Ignoring a child's school problems or waiting too long to seek help perpetuates a cycle of frustration and failure. Here, an eight-step plan:
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 extracurricular activities."
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.
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?
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.
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.
Step 6: Discuss Plans
A skilled tutor does more than simply check over homework. She will assess your child's strengths and weaknesses, prepare individualized lessons, and use hands-on materials wherever possible. She should also consult and work with your child's classroom teacher. Finally, she 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 she evaluates progress. Does she use standardized tests or other forms of evaluation? How often?
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 she enjoy the sessions? Are her grades improving? Does she have more confidence with the subject matter? Is she feeling better about school in general? This informal observation, combined with her 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.
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 email 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.