Case Study - Can Holding a Student Back a Grade be Beneficial or Hurt in the Long Run?

Case Study

Pertinent Information

Student 1 is a six-year-old, Caucasian male who comes from an upper-middle class family in Charlotte, North Carolina. He is the youngest of three boys in his family. Student 1 has just turned six, as the day of this clinical interview was also his birthday. His mother decided to hold Student 1 out of school last year, so he has just entered kindergarten this fall. The extra year in pre-school seems to have put Student 1 in a good position to excel in school this year, as he is quite intelligent and mature for his age and grade level. Student 1’s physical development is also above the mean for his age and gender, according to the National Center for Health Statistics and National Center for Chronic Disease (chart included). Student 1’s height (48 inches) places him within the 95th percentile; his weight (53 lbs.) places him within the 90th percentile. Overall, he seems to be a healthy, happy, well-adjusted kindergartner.

Cognitive Development

Task 1 – Conservation of Discontinuous Quantity

Student 1 easily identified the two rows of eight quarters I placed in front of him and told me that the quarters were “twenty-five cents each.” His initial response when I asked him to ascertain the equality of number of quarters in each row was that they were the indeed the same amount because they “were in the same line.” This initially led me to predict that Student 1 would be at the pre-operational level of cognitive operations, because his comment reflected “seeing is believing.” However, when I asked him to explain to me how he knew for sure that there was the same amount of quarters in each row, he proceeded to count each row accurately and told me, “there’s eight and eight is an even number!” showing his ability to quantify. Even after I spread out the quarters in one row, put them back to even, and then condensed the quarters in the other row, Student 1 was able to very surely state that each row still contained the same amount of quarters. I asked him how he knew this without physically counting the rows each time, and his response was that he saw me “switch them” but knew they were still the same amount. Student 1’s comments show reversibility in his logico-mathematical mental operations and that he could conserve a discontinuous quantity – despite the irrelevant perceptual changes in row length and spacing. His understanding of this task indicated that he is at the concrete operational stage of cognitive development.

Task 2 – Conservation of a Continuous Quantity

This task presented more of a challenge to Student 1 than the previous task. After each manipulation of the liquid in bottles, he would initially state what he saw – and then self-correct after further questioning. Student 1 initially had no difficulty determining the equality of liquid in two identical bottles because they water level was at the same part of the bottle in each. After watching me transfer the liquid from one of the bottles into a taller bottle of smaller circumference, Student 1 initially said the two bottles did not contain the same amount of liquid because the water level was higher in one. After further questioning, Student 1 corrected his assessment and compensated that they did still contain the same amount because the taller bottle was “skinnier” and had “lines” (referring to the indents that circled the bottle and displaced water) which made the water level appear higher. After returning the water to the identical bottle, then pouring it into four separate, smaller bottles, Student 1’s initial reaction was that they weren’t equal because the water level was lower in the smaller bottles. When I asked Student 1 to further compare the amount of water in the one larger bottle to the amount of water in the smaller bottles, he corrected himself. He concluded that they were in fact equal amounts because he had watched me pour it from the same identical sized bottle – demonstrating reversibility in his mental operations. I concluded that Student 1’s final responses to each of the manipulations indicate that he is in the concrete operational stage of cognitive development.

Task 3 – Class Inclusion

Student 1 was able to accurately identify the set of materials I placed before him as “M&M” candies and correctly predicted that there were more green M&M’s (8) than red M&M’s (6). He then proceeded to count each subset, without prompting to do so, and then the whole set together – “14 M&M’s.” When I asked Student 1, “were there more green M&M’s than M&M’s,” he correctly replied, “more M&M’s.” His response indicates and understanding of class inclusion – that the subset of green M&M’s must be included in the larger set of M&M candies when comparing the amounts of each. His ability to understand this advanced classification shows a decentration of mental operations, as he was able to simultaneously process both the subclass and superordinate class of candies.

Social and Emotional Development

After reading the moral dilemma twice to Student 1, he felt the need to spell both “Will” and “William,” the name of the little boy in the story – and did so correctly! Student 1 firmly believed that William should not break his promise to his father. He even suggested other ways to solve the problem, such as using a net or calling a “catcatcher,” but would not budge from his initial decision - William had made a promise and could “get in trouble” if he climbed the tree. This level of reasoning clearly indicates Student 1 is at Stage One in his moral development, according to Kohlberg. His reaction shows a concern about punishment for breaking a promise that is seen as absolute. Student 1 was willing to concede that if William did climb the tree, his father would understand because William “never lies.” I’m unsure how honesty relates to Student 1’s assessment of the situation, other than in that he believes William is normally a “good boy” and so his father would understand if he broke the promise to save the kitten. While this level of social reasoning seems to reflect a higher conventional morality, I’m more inclined to think that Student 1 believes that William is usually obedient to his father so this one exception could be made for his being a “bad boy.” Accordingly, Jack believed that William should tell his father that he had climbed the tree because “William never tells lies and he had to save the kitten.” This last part reflects a Stage Two moral development because Student 1 is weighing the importance of the kitten’s life with the importance of keeping the promise. Student 1 likewise decided that William should still not break the promise, even if his father had broken a promise, “unless he had to rescue an animal!” Lastly, Student 1 told me that promises were important to him because “you promise to and your parents tell you, so you can’t” – indicating an orientation towards the moral right of obeying an authority (e.g. his parents). Student 1’s final thought was that “a promise is a promise,” also indicating a Stage One moral development in that rules are viewed as absolute.


In each of the cognitive development tasks I presented to Student 1, his answers definitively indicate that he has acquired the concrete operational stage of cognitive operations. He should have little difficulty approaching the tasks of kindergarten using logico-mathematical mental operations and his ability to classify and quantify.

I’d judge Student 1 to be transitional between Kohlberg’s Stage One and Stage Two in his moral development – squarely preconventional. His moral decisions are mostly based on a concern for reward and punishment, obedience to authority, and a view of rules as absolute. This moral orientation is mostly presocial and egocentric. However, I’d expect that as Student 1 matures and becomes more accustomed to the social environment of school, his moral development will progress to a more social, conventional orientation.