How to make my child mentoring efforts more effective?
June 10, 2007 3:56 PM   Subscribe

What do you do when your child-mentoring efforts seem to be amounting to nothing? (Follow-up to this question.)

As described in the other linked question, I participate in a one-on-one child mentoring program and have been for nearly four years now. For the duration of that time, I’ve been matched with “Sarah,” who is now 11 years old, and I care for her very deeply.

I had a long post all typed out and ready to go, with plenty of background information on what has become a pretty horrible situation as far as her schooling and socialization. However, I’m hoping not to turn off anyone who may be willing to provide input, so I’ll try to keep this short.

I’ve just found out that Sarah has about a 90% chance of failing the sixth grade (we’ll know later this week). I’m devastated, as my husband and I have paid for private tutoring for the past three school years and done just about everything we can think of to try to improve her school performance. She just doesn’t have any structure at home to back up our efforts (such as any expectation from Mom that she does her homework or turns in major projects), and while Sarah is a great kid, she doesn’t have the quickness or the inherent motivation to succeed on her own. Mom doesn’t seem to mind that Sarah’s failing; hell, she’s already doing better than her brother, who is going to have to repeat eighth grade for a third time next year, and besides, everything is the school’s fault anyway.

My husband wants to cut the tutoring, and I’ve come to agree – we’ve already sunken over $6K into it, we can’t afford more, and I can’t explain to the tutor even one more week why Sarah isn’t following through with any of the study strategies they’ve devised or why her grades are still in the toilet. I don’t want to give up on Sarah, however. The only thing I can think of is to try to sit down one-on-one with her mom and explain how important it is to me that Sarah succeed in school, and offer to do whatever else I can to help her accomplish that, whether it be seeing Sarah daily (a stretch for me, since I have a young baby now), getting involved directly with Sarah’s teachers, etc. I have no idea what her mom will say to this, since she’s the most defensive, excuse-making, “the world is against me” person I’ve ever met. I also know that no further efforts on my part are going to work if Mom doesn’t get on board completely and provide some kind of reinforcement at home.

I realize the mentoring program I’m in was never intended to encompass this increased level of involvement – the program requirement is to see a kid twice a month for something like playing catch in the park or seeing a movie. Considering the way our relationship has evolved, however, I can’t see the value in reverting to that type of arrangement. Sarah has plenty of “fun” in her life – in fact, I get the impression that her life is pretty much all fun except for the few hours a week she’s with her tutor and me. Besides, how can I compete in the fun department when Mom takes her to get acrylic nails, sets up a “sexxii” MySpace page for her, and downloads ringtones for her daughter’s cell phone of songs like “I’m in Love with a Stripper?”

If anyone has any suggestions on how to approach the situation with her mom in order to achieve the best chance of helping Sarah do better in school, I’d really appreciate it. General suggestions on how to improve a child-mentoring situation would also be great. I really don’t want to quit the program and cut my losses (as silly as that might seem to some), though, so if you have advice to offer other than that, thanks in advance.
posted by justonegirl to Human Relations (27 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I'll offer you advice I wouldn't be able to take myself (but then, you've already shown yourself to be a better person than I am): give up trying to raise her, and let her find her own level, but do not abandon her. The long result of your friendship, love, and example may be far better than you can allow your self to hope for right now.
posted by jamjam at 4:15 PM on June 10, 2007 [2 favorites]

I second jamjam. Unfortunately, you are not her mother and cannot enact the disciplinary measures necessary to get her to keep on her schoolwork. I know this is an incredibly painful step and feels like giving up. It is not giving up. You can still help the girl--but you will go back to helping her as a mentor, not a surrogate parent.

Continue being a friend to her. Continue taking her out for lunch, buying her birthday presents, and acting as a sympathetic ear for her troubles or whatever it is you guys do together. Advise when asked. Right now without the mother's cooperation you cannot do more--and it doesn't look like you're going to get that. If she has a buddy-buddy relationship with Mom, if Mom feels threatened by you she will turn Sarah against you.
posted by schroedinger at 4:20 PM on June 10, 2007

I don’t want to give up on Sarah, however.

