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8 Steps to Tutoring Success

After you’ve decided to seek help, what’s next?

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Ignoring a child's school problems or waiting too long to seek help perpetuates a cycle of frustration and failure. "Parents have to advocate for their children, listen very carefully to their child's teacher, and be in communication with the teacher so that, if a problem crops up, they can figure out what to do together," says Susan Schwartz, M.A. Ed., clinical coordinator at the Institute for Learning and Academic Achievement at the New York University Child Study Center. Here, an 8-step plan:

1. Do a reality check
2. Get perspective
3. Consider the best setting
4. Ask for referrals
5. Meet and greet
6. Discuss plans
7. Set a timetable for progress
8. Stay involved

Step 1: Reality Check
When you or the teacher identify a problem, take a step back and consider the whole child. "Many factors could account for a child's falling behind. Rushing to hire a tutor should be the last thing you do," says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., co-author of Einstein Never Used Flashcards: How Our Children Really Learn and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less. "Instead of slapping a Band-Aid on the problem, be a diagnostician and figure out the cause.

"Your child could be tired," says Hirsh-Pasek. "Maybe he needs to go to sleep earlier, and you need to better enforce bedtime rules. Maybe he's not doing well because he's being dragged down by having too many high-fat snacks or fast-food meals. Or maybe he can't complete his homework because he's overscheduled and exhausted from too many extra-curricular activities."

Then, too, anxiety about starting a new school year; a recent move to a new school; the arrival of a new sibling; or stress at home due to a parent's job loss or illness can affect a child's ability to learn. If he's being bullied at school, or excluded from a social group, he may lose his interest or enthusiasm for learning.

Still, if you notice a pattern of low marks and/or notes home from the teacher, it's time to act.

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Step 2: Get Perspective
Talk to your child as well as his teacher or guidance counselor for their perception of the problem. Does he hand in homework assignments on time? Does he fidget in class, or lose focus when the teacher talks? Does he seem unhappy or uninterested in school in general? Is his behavior disruptive in class? Lack of motivation or acting out behaviors may be a sign that a child is having difficulty either understanding or processing information.

Sometimes simply moving a child to a smaller class can make a difference. If that is not possible, ask if he can move his seat to the front row right near the teacher, which may prevent his attention from wandering. If his backpack is a mess and he frequently loses or forgets important papers or assignments, perhaps help in study and organizational skills will be most helpful.

Check whether other children are having trouble, too (perhaps a particular curriculum or unit is just too difficult). Ask: What can I do to help? Maybe you've forgotten to schedule reading time into your family's evening. Maybe you can help him make flash cards to review on the way to school. "There's a great deal parents can do," says Hirsh-Pasek. A good guidance counselor or resource room specialist will also meet with your child, check her scores on standardized tests to see if they reveal any learning difficulties, and help decide whether further testing is warranted.

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Step 3: Consider the Best Setting
Once you've decided to find tutoring help, you need to determine what form it should take. Some children feel more comfortable working privately with a tutor in their own home; others are motivated by the dynamics of a small group and concentrate more easily when they are away from the distractions at home. They might benefit from a study group or supplemental class at a learning center. Also ask yourself: Does my child do better with men or women? Does he need lots of nurturing or a firm hand?

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Step 4: Ask for Referrals
Whether you decide that a once-a-week meeting with a homework helper (say, an older student or moonlighting teacher) is sufficient, or that intensive remediation makes more sense, keep in mind that tutoring is only as good as the person who does it.

Check with your child's teacher, the school office, and other parents for names of qualified tutors. Schools may have a list of tutors who work regularly with students, and may even be familiar with the teachers and course curriculum. Your school may also offer some sort of academic help — before, during or after school. (If your child attends a school that has been deemed "failing" for two or more years, she is entitled to free tutorial help. For more information, contact your local school board, or the NYU Child Study Center.)

Your local high school may also offer a mentoring program that pairs older and younger students. Also contact volunteer organizations (Boys and Girls Club; the YMCA) as well as church or synagogue groups for lists of potential tutors. Your local library can also be an excellent resource.

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Step 5: Meet and Greet
Meet the tutor or visit the learning center with your child so he feels a part of the process and you can see if there's a rapport between him and the tutor. Sit in on one or two sessions to be sure. Since anyone can advertise in the local newspaper that he's a tutor, check credentials. Your tutor should not only be knowledgeable in the subject matter, he should have experience working with children your child's age. If your child has a learning disability, the tutor should be trained to identify and work with youngsters with this specific problem. Be sure to check references. A string of degrees doesn't mean a tutor is a good teacher, or that he can communicate well with children.

Ask about teaching style: Sylvan and Score!, for instance, use a combination of phonics (sounding out syllables of a word) and whole language (figuring out a word from its context) to teach reading — whichever seems to work best for the child. Huntington and Kumon emphasize traditional phonics.

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Step 6: Discuss Plans
A skilled tutor does more than simply check over homework. He will assess your child's strengths and weaknesses, prepare individualized lessons, and use hands-on materials wherever possible. He should also consult and work with your child's classroom teacher. Finally, he should offer positive reinforcement so your child feels good about himself and his efforts. Ask if the tutor gives additional homework besides your child's regular classroom work as well as how he evaluates progress. Does he use standardized tests or other forms of evaluation? How often?

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Step 7: Set a Timetable for Progress
Most tutoring relationships last several months to a year (meeting once or twice a week). Don't wait that long before asking for feedback. Talk to your child and the tutor after every session. Does he enjoy the sessions? Are his grades improving? Does he have more confidence with the subject matter? Is he feeling better about school in general? This informal observation, combined with his teacher's input, will help you determine if the relationship is working.

And if it's not? It can take several months for a child's performance to improve, but if you sense something is not working, don't be shy about discussing your concerns with the tutor. If he's not responsive, find someone new.

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Step 8: Stay Involved
Parents are part of the tutoring equation. Your involvement is necessary to make it work. Make sure the tutor has the phone number or e-mail address of your child's teacher; a copy of the textbook and curriculum she's using (request this from the teacher or guidance counselor), and your child's past tests so he can see areas of weakness. Finally, be sure to reinforce skills at home. Ask the tutor for suggestions, look for ways to fit in real-world practice (cooking together is great for both math and reading), and don't forget to share books and stories often.

About the Author

Margery D. Rosen is a freelance writer and mother of two children; she makes her home in New York City.

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