve often heard parents with children going into middle school wishing they had held them back earlier so that their kids could have had that extra developmental time.”

A copy of the book Double Duty.