Back to School Tutoring Help: Don't Wait for the First Report Card

Explore tutoring options before problems arise.

child being tutored

You've been having nightmares about your child's report cards from last year, the homework assignments covered in red pen, the awkward parent/teacher conferences and the stressful study sessions that never did any good. You've spent more than a few sleepless evenings trying to figure out how to make this year easier than the last, for both you and your child. Start this school year differently and call in the pros. Get a jump on it now, and you'll give your kid a jump start on the school year.

Recognize the Need

Mary and Craig Newton of Baltimore know firsthand the benefits of using tutors; they've engaged several over the course of their children's academic careers. The first time was for their child, Eliza, an elementary school student who typically earned As and Bs on report cards. It wasn't until Eliza's class was given a math workbook to complete during the summer that her parents began to suspect a problem. Their normally cooperative child cried over the assignment, dug in her heels and called it "stupid." She typically enjoyed math and never complained about homework, so her distress seemed strange. At the suggestion of her new third grade teacher, who suspected there was a bigger issue, Eliza was tested by an education specialist. The tests determined that Eliza didn't have a math problem, she had a reading problem. The summer math book was overwhelming because it was filled with word problems. So the Newtons hired a reading tutor and today Eliza is a successful college student who reads for pleasure.

Eliza's story has a happy ending because the Newtons realized that there was a problem and worked to fix it before it got worse. But not every family is so lucky when it comes to noticing that a child is having trouble in school. Be on the lookout for warning signs, which can include:

  • Struggling with subjects that hadn't been a problem before
  • Negative attitude toward certain subjects, especially calling his or herself stupid, or the subject itself stupid
  • Behavioral outbursts that may or may not appear related to schoolwork/studying
  • You or your child feel like giving up
  • Your usually motivated child has lost motivation and interest

Open the Books During the Summer

Eliza wasn't the only Newton family member to get extra help along the way. When her sister, Julia, spent her freshman year of high school struggling through algebra I, the Newtons turned to a high school math teacher to work with her throughout the summer and into the school year. Although Julia didn't relish the idea of spending her summer days with a teacher, spending time with one she liked made a difference. The tutor showed Julia ways to approach the problems and she sailed through algebra II the next year.

Ben Shifrin, the head of Jemicy School in Owings Mills, says that summer break is a good time for all students to reinforce what they've learned throughout the school year. He believes that the "use it or lose it" philosophy applies to the brain. "If kids do not use the skills they've learned during the school year in the summer, they will lose one to two months of progress by September," he says.

Shifrin, who specializes in working with students with dyslexia and language-based learning differences, has found that summer is the perfect time to build skills and motivate students, but enlisting a tutor at anytime of year is a good strategy for grade improvement. "If your child is struggling with the basics of a particular subject area such as math, vocabulary or writing, a tutor can help build the skills they will need as they move to higher grade levels," he says.

Choose the Best Tutor for Your Child

Mary Newton has learned two important lessons from her children's experience: be open to the possibility your child may need extra help and when you do hire a tutor, make sure it's a good fit.

"If the kids don't gel with their tutor, it's a waste of time and money," says Newton.

Keep in mind that what works for one family or child is not always the best solution for another. When looking at tutoring options, remember that each child's needs are different and those needs change with age. Among the many options for support during the summer and the school year are the following:

  • Summer School/Tutoring. Summer school is a great option for getting your child back up to speed. "Summer school usually has a different environment than the regular school year," says Shirfin. "Classes are smaller and more relaxed, and students usually receive more attention from their teachers." Present the idea extra summer help to your child in an optimistic light, with positive comments about the material or the teacher. Keep kids motivated by balancing the academic work with fun activities and creating games to help with studying. A good tutor/student relationship established during the summer or beginning of the school year can carry over into the fall when learning becomes more intense and the focus becomes earning good grades.
  • Summer Learning Programs. Libraries have always been a good, free resource for promoting summer reading, with reading clubs geared to a variety of age groups. But the opportunities don't stop there. Academic camps at local schools and universities are just as popular. From space science to zoology, and a host of subjects in between, you'll easily find a summer program to meet just about any interest. The advantage of these non-curriculum-based programs is that kids experience the fun of learning through exploration and discovery of a specific subject area. Check out local parenting magazines, local schools and colleges, zoos, aquariums and parks and recreation departments for summer learning programs in your area.
  • Teachers. Certified teachers are a good option for children working to improve their learning skills. Teachers' certification and training qualifies them to give the extra help some children need before the school year starts up again. A teacher, especially one from your child's school, will be familiar with the previous year's curriculum and know what lies ahead. He or she can help get your child up to speed and ready to handle new material. Make sure your child and the tutor have a good rapport and that the tutor is willing to advocate for your child. After working one-on-one with your child, the tutor will quickly pick up on his or her needs and the solutions that will prove beneficial. If the child could benefit from accommodations, such as un-timed testing or the use of a computer to take notes, the tutor should be willing to speak to the school on behalf of your child to make sure these needs are met.
  • College students. Engaging a college student is often a less expensive option, but usually best suited to tutoring in specific subject areas such as biology, physics or language. College students are a great option for older students who struggle with advanced curriculum or who are preparing for college admission tests such as the SAT or ACT. Locating an effective and reliable college student tutor is often done by word to mouth, so keep your ears open. You can contact a specific department at your local college or university for tutor recommendations or find one through Care.com's College Caregivers program. Vet tutors properly to be sure they're truly knowledgeable in the subject matter. Ask for a recommendation from a professor, as well as from another family who has used the tutor. Meet with those who seem to be a good fit. It is not only essential for your child's tutor to be proficient in the subject material and be able to explain it, but also he or she must be able to relate to your child. A patient, engaging tutor can make all the difference in the world.
  • Tutoring centers. Most cities offer tutoring centers affiliated with a regional or nationwide network. They are another good option for honing specific skills and usually offer testing to measure progress. Before committing to using a center though, make sure your child's tutor is certified and that he/she relates well to your child. At these learning centers, families benefit from the fact that background checks have already been done. Many facilities also offer fun, academic summer camps to help prevent learning loss during the break. Summer vacation is an ideal time for older students to prepare for high school and college admissions tests, and many learning centers offer this service year-round either one-on-one or in a small group setting. These short, one- or two-month courses may also be offered at a school or other off-site location, such as a hotel meeting room. In addition to reviewing skills and teaching strategies for taking the test, throughout the course they administer a version of standardized tests to get students used to taking it.
  • Online programs. Like most options, online tutoring works well for some students, but not for others. Older students who are independent learners can benefit from learning online, but face-to-face is a better option for students who are dreamers. For students who want to brush up on skills during off time, but hate the idea of going to school or using a tutor, the computer can be an effective tool for practicing skills.
  • Before and after school programs. Once the school year has started up again, the extended day programs offered at many schools are a good way to combine homework and socializing. There may be options before and after school, so you may easily find something that fits your child's schedule. Here kids have access to educators, and parents don't pay extra for tutoring help. If your child's needs go beyond basic homework help, make sure there is a quiet place where your child and the tutor can work.

To search for tutors and tutoring centers in your area, click here.

A Baltimore native, Meredith Bower served as Director of Communications at an area private school for 11 years. Her professional knowledge and personal experience, as a parent of four children who attend/attended private schools, offers a unique perspective on the schools and the students who attend them. Her work can be found here.

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