I just watched a great video (a kind of short documentary) about two educators who strive to afford better education for their students in a college in Red Hook (a neighborhood in Brooklyn).
The video makers made an interview with one of the students' mothers :

The mother (crying next to her son): I've never cried like this ... I've cried like this one time ... when I had to leave him back, and I cried, I cried, I cried, that was the hardest thing in my life, to tell his teacher to leave him back ... in third grade [...] I told his teacher to leave him back, because he was struggling.

I've looked up the meaning of leaving someone back on the web but, I didn't find a relevant meaning. Here is what I think it means :

The expression, leaving someone back (in the context of the interview): is to make someone stay in their current grade even if they succeed.

  • What do you guys think the meaning is? And is it common to use this "phrasal verb "?

You can find the video I saw the phrase used in here.

  • Could you provide the link to the video clip, please? The mother could be referring to leaving her child at kindergarten the first time, she had to leave him with his teachers even though, as a young infant, he was probably upset, which made her cry (because she felt guilty). But it's hard to know for sure without a bit more context.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Nov 9, 2017 at 11:37
  • Thanks @Mari-LouA for your help, I really appreciate it .
    – CryptoBird
    Commented Nov 9, 2017 at 12:04
  • 1
    The YouTube video was helpful, to me at least, because the mother said her son was in the third grade when this happened and she told his teacher to "leave him back" because he was struggling. The context makes the meaning much clearer. P.S I'm not an AmEng speaker.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Nov 9, 2017 at 12:36
  • You're right @Mari-LouA , and again thank you for you help.
    – CryptoBird
    Commented Nov 9, 2017 at 12:46
  • Why did you remove the link to the video? That was useful context.
    – terdon
    Commented Nov 10, 2017 at 10:01

1 Answer 1


Leave back or hold back means to make a child repeat a grade in school because of lack of academic progress, or very rarely, because of slow social and emotional development (usually in kindergarten or pre-school). Here's a transcript of an NPR show that uses the terms several times.


The two terms are interchangeable, but hold back is far more common.
See Ngram chart below

enter image description here

There is great debate in the US as to whether there is any merit in doing this, with intensive summer school classes seen as a better alternative by many.

  • 4
    This is correct, except that holding kids back in kindergarten for social/emotional development is not very rare; in some schools (primarily the upper-middle-class ones), it's by far the most common reason why kids repeat a grade. In my kids' school, nearly a quarter either do two years of kindergarten or do an extra year of preschool before kindergarten.
    – 1006a
    Commented Nov 9, 2017 at 19:21
  • Looking at the N-gram, I wonder why the use of this phrase has become more common during the second half of the 20th century. Was there a different phrase in use during the first half? Or was there a taboo on talking about it, maybe out of shame?
    – Mr Lister
    Commented Nov 11, 2017 at 8:58
  • 1
    This adequately answers the question as it is asked, so I am not planning to make an answer of my own, but I think a little more information should be added to this one. Particularly, in addition to hold back, there is also the phrase leave behind. Leave back looks like somebody mistakenly mixed the two set phrases together, perhaps because they share a more common general meaning. I'm not entirely sure if leave behind has the same meaning here, but it is notably used in a schooling context in the No Child Left Behind Act.
    – Tonepoet
    Commented Nov 11, 2017 at 17:13
  • @Tonepoet. No, leave behind doesn’t mean leave back. Leave behind means to abandon completely, to stop caring about. Leave back is a synonym for hold back, and the Ngram shows that it was once the more common term (mid-1930s to mid-1950s). The NCLB Act did not prohibiting grade retention. Commented Nov 11, 2017 at 17:54

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