Talking Tutoring

25th January 2019

Concerned about your child’s progress? Considering hiring a tutor to supplement their in-school learning? Optima Magazine offers some insights into how to go about finding the right person to support or challenge your youngster…

Parents generally choose to have their offspring tutored for one of two broad reasons: concern that he or she is falling behind their peer group and expected targets – or, conversely, is not being challenged enough, and may be turned off education as a result.

Either way, as a first point of call, talk to the child’s form teacher(s), who should listen to your concerns, and offer their own insight. If a child is struggling, staff should already be aware of which areas of the curriculum or the learning process are presenting difficulties – and, if there is a need for support, the form teacher may be able to offer in-school targeted help. If this isn’t available, or you both feel the child would benefit from some external individualised support, the teacher’s advice will be welcome here too. He or she will, for example, be familiar with your son or daughter’s learning style (of which more later).

If you want to stretch your child by offering challenges that don’t exist on the curriculum or within the school environment, the key thing to remember is not to plan too much into their schedule. Exposing them to lots of ‘enrichment opportunities’ – sport, music, languages, creative pursuits etc – is a wonderful idea; it’s great to let a child discover new things at an age when they are willing to soak it all up. There’s nothing better than watching a youngster getting the buzz for something that could become a lifelong interest.

But schoolchildren do need downtime, and lots of chances for free play and casual social interaction. Indeed, studies have shown that a timetable that’s too busy is just as detrimental as one that isn’t busy enough (and, also, that the opportunity to be bored can, paradoxically, be very productive). It’s all about achieving balance.

It’s also critical to get your child on side. As parents we know the importance of key skills and subjects, and appreciate the need to resolve issues early before they become embedded, but if your youngster is finding the school environment tough, he or she is unlikely to relish the idea of extra English or Maths in their own time. Explain your concerns simply, but without suggesting that the child is ‘failing’, of course. Confidence breeds comprehension. Remind them of the things they can do well, and how good they feel about themselves in those subjects, and then suggest that a tutor would be able to spend dedicated time finding out what bits of Maths, say, they find hard, and helping them to navigate the complexities in a way they’ll understand. If they are still reluctant, you could agree a minimum number of sessions with them; if they don’t make progress, or really resent the time spent, they would have the right to stop after, perhaps six or eight weeks. Bribery also works!

Be careful, though, as you discuss your child’s strengths and weaknesses with them, not to imply that your child is somehow inherently ‘good’ at one subject and ‘bad’ at another. A positive mindset is best achieved when a child appreciates that it’s perfectly reasonable to find certain aspects of certain subjects harder to grasp, and that a tutor can help them develop strategies for tackling the challenge, whatever it might be. Helping your offspring accept young that making mistakes does not equal failing, and that learning from mistakes is a great way to consolidate knowledge, will generate a resilient attitude that will stand them in good stead at every stage of their education. Parents and tutors alike will see good results from praising the hard work it takes to achieve goals, and ensuring that a child is not held back by the belief that he/she has to be innately talented to succeed. As Professor Tanya Byron points out, in her Foreword to Educating Ruby by Guy Claxton and Bill Lucas, ‘Students who are more confident of their own learning ability learn faster and learn better’.

Whether you’re challenging an able child, or supporting one who is finding academic work tough, it’s worth considering their personality, and preferred learning style. Do they need peace and quiet to concentrate, or are they a more active learner, wanting to move around more instead of being confined to their desk? Or do they thrive on bouncing suggestions off their peers, picking up an idea and running with it, in a more conversational, workshop-style format where the company of other students encourages co-operative and collaborative learning?

What suits one child doesn’t necessarily suit another, naturally. Traditional tutoring has tended to follow a one-to-one format, in the tutor’s or the student’s home – ideal for those who like privacy and personal attention – but group workshops, run by qualified teachers, are increasingly available. If you’re unsure which would be most beneficial, ask for a trial lesson, with no obligation. It’s vital that the child clicks with their tutor’s personality and teaching style, and that they trust the process.

You need to feel comfortable with the tutor, too, and be content that you and he/she are in tune with each other’s goals and expectations? Take the time for an initial chat to iron out all the pedagogic and practical details before you make a commitment. Check if you will be tied-in to a fixed length contract, or if is there flexibility on both sides. Ask too how you’ll be kept up-to-date with your child’s progress.

It’s helpful to clarify whether the tutor will be setting homework (this has advantages and disadvantages) and, if so, whether it will be marked during the week, or in the session? If the latter, this could be a helpful part of the tutoring process, but it could also eat into precious teaching time.

There’s no denying that expenditure on a tutor can make a dent in the family budget, and it can be tempting to save money on the cost (anything from £25-£60 an hour depending on experience and specialism) by using a friend or relative with a knowledge of or interest in the subject, or employing a neighbour’s teenager who’s studying for their A-levels or degree. You might strike lucky with this approach – but tutoring is an investment in your child’s future, and, as the saying goes, you get what you pay for. A qualified teacher, with years of training and/or experience behind them, will have more strategies and insights at their disposal, plus access to information about recent curriculum changes. And, of course, they should also have the necessary safety checks in place, including the all-important certificate from the DBS, the Disclosure and Barring Service, which has replaced the Criminal Records Bureau

Once you’ve navigated the complexities of who and how, you need to think about where and when. The logistics have to fall into place too. You may have identified the perfect tutor and be thrilled to discover they have a slot left… but that’s no good if it’s 5pm every Tuesday, directly after football training, leaving you barely ten minutes to get your child cleaned and fed and across town in the rush hour traffic, at the precise point at which you need to be collecting a younger child from dance class or delivering an older one to an evening job. Ask yourself: does the proposed time slot work around other commitments? Is the lesson fairly local? Will your child arrive relatively fresh and ready to work? Be gentle on everyone. If you’re stressed, your child won’t be in the right zone for learning.

It’s also vital to set a good example by being supportive of the importance of the lessons. As one experienced tutor pointed out last year (on condition of anonymity), it’s all too easy for a child to get the wrong message. If you cancel regularly because your child has had a better offer (or you have), your child will soon feel that they and their lesson are not that valuable after all. ‘It’s important that parents are reliable… that they see it as a commitment. We’ve all allocated time for this.’

And where would you look to find the right tutor? Word-of-mouth is a good start… but looking in the relevant pages of Optima Magazine will yield excellent results too…

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