Pros and Cons of Summer Tutoring

Alex is a 15-year-old who has just finished struggling through his freshman year of high school. He has mild learning disabilities, feels stupid, and hates school. He needs to strengthen his basic skills and to discover that he is capable of learning successfully.

Allison will be starting third grade in the fall and has always had difficulty learning to read. She is a happy, social, athletic child who is looking forward to day camp.

Andy is 10, hyperactive, reasonably bright, but school is a constant challenge. He is going to overnight camp for 8 weeks. The camp offers tutoring as an extra-cost option.

Nicole is an angry 12-year-old who battled with her parents about doing homework and taking care of her other responsibilities throughout the past school year. She has developed an aversion to math, getting a D- as a final grade. She just wants to “hang around” all summer.

David is entering the fourth grade. Each year teachers and parents note that he seems to lose more of his skills over the course of the summer than the average child. It results in a struggle at the start of each school year before he finally catches up and settles in.

These are a few of the situations that parents have presented to me with the accompanying question of whether or not they should arrange summer tutoring for their child. Unfortunately there is no simple formula for making this decision but there are some guidelines that may prove helpful in weighing the pros and cons.

The two key questions are whether it will be a positive experience for the child and if it will be a beneficial experience for the child. These two issues are often fused together but need to be looked at separately. Another important issue is the potential benefits of a non-tutorial experience that might have to be sacrificed if the child is being tutored.

The latter point is particular relevant in Alex’s situation. He has such a negative attitude about school that he would approach tutoring as a punishment. Furthermore, given his learning disabilities school will continue to be a struggle because it plays upon his weaknesses, not his strengths. In this situation I will often try to get parents to identify the child’s strengths and to make the child’s self-esteem the priority rather than trying to increase his academic skills. What can be more beneficial is a work or recreational experience that helps Alex to feel more confident.

Being 15, finding a good work experience is a challenge, but sometimes just working in a local retail establishment turns into a very positive experience. Many children who don’t do well with academics are much more competent in hands-on situations with the tangible rewards of seeing the immediate gain from doing something well plus the weekly paycheck. If the child is at least 16, there are often more interesting, and profitable, jobs available. I have seen some boys who have done construction work and ended up learning to handle equipment that really boosted their confidence. For many teens working with younger children brings out a caring side that is not only rewarding to the teen but sometimes helps parents to see their teen in a more positive way.

Besides jobs, there are programs such as Outward Bound or biking tours that allow these teens who lack confidence to successfully master non-academic challenges. It may not result in better grades next year but it reinforces your message to them that despite learning problems they can still be successful in the real world.

With a child like Allison I would probably recommend individual tutoring in reading. It may be a challenge to schedule a time when she’s not tired from her day camp but a skilled tutor, using some innovative techniques may be able to make some modest gains in Allison’s reading skills over the course of the summer. Given the child’s personality she will probably be receptive to this. On the other hand, since she is getting reading help in school and making slow but steady progress it would be reasonable to allow her to just enjoy the summer, especially because she has a good sense of self and many strengths. Like I said earlier, it’s not simple right/wrong decisions.

Andy’s situation involves a couple of other factors. Much of his school difficulty is related to his hyperactivity. He is on medication during the school year but not at camp. He is successful at camp. Trying to do academics at camp would probably require some medication prior to the tutorial sessions. It may be preferable to just allow him the time off from both school and medication and continue his positive camping experience. It’s a time when he can blend in and be one of the kids rather than feeling different. The reality is that school will continue to be a challenge as long as the hyperactivity and related attention-concentration difficulties exist. Just like with Alex, parents and child need to learn that life may be easier as an adult when work options can be found that fit his strengths.

For the child like David who doesn’t retain information very well I usually recommend just having several sessions of review over the last couple of weeks of the summer. It often is just enough to prime the child for a better start and may reduce anxiety about the return to school.

Nicole’s problems are much more complex. One would need more information about her learning and psychological history to determine what strategy might work. However, a relationship with a high school girl who combines math tutoring with a “big sister” type experience that includes taking Nicole to a couple of concerts and to the beach or similar activities might be a very beneficial arrangement.

This touches on another key factor: choice of tutor. There are some gifted teachers out there who have an extraordinary capacity to reach a child, both personally and academically. If you hear about such a person it might be worth some flak or sacrifice to try tutoring. Similarly, someone who mixes in a special experience that is appealing to the child along with the teaching time may find a pathway to reach a resistant child. A male tutor who arrives on a motorcycle may be able to get some good writing out of a turned-off adolescent boy especially when doing some mechanics is woven into their time together.

Part of the message here is that being a successful student is not the primary determinant of having a successful adult life. Summer tutoring should be chosen where it has the best chance to be a positive experience for the child. But what is most positive is not always the amount of academic gain. More often it is the gain in self-worth and confidence that has more lasting value. Keep that clearly in mind when trying to plan your child’s summer.