I think it's critical to detach yourself from your aspirations and the sum of money that you've spent so far. There are a lot of negative influences at work here, and with the mother out to lunch I think you've got a dire situation. In my own experience, you really can't change people; at best you can only influence them. The only leverage I think you have left is financial, i.e. continued tuition assistance, or the slim possibility of an epiphany that arises after you've walked out the door. Regrettably I think you will have to cut your losses.
posted by rolypolyman at 4:24 PM on June 10, 2007

The only thing I can think of is to try to sit down one-on-one with her mom and explain how important it is to me that Sarah succeed in school

You might make more headway if you sit down with the mother and explain to her how important it is to Sarah that she succeed in school rather than explaining how important it would be to you, and emphasize that you'd like to help her succeed. You might even consider speaking to Sarah's teachers and figuring out exactly what Sarah has to do in order not to flunk and focus on that, especially if Sarah's mother doesn't like dealing with the school.
posted by agent99 at 4:25 PM on June 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

You seem to be well-meaning and genuinely caring, but you don't stand much of a chance in changing this child's mother or the situation. This is something teachers deal with on a daily basis. Indeed, it is one of the most frustrating aspects of being an educator.

Mentoring was never meant to be a psuedo-parenting situation. I'm not sure how you got sucked into paying for a tutor but by doing so, in a way, you are acting in a codependent manner. The relationship between this parent and child is already cemented and probably unlikely to be affected by your suggestions to mom. Right now, you are trying to do what her parent should be doing. At some point (probably pretty soon) she will start to resent you as the person making her do all of the hard stuff. At some point, the child herself may take root and realize what she needs to do for herself. I repeat...for herself. Be there for her then.

In the meantime, don't abandon her but don't try to compete in the fun department...what she probably needs more than that is "normal" time...baking cookies, picnicing in the park, stuff like that.

Please, please stop paying for the tutor. That's not your role in this child's life. Expect mom to be angry, though, since she has probably come to expect it.

As far as being personally involved with her teachers, most schools cannot allow that since it is a breach of confidentiality. Some parents are more than willing to let some caring stranger take over right up until you get too bossy and start telling her how to raise her child.
posted by rcavett at 4:34 PM on June 10, 2007

You guys are great and have done so much for her. Although the tutoring didn't keep her from failing perhaps, maybe it has done something for her in the long term.

Maybe you need to slowly cut back your involvement (using the new baby as an "excuse"?) and hope for the best. As other have said, you can continue to be a positive influence in her life remotely.
posted by k8t at 4:37 PM on June 10, 2007

Best answer: That sounds really painful.

I'm sorry to say that I think there's very little you can do that you haven't already tried. You're rowing against the current of 95% of her environment.

At this point discontinuing the tutoring seems like an inevitability - FWIW, I think you should probably cut your losses there - and maybe that feels like a failure. But I would urge you to reframe your relationship with Sarah, if you can. Your presence - and, very importantly, your modeling of a different kind of family dynamic (and, since you have your own little one now, motherhood!) will be more important to Sarah than you may ever know. You're showing her a different option for her life. You may literally be the only person in her life doing that. That's important.

That's enough.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 4:39 PM on June 10, 2007

Have you seen season four of The Wire?

Anyway.. what if you didn't spend the time with Sarah for tutoring, which clearly has been mostly unproductive.. don't concentrate on fixing the grades. If she doesn't have any structure at home, one source of it is her weekly meetings with you.. does she enjoy them? do you talk to her then about what's going on in her life?
posted by citron at 4:40 PM on June 10, 2007

If she speaks and you listen attentively, and you share your own experiences to prove that it's possible to overcome obstacles, then you're giving her what no amount of tutoring can give her. The "effect" you seek may not be evident in her grades, but it will seep into her outlook on life, and help determine how much hope she has for her future.

