Help a tutor be less useless at controlling kids.
November 15, 2011 8:14 PM   Subscribe

I'm a new tutor. How do I get kids with behavioral problems to actually work?

As part of my college scholarship, I'm required to do 100 hours of community service each year, with a bunch of them with a partner organization: I'm working with an organization that is supposedly about instructing kids in creative writing but in actuality it becomes "tutor kids with their homework, then have them read for 30 minutes, then force them to write something." It deals with mostly inner city kids, and I end up mostly working with kids about ages 9 to 14 most of the time.

Most of the kids I've worked with have been really unmotivated and I don't have the cheery motivational kind of personality in me. I'm not great at getting kids interested in math worksheets or spelling word worksheets. I try to be friendly to the kids, but then they walk all over me and try to do the bare minimum and keep stalling me by getting me off topic. If I try to be stricter, the kids just clam up and whine and nothing I do gets them to get back to work.

Having to deal with that kind of thing every time just demoralizes me and I dread going because, well, who wants to have a third grader walk all over them? Does MeFi have any tips for me in this arena?
posted by Bleusman to Human Relations (15 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
Tell them if they work for x number of minutes, they can have a "motion break." We use 20 minutes with my son and then he can take a five minute break and run around/play with a ball, etc.

Also, when they are doing the work, be very encouraging (look how many problems you've done already! I know you can do the rest!) and whatever you do, DO NOT do any more of their work. Once you give them an inch, they will take a foot.

My son has ADHD and these strategies work well for him.
posted by Shark Tail at 8:20 PM on November 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


Maybe you can start by just chatting with the kids and getting to know them as people. A lot of these kids are probably starved for adult attention and would love an adult to pay attention to them and ask them about their lives.

They may be uncooperative now because they don't know or trust you yet. They may think of you as just another adult coming to tell you to do worksheets; an adult who may or may not be there in another few weeks. Maybe you can start by bringing in some photos of your family, or photos from a trip and talking to the kids about it. Most kids love that kind of thing. Reading a book with them is good too. Once you develop a trust and rapport, the kids should be more cooperative.

A creative writing activity that I have always found to be successful is the "I Am" poem. Basically each line starts out with something like

"I am", "I feel", I think", and gets them to fill in the rest:

http://ettcweb.lr.k12.nj.us/forms/iampoem.htm

It works well with reluctant writers! good luck.
posted by bearette at 8:30 PM on November 15, 2011 [7 favorites]


In my experience with kids who really don't want to work on their homework, it helps to take it in smaller sections and specific steps. So let's work on this first problem, and let's work on this first part of this problem: how many apples does Mary have? Okay, good. Now, what else do you need to figure out? Okay, cool. And what's the resulting math problem you're doing? Hey, look, that problem's done! Now see if you can start number two, I'll come back and check on you. And so on. It's like pulling teeth, and there's probably going to be whining every step of the way, but its generally more effective than being like "Hey, do that worksheet."
posted by geegollygosh at 8:33 PM on November 15, 2011


Have them read things that are important and interesting to them. Student reading comprehension scores go WAY up on standardized exams when they read things they have some basis for comprehending -- inner city kids reading about a 1950s sandlot baseball game will probably score worse on that than on a 1990s inner-city basketball game story, or a video game walkthrough even.

I let my students write in any mode they feel like -- they all write constantly these days, they text non-stop, or chat online, or post on facebook -- and then we go back and clean it up to be more formal. Public speaking classes teach the difference between formal and informal speech, but writing classes, for whatever reason, haven't gotten on board with this yet, because historically writing was (almost) always a formal exercise. Your students are probably quite used to writing to communicate ... you just need to get them to do that, and then work together on making it more formal. (And make clear why the formality is important! Nobody likes to do things that are stupid and have no purpose.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:45 PM on November 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Boy, do I hear you! I have been a volunteer at an after-school program for five years, and my first six months were here were really tough. I've been working with the same girl, who is 13 now, since the beginning, and she was difficult to get through to. I know how you feel--during my first year, I felt like I was wasting everyone's time, and was not actually accomplishing anything. But in the past five years, we're really grown close, and I'm so grateful to have her in my life, and be a part of hers.

I know you probably aren't making the same long-term commitment, but 100 hours is still a lot of time. Spending a few tutoring sessions, or at least parts of them, doing nothing but building rapport is a good investment. These kids may have had tutors before, or have ones in their school, so to them, you're just another adult telling them what to do. Take some time to ask questions, get to know them, and care. When they are talking off topic, what topics do they talk about? Playing simple games can be an easy way to breka the ice. One thing my girl and I did was a Venn diagram where we tried to figure out what we had in common.

