Years ago when I was a tutor for middle school and high school students, and before I had children of my own, I formed all sorts of opinions about the circumstances in which I would and would not hire a tutor for my own children. Fast forward 14 years and I’ve become a lot more flexible in my thinking and empathetic to any parental decision that brings peace to a home that has become consumed with ongoing battles over homework and grades. Someone who can teach my child study skills? Someone who can help with higher level math than I’m capable of doing, let alone teaching (that would include my fifth grade twins’ current math assignments)? Someone who can support my freshman who is struggling to juggle sports, a social life and rigorous academics? Sign me up! If you’re thinking of hiring a tutor for your child but aren’t sure where to start, here are seven things you should know about tutoring.
1. Tutoring help comes in many forms: Find the right model for your child.
We’re fortunate in this area to have a wealth of resources, from in-home tutors, to tutoring centers and specialized content-area programs such as Mathnasium. Finding the right tutoring model for your child should be a collaborative process, involving parents, the child, and teacher input. Ideally, a tutor should be someone who can address content knowledge, executive functioning skills (e.g., organization, note-taking, study habits), and be an educational mentor.
“When you do all three of those things, then you’re making a real educational impact on a child,” says Matthew Pietrafetta, founder of Academic Approach, which specializes in one-on-one preparation for standardized tests, but also provides tutors for academic subjects. “One-on-one tutoring is personalized and it’s a tremendous opportunity and a real honor to fill in gaps and to model methods in a way that classroom teachers might love to do, but don’t always have the time to do.”
2. Even if your child is generally a star student, there may still be areas where they could use some extra help.
Often a student can operate at a high level in school — they have superior executive functioning skills and are academically motivated — but struggle with a particular concept or curriculum. In that instance, a specialized tutoring center might be the best fit for that student’s needs. Mathnasium is one such example. With some 762 locations around the world, it provides experienced math tutors who use proprietary teaching materials and techniques to deliver a customized learning plan for each student.
3. Understanding the student’s needs and identifying gaps in learning is often half the battle.
Most tutors and tutoring services will do an initial intake meeting with the student and parents to assess the student’s needs, goals and personality. Some services such as Academic Approach and Mathnasium have the student take a diagnostic test to better ascertain where the academic gaps might be in content areas.
“At Mathnasium, we are looking for the gaps in learning,” says J. Steve Santacruz, managing director of seven Mathnasium franchises in the Chicago area and Orange County, California. “If you haven’t understood the foundation, you’re not going to understand material going forward. We’re going to test you on everything you should’ve learned and figure out what’s missing. We spend a good portion of time fixing the building blocks of learning.”
4. Buyer beware — not all tutors are created equal.
Experts say parents should be weary of a tutor who promises too much, too quickly. Learning is a process and a trusted tutor-student relationship is often one that takes some time to develop. One of the worst outcomes is for a tutor to essentially do the work for the student.
“Essentially, my mission is to write myself out of a job,” Pietrafetta says. “I’m here to cultivate independence. The opposite of doing the work for the student is teaching the student to have independent problem-solving skills and teaching them to transfer those skills to novel problems. When in doubt about the quality of a tutor, a first stop can be to check if the tutor is certified by the National Tutoring Association, although many high-quality tutors are not certified.
5. Tutoring shouldn’t be a last-ditch effort.
Many parents, like myself, often wait until an academic “crisis” before then scrambling to find a tutor to plug a hole. Tutoring experts say it’s best to be proactive, especially in cases where the student might lack organizational skills or academic confidence.
“If, as a parent, you’re waffling, maybe you want to try it — and sometimes having a tutor will help the student perk up,” says Laura Horowitz, owner of the local territory of College Nannies + Sitters + Tutors, a national organization with 130 territories in 30 states that provides in-home tutors and has its own learning centers. “Better not to have to dig out of a hole that the student has gotten into.”
6. Make sure you check out the tutoring resources offered at your child’s school.
Schools often have their own peer-to-peer tutoring centers, where students can go during free periods or study halls to find academic support. Similarly, some schools have learning centers where local volunteers provide one-on-one help for students. A Department of Education study found that students with below-average reading skills who are tutored by volunteers show significant skills gains when compared with similar students who don’t receive tutoring from a high-quality tutoring program.
7. Just because school’s out doesn’t mean you should take a break from tutoring.
Summer is often an ideal time to start working proactively with a tutor, whether to remediate issues in a subject in which a student struggled, prepare for standardized tests, or enroll at a tutoring center to get a “preview” of what’s to come in the fall.
“The other part is the infamous summer slide,” says Santacruz. “The nice thing about staying in any education in the summer is the brain is still working and we want to keep the brain working.”
Susan Pasternak has worked as a journalist for more than two decades, reporting and writing on myriad subjects ranging from national health care policy to personal finance to head lice. Her work has been published in numerous consumer and business publications. Susan lives with her husband, three children, and dog Roxy in Highland Park.