Tweens & teens


Tutors can help students overcome struggles

By Lisa M. Schab, L.C.S.W.

This is the time of the school year when most parents will be having their first formal communication with teachers, either through grade reports or conferences. They have heard the good news and also have been informed of problems. This is when many families may first think about hiring a tutor.

According to Vanessa Molzahn, former middle school administrator, math teacher and personal tutor, the tween and teen years are an apt time to consider tutoring because of the changes in the academic environment. Middle school is often the first time a child will receive letter grades, raising the stress level about his school performance. Extracurricular programs expand, making more demands on his time and attention. Once in high school, teachers expect even more, and grades take on far more significance as they become the ticket to the increasingly competitive college market.

A number of situations could warrant seeking tutoring for your child:

Academic help. Your child is not doing well in a particular subject. Together with the teacher you have determined that he needs extra individual help for this class, beyond what the classroom teacher can do.

Special needs. Your child has a learning disability and the services he is getting from the school district are still not enough to get him through the required class. Or, your child's learning disability is considered too mild to qualify him for extra school services. (In these cases, you should find a tutor who is not only qualified to teach the subject, but has experience teaching students with learning disabilities as well.)

Study skills. Your child is able to learn the class material, but has a hard time with organization. In this case a tutor could act as a "homework helper," keeping him on track with assignments and suggesting effective ways to study for tests.

Coaching. Your child doesn't have academic problems, but is struggling with another issue-a death, divorce, social problem-that is affecting his ability to succeed in school. A tutor can be a confidence booster, giving him the academic support and encouragement he needs to get back on track.

Test anxiety. Your child excels at homework and classroom assignments, but freezes when it comes to tests. A tutor–with subject-area expertise–can teach test-taking skills, relaxation techniques and work on practice tests.

Standardized testing. You can hire a tutor on a short-term basis solely to help your child prepare for taking the SSAT, PSAT, ACT, SAT or other standardized tests.

Challenge. If your child is gifted and not being challenged enough by regular school programs, a tutor can provide additional work geared to the individual student that can enrich and expand his learning experiences.

Choosing a tutor should be a thoughtful process. Not every tutor will be suited to your child and his situation. Begin by seeking recommendations from teachers and staff at your school or asking classmates, neighbors and friends. In all cases, but especially if you use the phone directory or classified ads, be sure to ask for two or three references.

When hiring a tutor, consider most importantly that she must be a good fit for your child. Your teen must feel comfortable and be able to communicate well with his tutor in order to benefit from the sessions. The best credentials won't matter if your child is afraid to ask questions, or can't understand the tutor's explanations.

Second, the right tutor must have the academic subject background that your child needs help with. If he is struggling in math, writing or science, the best tutor is one with a strong knowledge base in that area.

Third, a good tutor will be skilled in teaching the subject. Brilliance in one's field does not make someone a good teacher. It is even better if the tutor is able to understand the teaching method of the classroom instructor, and to have three or four additional ways to present the material if the first one is not working.

Finally, the most helpful tutor is one who is willing to communicate with the classroom teacher, so they can work together to best understand and support your child.


When you don't need a tutor The goal of good tutoring is to help your child become self-sufficient. Your teen should not become so dependent on his tutor that he feels he "can't do it without Mrs. D's help." Tutoring is not helpful if he begins to use it as a crutch.

A tutor should be used to help your child function at the academic level he is supposed to be at, not to push him to an unnaturally higher level. Hiring a tutor to prod your teen into an accelerated class when he is not ready will only end up hurting his self-esteem. Better that he remain in an average class and be at the top than struggle through, or fail, in an AP class.


Lisa Schab is a licensed clinical social worker in Libertyville and the stepmother of two, ages 20 and 23. She can be reached at (847) 782-1722.

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