For behavior, praising any positive behavior, no matter how small, has worked for me ("You brought your binder? Great!"), or even praising them for asking a question instead of whining, if that's all you got. This is a total cliche, but provide choices--"Do you want to work on math first, or read?" Changing the set-up as best you can within the tutoring center helps--can you walk around or take a physical break? Is there a place on the floor you can sit?

I also found--in addition to my girl, I've worked with a changing line-up of middle and high school boys--that some of the kids are really, really behind in basic skills, and hate to do homework because when adding and subtracting is hard, fractions are just exhausting, even if you understand them. It was the "worst" with a kid who really was motivated to do his homework; sometimes you I just wanted to take a step back and say, "It's great you want to do this, but let's review xyz first." And sometimes that's what I had to do; it sucks to not have completed homework, but reviewing basic skills is ultimately so much more helpful. Does the center do any kind of testing that indicates where the students' reading levels are? Try to find appealing, appropriate books (not Dora the Explorer for a 10 year old) at that level.
posted by Ideal Impulse at 8:49 PM on November 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Back when I used to babysit, I'd have "shake it out" time with the more rambunctious ones before sitting down to do homework/eat a meal. Take 30 seconds to dance and jump around in place, spin in circles, wave your arms wildly, make crazy noises, etc. Then you sit down and start working. It gets the silly energy out and lets them know you're not there just to be the taskmaster.
posted by phunniemee at 9:00 PM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Response by poster: Unfortunately, the structure of the tutoring center is a little more rigid than what a lot of you seem to be envisioning. The students must complete all of their homework before they read, and afterwards they must complete an assigned writing prompt if time remains.

Also, the most difficult students I work with tend to clam up even when I break it down into steps. "Hey Tommy," I'll say, "let's look at this math problem. So Anita has seventy five cen-- can you come back here, Tommy? We're almost finished, you can talk to Michael in a little bit. Okay, so she has seventy five cents and she needs to make a--"

"What did you do this weekend?"

I mean, I feel for these kids - most of them are honestly bright and have no trouble with the work itself once they actually sit down and do it, and are sick of the busywork their teachers assign. But they need to do it!
posted by Bleusman at 9:00 PM on November 15, 2011


I guess in addition to my earlier comment, I wanted to say that I've been working in after school programs, often inner city, for a while now, and there aren't perfect answers to these questions. The key thing is to be flexible.

Also, I don't think getting you off topic is the absolute end of the world. I mean, obviously you need to get stuff done and there's a balance, but you'll have better luck with the kids if you get to know them. So listen to their story and then direct them back to the homework. Listen to a story and suggest that they use that for their writing assignment. I guess just try to be flexible without losing sight of your goal for the day. Don't get too flustered if things aren't working out. (I'm guessing it's probably an afterschool program right? Those are kind of the worst, because the kids have just been in school for seven hours and now they're expected to sit and do their homework.)

I would also say that in general, taking the hard stance when you don't have a lot to back you up in terms of consequences (I don't know your situation, but I often haven't in extracurricular programs) is usually (not always) a mistake because it undermines you. Building rapport and setting reasonable and clear rules and being calm and consistent about them tends to work better than setting up a bunch of arbitrary rules that you can't actually enforce and then getting upset about them and having a standoff in front of everyone with the showoff kid who is seeing how far he can push you.

Anyway, I'm trying to say is that in my experience, inner city tutoring programs usually controlled chaos. Take a deep breath, try not to get stressed out, and focus on things step by step. There will be bad days (omg, the couple days after Halloween!! and the day before winter break!!), but focus on your relationships with the kids and make things (homework, rules) simple and manageable for them and things should be (more) manageable most days. And no, of course it's never as easy as that. But a lot of it is just experience, things will get better with time.
posted by geegollygosh at 9:19 PM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Don't pretend the work isn't dumb busy work. It's dumb, they know it, don't insult their intelligence. Instead admit it, explain why they have to do it, why it's good to do it, and what they get for it. Use the busy work to encourage other interests (yeah, this is easy and kind of dumb, but you should check out this topic). It isn't easy, and it won't work with every kid, but it feels great when it works. And helping kids is all about that warm glow you get. Possibly about the kids too, but mostly the warm glow.
posted by Garm at 9:44 PM on November 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Try to give the kids choices and provide hands on things.

