Can a tutor really help your child?

Finding the right tutor for young children is important, but so is seeking tutoring for the right reasons. Discover if tutoring is really the best way to help your child with her studies.

By Ryan Stuart

Does your child need a tutor?
©iStockphoto.com/Skynesher
At the end of Grade 2, my daughter, Paige came home with a surprising report card – at least to us. Her grade for "meeting expectations" had fallen to "below expectations" in both math and reading. Our solution? We hired a tutor to work with her throughout the summer. Paige enjoyed the experience and so the tutoring continued after she went back to school in the fall.

Does tutoring help your child's education?

A few hundred dollars in tutoring later and a recent American study has me wondering what exactly I'm paying for. The United States Department of Education looked into the impact that tutoring has on children as part of the No Child Left Behind Act and found that tutoring led to "no statistically significant impact" on performance in reading or math. Sure enough, when a report card came home in December my daughter still wasn't meeting the grade level. I started to wonder whether I was wasting my money.

To find out more I dug a little deeper into the study and found that it was commissioned because the Department of Education was concerned about the quality of tutoring that students were receiving. Almost every education advocate agrees that finding the right tutor is important, but so is seeking help for the right reasons.

Hiring a tutor

James Mendelsohn, the author of A Parent's Guide to Tutors and Tutoring: How to Support the Unique Needs of Your Child, recommends asking three questions before hiring a tutor: Is my child genuinely stuck or is she merely struggling? Have I given my child adequate time to solve this difficulty on her own? Has my child used the resources of the school?

For Paige, I think the answer is "Yes" to all three questions. She has been struggling with reading for two years even though she practises on her own and with us at home, as well as with reading groups at school. I think using a tutor is the right step for us.

So maybe her tutor is the problem. John Zajaros, a professional tutor in New York City, says the connection between student and tutor is vital. "The most important things are: Am I going to be the right match? Are we going to relate? Are we going to connect? And is my style the right fit?" he explains.

How to find the right tutor

Before taking on a student, Zajaros insists on a face-to-face interview with both the parents and the student. Qualifications, teaching style, experience working with students of the same age, and everyone's expectations and goals should all be discussed at this meeting.

Our tutor, Michelle, was recommended by a friend whose son had gone from a below grade level to an above grade level in reading with her help. She's a Montessori teacher with an obvious passion for elementary school students. In the first couple of lessons Michelle and Paige obviously hit it off – and Paige always looks forward to her tutor sessions. All seemed good there.

We talked to Michelle about our concerns and about another point that Mendelsohn raises – namely, that tutors should focus on how the student learns, especially on which study habits help and which ones hurt.

Tutors "should work to increase the ability of the child to meet the challenges of learning on his or her own," says Mendelsohn. "Tutors should work themselves out of a job, returning the student to the ordinary struggles of being in school."

With that in mind we're giving Michelle a few more months with Paige. Everyone here hopes that the U.S. Department of Education was wrong and that tutoring can have a positive impact on Paige's reading abilities.

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