A New Year is Here: When to Get a Tutor?
Updated: Aug 20, 2018
The summer feels like it is in full swing. School must not start for at least another…wait, this week?!
A new year brings new grade levels, new subjects, and (for some) fresh anxiety. Many students will embrace the upcoming challenges and thrive, but others will struggle – a natural and key component of the learning process. But what if the struggle is too much? And how much is too much before you get your child extra help? Let’s take a look at some of these questions.
Parents are as varied as children. The “preemptive strike” parents might already have their children working with a tutor to gear up for the new year, regardless whether the child has any need. At the other end of the spectrum, some parents don’t want to think of the word “tutor” until the end of the semester (or year) when final grades approach and, frankly, it’s probably too late.
The rest of you lie somewhere in the middle. This advice is for you! Here are some thoughts on whether and when to seek a tutor as your new year unfolds.
Traffic will immediately get worse. That is certain. But the other fears of a new year are not inevitable. Just because your child faces classes or a topic that is supposed to be difficult, or a schedule that seems insurmountable, doesn’t mean your child will not rise to the challenge. Humans (especially the younger ones) are adaptable creatures. By now as a parent, I’m sure you’ve experienced this revelation in any number of ways. A new school year is no different. Children can surprise parents (and themselves) by thriving and conquering what appeared to be the Worthy Opponent, Algebra, or whatever haunts them.
Even if your child has a subject or area where he or she struggled last year, remember that teachers make a difference! A style, personality fit, or just plain competency level of your child’s last teacher might have made last year’s experience more trying. (Conversely, your child could find that a subject where he or she soared last year might leave them frustrated this year.)
And children (of course) grow and change. Summers are short, but they can still be great growth and development spurts. They may return to school with a different perspective on learning.
Finally, the biggest culprit in anxiety often hides in other parents. Don’t let them whip you up into a frenzy with concern about this teacher or that subject. You should always keep your ears open, for sure, but you should look to your own children for cues and information about how they are experiencing the same issues.
But Be Reasonable
Avoid panic but don’t be unreasonable. If your child has consistently worked with a tutor before with positive results, and everyone is fine with that arrangement, why stop? In the same vein, if you are already aware of significant challenges that face your child in a certain area, why wait? This situation is different than the “preemptive strike” parent noted above, who simply hires a tutor out of nervous anxiety or peer pressure. Here, I am talking about when a documented track record makes hiring a tutor the right move, without needing to wait. For parents in this situation, hiring a tutor in the first few weeks of the new semester likely works well. (Of course, start with your school to see what learning and support resources are already available to your child.)
So, When to Pull the Trigger?
For those of you exercising caution, check in with your child periodically during the first few weeks of the new semester. A bit of mayhem always governs the beginning of the year, as students, teachers, and parents settle into a new rhythm. Wait out this period. Keep an eye out for comments about class, social dynamics at school, teachers, and any forthcoming schedules – not to mention the lay of the land in after-school activities or other commitments. Expect some turmoil as all of you are making sense of new challenges. Hopefully, your child’s school offers you an opportunity during this time to check in with teachers, formally or informally, to monitor student learning.
By three to four weeks in, your analysis should start to coalesce. Are there subjects where both teacher and student show concern? Do the bases of these concerns go beyond initial new year (or new topic) turmoil? What is your own sense of the challenges facing your child? Among the three of you (you, your child, and the teacher), you all probably have varying appetites for risk, anxiety, and challenge. Try the best you can to keep this in mind as you weigh the need for a tutor or other support.
As part of your analysis at this point, size up how frequently your child is going to be evaluated in class: Does your child get regular feedback on improvement? What quizzes, tests, and examinations determine the grade, and when do they occur? This review might counsel you to wait a few more weeks if grading stakes are low, with students expected to struggle for awhile. On the other hand, you might decide that the time has come to make decisions because the stakes are going up, as a big test approaches, or too much ground has already been lost. In that case, no need to wait until your child’s grade has become an intractable issue.
Let Them Struggle (the Right Amount!)
As I’ve written elsewhere, struggling lies at the heart of learning. At least some amount of struggling! Think of your own experiences: Sure, you don’t learn an idea when it completely confounds you, but you also don’t retain the learning of ideas that are handed to you on a silver platter. This is no grand conclusion. We all know that the lessons that really stick with us are those that we struggle through and experience first-hand.
This learning concept plays the same role with your own children. If they are left unable to cope with a task, they cannot learn it. Equally, however, if a tutor or teacher (or parent) tries to hand them a lesson without any personal struggle on the students’ part, they are less likely to retain it and use it.
So, keep this in mind as you decide when (and whether) to hire a tutor. You shouldn’t rush to make sure your child avoids all form of struggle in learning. Struggling (when not too little and not too much) will actually help your child learn better. While you shouldn’t let your child twist in the wind if they’re really having a hard time, you also shouldn’t rush to alleviate them of the natural challenges that come with learning, internalizing, and using new information and ideas. Of course, don’t let them wallow in a desperate situation; make sure your child has the tools and space to learn. But remember (perhaps from your own experiences) that the best learning comes from first struggling to make sense of a new concept or idea.
Monitor Confidence Levels
All of this is easier said than done! How much struggle is enough? Too much? Even with perfect information, this is no simple calculation. So, if your child (or teacher) is not providing reliable information about your child’s progress, this could all be even tougher to gauge.
To make matters worse (speaking of challenges!), you should be careful to monitor your child’s confidence in a given subject as the weeks wind on. Encountering challenges often accompany a dip in confidence as the child questions whether he or she will meet the challenge. This is natural and, like the struggle, itself, should not be short-circuited for the sake of saving your child the pain or frustration – for similar reasons; your child’s confidence will grow as new challenges are overcome. In fact, when the child rises and meets the challenge, his or her confidence likely will be even stronger than before.
On the other hand, allowing a child to struggle too long can sap confidence to a level that can be hard to remedy. I had an awful statistics professor in college who destroyed my confidence in that area. I have, since, become skilled in statistics and probability, yet that one professor makes me hesitant to execute calculations confidently. Don’t let this happen to your child!
If you suspect a tutor could be helpful for your child, don’t be afraid to act. You can always hire a tutor and then put them on hold later if your child no longer needs the tutor, or change your mind altogether. These aren’t permanent decisions! And tutors understand this calculus. (Take a look at my earlier post, linked below, about some of the practical considerations in hiring a tutor.) Monitor your child, and make decisions for your child and your family. Don’t let others pressure you into decisions that don’t work for you.
Standardized Test Prep
If your child is approaching the age for college prep standardized tests, don’t panic! Maybe you spent some time considering test scheduling and planning out prep during the summer. If not, take a few moments here early in the school year to think about your child’s strategy (or consult with those available at your child’s school on this subject) before the school year gets away on you. A test might seem way far off, but they come up quickly! Take a few moments to block out prep scheduling well advance so that your child has plenty of time to prepare and do his or her best.