Especially with math. The key to having difficult kids sit down and work on math is FOOD or even something like legos, toy animals, pennies, etc. something cool that they can use to work out a math problem. It helps them learn a concept more and also its fun! They can eat the food after if they behave.

In spelling, you can make it a game. Do you tutor more than one kid? Have them compete to spell words out! Make them write it so they don't shout at each other. Do you tutor just one kid at a time? Race against the kid! When they win, they will feel encourage to keep going to beat you! Cut out cards and put letters on each card. Have the kid spell out words that way.

Also, its very important to follow through with what you say. If you say, if you work really hard for 5 minutes, you can go get a drink in the hallway. Then don't forget about that! If you need to discipline, follow through with what you say! If you let them overrule what you have said, they know they can walk all over you. You need to establish yourself as an authority figure, not a bff. You need to be stern, don't yell at kids ever, but sometimes a stern voice works.

Sometimes, its just really hard to get kids to sit still. So don't! Let them move. Suggest laying on the floor to read, or going in the hallway to write. Maybe sit outside if its nice. A change in setting can be helpful.

For writing, can you let them write in a pretty color like green? Sometimes that little choice can motivate a kid to work.

Finally, I agree with the shake it out thing. It really works!

Feel free to memail me! I work with first graders. On Monday, 25% of the FIRST GRADE class got written up and three spent all morning in the principal's office for behavior problems, so I've spent a lot of time dealing with these kids! Still love em though :)
posted by fuzzysoft at 10:28 PM on November 15, 2011


and afterwards they must complete an assigned writing prompt if time remains.

That's your problem, right there. "Let's play a game called 'how long can you drag this assignment out'! If you win, you get to talk about your day and goof off and not do the assignment. If I win, not only do you have to do the assignment, you also have to do a writing prompt after we're done. Ready? Go!"
posted by anaelith at 5:35 AM on November 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


Best answer: It is hard work, I know. It takes a lot of energy. There are a few things I often remind yourself, because it is a great opportunity to work with kids. I learn so much from them. They are not ever quite as tired and worn down as I feel most days, unless they are sick or going through something truly terrible, and I can draw from that energy. Their resilience is astounding. They have fresh perspectives. They love to be funny. But most importantly, I can be a great part of their day, or I can help to ruin it.

These previous threads, one about how to become more successful with children and in particular, this one about dealing with difficult students in class both contain information that's good for keeping yourself approachable, and for approaching kids.

You don't necessarily need to be friendly, you just need to be good-humoured and open. Bad moods are contagious, and very tempting to their provocative sensation-seeking and risk-taking tendencies, because that's what they do at the age you're working with. The reward for making an adult snappish is how they measure their emerging power in the world. Taking time when you speak to them to make sure you have their attention means you can say less and accomplish more - they are faced with torrents of words and instructions all day long.

And, here is part of an answer previously given to an unrelated question that applies here:

"Schools do this with routine, and habit-forming behaviours, and organization in place. There are charts and clues everywhere, and places for everything. They use Mnemonic devices too. They also do things like discovery walks, and when reading books, ask students to point out details either in images or in the story. Games are learning too, but are a way to relax a bit.

Bell rings. Line up. Enter the class room. Hang up coat in your cubby/on your hook. Hang up backpack. Sign in. Sit in circle. Go through Morning Welcome. Teacher directs students where to work next, etc. That keeps some order, and gets the motor-memory thing going, and it keeps kids focused in short bursts, then they can relax when tasks are completed. It's like strengthening a muscle, and muscles grow when they're resting.

This is also a frontal lobe development thing, and a brain stage thing. 7-11 is a time of a growth spurt where the brain grows to about 95% (if I recall correctly) of its adult size. Alanna Mitchell had a great series called "Brainstorm" where she covered some of this. I went to a lecture, where she asserted that we are born with non-gendered brains, but that social construct has a lot to do with how kids learn. Many recent studies and articles on the adolescent brain show that this area in particular is slower to develop in boys - and that girls' brains mature faster."

Also, the most difficult students I work with tend to clam up even when I break it down into steps. "Hey Tommy," I'll say, "let's look at this math problem. So Anita has seventy five cen-- can you come back here, Tommy? We're almost finished, you can talk to Michael in a little bit. Okay, so she has seventy five cents and she needs to make a--"

"What did you do this weekend?"


