Help me help the children
March 16, 2009 4:31 PM   Subscribe

Help me be a more effective tutor for smart but focus-challenged kids in the 8-12 year old range.

I've recently started volunteering as an after school tutor at my local branch of 826. The way it works is kids drop in after school and are supposed to work on any homework they have and then can move on to other activities.

My experience so far has largely been with kids who understand the material covered in their homework, but lack the ability to remain focused long enough to get it done. This, of course, causes them to spend 2 hours on assignments that should ideally take no more than 30 minutes.

At times I am at a loss for how to respond to their challenges when encouragement doesn't cut it and I get flat out demands to do their homework for them. I really don't want to let the dynamic fall into antagonism.

I guess I'm looking for both general suggestions on how to keep the interactions positive as well as more specific suggestions on how to deal with the challenges of reading comprehension. For example, what to do with the kid who can run through his/her addition/subtraction exercise without problem, but stumbles over anything involving word problems?
posted by mandymanwasregistered to Education (7 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I'd try to show the student how to translate word problems into straight up math problems (that's always the challenge, for everyone)--by understanding that math is a language. We use the English (or Spanish or whatever) language to talk about numbers and often kids aren't taught which words equate to math symbols. What types of math problems are you dealing with?

My most successful sessions with students often started out with me convincing them that sometimes all you can do with math is try stuff. Want to try adding up all those values? Okay, then what will we have? Nothing useful? That's fine, let's go back. If you're not sure about what to do, you have to play with the numbers.

If you'd like to discuss more, mefimail me. I loved being a tutor and enjoy thinking about approaches to tutoring.
posted by eralclare at 4:50 PM on March 16, 2009

I used to tutor, and if you are able to work with a kid one on one, then you can really ascertain what helps then learn. It's a lot of trial an error.

For instance, with word problems, many children are simply overwhelmed by the conversion from words to numbers. Explaining that "is" means "equals" and walking them through the problem in how to set it up a few times, then having them try to do it themselves with your guidance will actually teach them how.

In general, you have to be really focused on each child. Try to figure out what distracts them - are they full of energy and fidgety? Then maybe they need to stand while they work or have a small stress ball to play with. Are their friends or other kids around so they're more interested in what they're doing? Then try to get them into a quiet corner or room. Usually, small learning gaps, laziness or lack of focus makes for a difficult time. Plus, who really wants to do homework right after school?
Making sure that they've had a snack and a bit of a break after normal school hours helps so they don't feel like they're on an endless work cycle.

Other ideas - depending on the child - could be using a timer to see how long the homework takes and setting a goal for that child. For some children (and only some) competing with their friends to finish homework might work. Word association, stickers, etc are also other ways to motivate. The biggest is setting the expectation that the homework is a priority, has to get done in a reasonable amount of time, and then they are free to enjoy other activities. Once the child has a habit of doing their homework in a focused way and knows how fun it is to get it over with and get to something else, the next time will be much easier. Good luck!
posted by anniek at 4:51 PM on March 16, 2009

I agree with anniek: recognize their distractions and work within them.

I used to do America Reads, which is a tutoring program for at-risk kids with the goal of improving their reading levels.

What I would do is sit a kid down, tell them if they read so many pages (or did so many problems, or whatever increment you can think of), then we could stop for so many minutes (no more than five, usually). Basically, it was allowing the kids to work, but also allowing them to take a break--and TELLING them how long they had to work to earn their break, which was key.

I know that when I work on something, I cannot concentrate on the work for the entire time that I need to get it done; I absolutely have to take a break here and there. Children, who are not socialized to sit down as long as adults anyway (though at the upper end of the limit at your tutoring location, they are starting to) need that break as much or more than we do.

Taking a planned break also allows you to deal with their frustration. I know that sometimes kids don't get it, especially at-risk kids, and they get frustrated, upset, and embarrassed. That doesn't help anyone, but taking a break allows them to jump out of that cycle of frustration and that does help them.

I'm not a teacher, and I don't have any professional pedagogy to fall back on. I did tutor for a number of years. I do teach now, in somewhat different ways. If a trained teacher comes in with advice, I would definitely suggest taking their ideas seriously.
posted by librarylis at 5:04 PM on March 16, 2009

Have a bit of a read about learning styles. It appears it's more contraversial than I thought, but it can give you an idea about other things to try when teaching people who don't think like you do. Some things that can work.

- Talking it through. Just reading it out loud can help some kids.
- You do the writing. They tell you what to write, you write it down.
- As above, but you do the writing on a white board.
- They do the problem on a white board with you helping. (con't know what it is about the change in surface, but it makes a difference)
- Breaks. Particularly breaks when they stand up, move around, look at something more than 30cm from their face.
- Something to fidget with.
- Tactile or visual aids. Particularly with maths.
posted by kjs4 at 6:09 PM on March 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Homework is a pretty broad label. I've tutored my next door neighbor whenever she asks for help which means I'm relatively decent with fourth, fifth and sixth grade school work. She is easily distracted and possibly has an undiagnosed learning disability because she is routinely all over the place, though it may just be a tough home life and / or too much sugar and caffine.

I started with some simple stuff, eliminating external distractions, making sure that she has a little brain food, keeping the area where she's working as quiet as reasonably possible, and having her identify not only the questions she has problems with, but also provide me with a small summary of what each question is asking for. I then ask her to identify what she knows, and I ask her how she thinks she might be able to get from what she knows to what she wants.
posted by Nanukthedog at 8:06 PM on March 16, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for the suggestions! Since this is a drop in tutoring sort of place, there's a lot of distracting things I can't control, but it helps to have some perspective. As for topics, the kids come in with whatever homework they've been assigned for the day. Usually it is a combination of math, spelling and language arts.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 9:31 AM on March 17, 2009

Figure out which is more critical: is 'distraction' the problem or is it a symptom/response to the problem. Can the child do ONE of these or for a short time successfully?

If yes, then the issue may relate to stamina and/or motivation (relevance to child?) to continue doing more. Do they really need to do all 100 exercises (or whatever), or just enough to demonstrate competence? My advice is to avoid external reinforcers (stickers, rewards), since you will then later have a problem of dependency on externals and you want a self-driven learner.

If no, then break the process down and give them the responsibility for the first piece, and you model the rest. Then they do the first piece and move to the second piece, and you model the rest. Don't overlook remembering and transitioning to the next steps as critical 'steps'. Continue to scaffold and move through a transfer of responsibility until student can do all steps.

In any case, are there circumstances which increase success? 'body break'? food? water? listening to music with headphones? quiet? time limits? Focus on Success, Competence, and Mastery as instrisic rewards. Have the child evaluate the success of their own work before (or instead) of your providing feedback.
posted by kch at 12:47 PM on March 17, 2009

« Older Cookies. Recipes. Go.   |   CrazyFit or just plain crazy? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.