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How Do You Know When Your Child Needs a Tutor?

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School is in full swing, and now that kids are hitting the books, doing homework and studying for tests, the next step is keeping them on track. Kids will have different attitudes toward school, teachers and subjects. While some students are enthusiastic, others apply themselves quietly.

And while struggle can be a good, natural part of the learning process, too much can be a blow to self-confidence—and grades. You may need to get your child a tutor to work through the rough patches, but there are some things you can do at home, too, such as establishing consistent morning and after-school routines and sleep schedules. After all, studies show that a lack of sleep can result in kids falling behind cognitively by as much as two grade levels.

Talking regularly with your child about school and looking at grades will help you gauge how well the school year is going. But if your child seems to be struggling with school work, when do you call in reinforcements?

Signs That It's Time for a Tutor

Working with a tutor, either individually or in a small group, has proven to be beneficial for many kids. In fact, "students can benefit from tutoring as early as the first day of school," says Jonathan McCowan, owner of 310Tutors in Santa Monica, Calif. Here are some signs that it might be time to explore that route:

  • Your child has lost interest or enthusiasm for a certain subject or starts saying things like, "I'm just not good at math. I must be stupid because I don't understand."
  • Homework isn't getting done, and grades start slipping.
  • There are tears and frustration about homework and projects.
  • Your child experiences sleeplessness, worry or loss of self-confidence.
  • He complains of stomachaches or headaches and doesn't want to go to school.
  • In a lot of cases, your child will come to you asking for a tutor.

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What the Tutors Say

"Most parents wait for a bad grade or some sign that their student is struggling before they seek the help of a tutor," says McCowan, who works with kids of all ages. "There are some obvious issues with that approach. For one, the student is now in a hole and the family’s tutoring investment will be used to bring him out, rather than keeping him ahead."

He points out, however, that tutoring can be used for more than just mastering a math concept or reading comprehension. Tutoring, he says, can help with "organization, time management and study skills," which is important from the first day of school.

"We call it 'academic skills training,'" he says. "These are executive functioning skills that are necessary for a student to be successful in class, but they are not always taught in school. We know we have to teach those skills if we want to impact how our students perform on their own, when we’re not sitting beside them explaining everything."

Paul Schnaufer, owner of Stanford Prep, is a teacher and tutor. While his tutoring practice includes preparation for the SAT, ACT and AP tests, he comes in contact with hundreds of kids every day as a high school teacher at CHAMPS in Van Nuys, Calif. He's seen the level of competitiveness during high school and for getting into college really increase in the last five to 10 years.

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But it's parents, he says, who are key to the entire learning process.

Schnaufer recommends moms and dads open up discussion over the dinner table on specific concepts, lessons and books the kids are studying during the day, as a way to bridge the gap between school, tutor and student.

He has even had parents order textbooks from him so they can follow along with what their kids are learning. Looking at your child's homework or the class syllabus are other ways to keep up and know what kind of questions to ask or relevant current events to bring up.

Tutoring, however, is not about failure—but rather about getting needed support and the tools to make learning more manageable.

"When students know they have the support of a tutor, they feel much more confident about their abilities and more positive about education," McCowan says. "If something in class doesn’t make sense, they don’t fret. They simply make a mental note or jot down the trouble area and ask their tutor for help. That dynamic can have a permanent impact because the student is learning how to determine what they understand and where they need help, and for those things they can’t solve on their own they learn to seek out assistance."

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