To tutor, or not to?

When kids struggle at school, a little tutoring is often the first line of defence. But is it always the best?

Joshua just wasn’t learning. The 12-year-old was getting help with his reading at Oxford Learning Halifax, a tutoring agency, a few afternoons a week. But he still wasn’t progressing at school. He seemed lethargic and uninterested in his work. Then he went for a routine checkup and the doctor ordered tests which revealed that he had type 1 diabetes. As soon as he got treatment, Joshua suddenly started making leaps both in his tutoring sessions and at school.

Parents often turn to tutoring as a first resort when their child’s grades start to slip. In fact, one-third of Canadian parents with children aged five to 24 have hired a tutor, according to a 2007 Canadian Council on Learning survey. Often, sitting down with someone one-on-one can help a child with school work. But if a child has an undiagnosed medical condition, learning disability, social or behavioural problem, or just not enough time for homework, tutoring may not help — at least, not on its own. “You need to find the problem. Without knowing what the issue is, you can’t fix it,” says Lorelei Burgess, centre director for Oxford Learning Halifax.

With that in mind, read on for some issues to consider before lining up a tutor for your child.
It’s OK to be OK

Be mindful of your child’s age and grade. If he’s in kindergarten, grade one or two, there’s still plenty of time for him to pick up basics like reading, writing and math. Cherie Carter, a special education teacher in Toronto, says parents should let younger kids learn at their own pace, and wait until grade three before hiring extra help. Michael Gabert, a long-time teacher and tutor from Kitchener, Ont., agrees. “We need to let kids be kids.”

Next, assess your own agenda. If your child is getting a C, it means he’s meeting the curriculum expectations, and maybe that’s good enough. Tutoring is not intended to turn everyone into a straight-A student. Before pushing him to pull up his grades, consider the potential downside: frustration, loss of interest in school, and possibly even worse marks.

Call the doctor

If your child is old enough and his marks really do need a boost, explore whether he has a health problem working against his grades. Poor hearing or eyesight can affect how a child learns in class, especially when it comes to following verbal instructions or seeing material on the board. If he’s had a lot of ear infections, or others in the family have hearing problems, get his hearing tested. Eye tests should also be up to date, especially if both you and your partner wear glasses.

Or your child may simply be too tired or too hungry to learn. Skipping breakfast or not eating enough before an early hockey practice can jeopardize her morning lessons. If she’s very busy or not sleeping well, she might be dozing off mid-afternoon and missing important content in class.

Consider learning problems

If your child has persistent problems with reading or math, and just doesn’t seem to get it no matter how much you review with him, talk to the school about assessing whether he has a learning disability. If he does, tutoring won’t do much. “Many parents are under the impression that more tutoring is going to help. It does the reverse,” says Carter. Few tutors are trained to deal with learning disabilities, and spending a lot of time on a challenging subject can frustrate a learner. Instead, talk to the school about increasing his special education time or trying new teaching strategies.
Take feelings into account

It’s not always obvious, but issues with friends, conflict with a teacher or sadness related to a divorce or death in the family can impact on kids’ school performance. Carter says that children suffering from low self-esteem or anxiety — often as a result of social problems — might not answer questions on tests because they’re so afraid of being wrong. To suss out whether social or emotional problems may be interfering with school, take note of everything in your child’s world, from the recent loss of a pet to a sudden lack of phone calls from friends. And speak to his teacher — there may be some dynamic in the classroom that’s causing him anxiety. These problems are not easy to solve, and definitely not the domain of an academic tutor. Talking to your child and his teacher or getting the school counsellor involved is a more logical way to start.

Time crunch

Even the healthiest, most confident kid might be stumbling in school if he has no time for homework. Most students should be spending 10 minutes per grade per day on homework, says Barbara Kennedy, executive director of Sylvan Learning in Vancouver. If a child is overscheduled, she might not have the time or energy to sit down with math or reading each evening. Plus, parents play a big role in homework success: Your child needs you there to encourage and coach her through the tough stuff. Unless the subject matter is far beyond your comprehension, help her out: It’s free and it brings you closer to her and her academic life. “Homework time is a good opportunity to see how kids are doing,” says Kennedy.

Get some extra help

Identifying and dealing with such problems may help your child get back into the groove at school. But if he’s fallen behind, particularly in a cumulative subject like math, it may still be prudent to call a tutor, at least tem-porarily. “You’ve still got to get them caught up with what they’ve missed,” says Burgess.

When to call a pro

You’ve ruled out any health, emotional or learning problems and your child’s grades are still sliding. Here are some clues that it’s time for a tutor:

Your child:
• avoids going to school by faking illness or skipping class
• takes much more time than he should to complete his homework
• tells you he doesn’t have any homework
• acts out at school and at home
• falls farther and farther behind in cumulative subjects like math
• struggles to keep up during a transition period (moving from primary to middle, or middle to high school)