I would go on to specifically suggest that, based on your question and reply, that your students are used to people with this requirement for tutoring coming and going, and so you're another faceless grownup to them until you find what makes them pay attention to you. I find reading about growing brains helps me to understand they're not being difficult personalities, they just haven't developed those capabilities, and as the mature person, it's up to me to connect the synapses that I'm going to need them to use. So, with Tommy, it might be singing. "Tommy can you hear me?" (I know, archaic reference... bear with me) Or it might be making fun with lame humour if that's what works: "“Hello, Tommy, look at your math, and now back to me. Now back at your math, and now back to me. Sadly, Anita isn’t me, but if she had 75 cents..." I have offered to do a silly dance if something can be done if five minutes. I have offered to eat a bug if we could have a week without litter on the lunchroom floor. You need to find out what's their currency, and deal in it. You can hand out cards as rewards for completion, and offer small rewards for reaching goals. (I use these erasers - they're good for all ages and either gender)

I have learned that being mild doesn't mean you get trampled, as in "Well, yes, that is how dogs copulate. You haven't seen that before? Interesting at your age. I guess that's why it's so hysterical. Now put that book away, and let's remember what you're here for." And being super strict sometimes means that the more you try to squash them, the more they wiggle, as in "You may not run from the trash to your seat. You can either walk... or skip." And not every misbehaviour needs immediate, punitive correction - giving do-overs allows you to show what should be done and compliment, as in "Okay, so that's not how you line up. Go back to your seats, and do it over again. Great! Now THAT's how you do it." It's good to remember with kids that every time you see them, it's like you get a fresh start. They, with their immature brains, are not carrying the same baggage from previous classroom experiences with them as you are.
Good luck! You're making a difference in their lives, and that's so great.
posted by peagood at 7:20 AM on November 16, 2011 [6 favorites]


A lot of good advice above. I'd say, within reason, that the experience is about the personal connection as much as it is about the worksheet.

Again within reason, do talk about what you did over the weekend. And ask them the same. (It'll make the writing prompt a breeze.)

Once there's the beginning of a connection, you can deploy a certain amount of "come on, man, help me out here. Believe it or not, it is my JOB to help you with this worksheet. Yes. I know. Unbelievable! But true. So I KNOW you can do this like THAT, 1-2-3, in no time. Let's do these next 5 problems before 4pm. Do me this favor, and I'll do x for you." To the extent possible, try making it about 2 peers helping each other, in the same boat, so to speak.

It won't work with every kid. But for the seen it all, done it all types, of which there are many, I have some success with this tack.
posted by skbw at 7:33 AM on November 16, 2011


Sorry - I can't believe I'm back after my novel - but I forgot to ask: Are these students with genuine behavioural issues, or (nicely) are they just being kids? Because in the case of the former, there are other resources to explore, and it's also probably just to understand that while there is the written expectation of what they're supposed to be able to accomplish, in reality, needing to your expectations a little lower is probably the case. Talking with someone who's been working with them can give you an idea of what would be realistic accomplishments for each. You can't put twenty kids in one room with one question and expect them all to have the same answer, even if that's the homework.

In the case of the latter, this is how you learn that kids bizarre creatures, and when they're tired, they don't get sleepy - they get squirrely. When they've got to pee, their brain cells get flooded and they don't function in quite the same way. When they're zoning out, it can be due to simply being hungry, or tired, or other sensitivities. You're not controlling the kids - you're controlling the environment and adjusting to any extenuating circumstances, and then helping the students to function better within it.
posted by peagood at 7:38 AM on November 16, 2011


Ay yi - sorry, pain meds are making me stupid:


Sorry - I can't believe I'm back after my novel - but I forgot to ask: Are these students with genuine behavioural issues, or (nicely) are they just being kids? Because in the case of the former, there are other resources to explore, and it's also probably just to understand that while there is the written expectation of what they're supposed to be able to accomplish, in reality, needing to your expectations a little lower is probably the case. Talking with someone who's been working with them can give you an idea of what would be realistic accomplishments for each. You can't put twenty kids in one room with one question and expect them all to have the same answer, even if that's the homework.


Should read:

Because in the case of the former, there are other resources to explore, and it's also probably best to understand that while there is the written expectation of what they're supposed to be able to accomplish, in reality, needing to adjust your expectations a little lower is probably the case. Talking with someone who's been working with them can give you an idea of what would be more realistic accomplishments for each student. You can't put twenty kids in one room with one question and expect them all to have the same answer, even if that's the homework.
posted by peagood at 7:40 AM on November 16, 2011


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