In the short term, what's important is that she knows she's a worthy human being even if she doesn't pass sixth grade. Sometimes it's necessary to repeat grades. There's no shame in that. There can be benefits, in fact.
posted by zennie at 4:58 PM on June 10, 2007

Response by poster: I am not familiar with The Wire.

Sarah seems to enjoy her time with me well enough -- she's a sweet kid, but kind of lukewarm about everything (except boys and rap music). I know for some people in a mentoring program, the kid's time with them is their only "escape" during which to do something fun. For Sarah, she has no shortage of things that are fun for her at home -- whether they're positive and helpful to her is obviously another story.
posted by justonegirl at 4:59 PM on June 10, 2007

What does she think about all of this? What does she think she'd like to change at home, at school, with her friends? I know she's 10 years old, but she also has some agency in this situation. Why is she unhappy at school? Why is she not passing -- this isn't just about grades. I know you know it isn't just about tutoring or grades or lunchtime decisions, but during your conversations with her, what comes out?
posted by barometer at 5:18 PM on June 10, 2007

Also, other than tutoring, dinner and a game, what kinds of activities do you do together? I know she has 'fun' at home, but you seem to disagree about the nature of those activities anyway. Why not take a break from the academic stuff (if it's not really doing its 'job' in immediate sense anyway), and find out what *does* work for her?

If she's lukewarm about things in general (except boys and rap music), maybe she needs help finding something that she IS into -- art classes together, cooking, gardening, computers, maybe learning how to put a rap song together, drawing, cards, volunteering herself (yes, seriously), reading in fun places, comic book strip viewing, hip hop dancing lessons or videos, animal care, kids theatre, music lessons, sewing, swimming, etc. Maybe tutoring isn't working because she has all these things in her life and she doesn't care about any of them. Mentor her to find herself and her way, and the grades will come. You're a good person for caring this much -- as with all kids, things happen when they're ready. Help her be ready rather than with the thing itself. I'm sure you're doing a great job.
posted by barometer at 5:26 PM on June 10, 2007

Best answer: There's a big difference between the kind of fun that you're describing in her home life and the kind of fun you can provide for her. The kind of fun you describe as being part of her home life, the kind that is really too mature for her, puts pressure on her to be a certain way: to be cool, to be pretty, to be sexy, to be popular. Whether she can articulate it or not, whether she knows it or not now, that kind of fun is hard.

What you can provide for her is a type of fun that puts no pressure on her whatsoever to be any way at all. Baking cookies and watching funny movies and playing board games allows kids to be kids precisely because it takes the pressure off of them and allows them to just relax and BE for a little while. She most certainly doesn't know that she needs that, but she does, and that's what you can give her that the rest of her life doesn't.
posted by decathecting at 5:32 PM on June 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

My feeling is that you have gone way beyond the bounds of "mentoring". I haven't read all the back story so I don't know how you became acquainted with Sara, or what the guidelines of that particular program, but you're in too deep.

You should not be a surrogate parent, you should be an example, a guide, and an inspiration. Frame your actions with those three words in mind.

One thing that I've found my mentoring is that they really need to trust and respect you if you are going to have any effect.

It doesn't sound like she respects you much. I sympathise, it is hard to get a teenager's respect. My feeling on the tutoring is that she probably respects you less for it. $6,000 is a lot for a baby sitter. She might respect you more if -you- were spending the time with her, rather than someone you pay to be with her.
posted by Ookseer at 5:38 PM on June 10, 2007

If she's into rap music, you can work from there. A lot has been done around connecting with youth through hip-hop. Introduce her to artists she may enjoy but offer a more positive message--k-os is one that first comes to mind for me but there's a lot more out there. Make sure you listen to the artists too so you can talk about them with her. Encourage writing so she can write her own music. Offer improvements to her rhymes that make the song sound cooler and are more grammatically correct and intricate. Get her into graffiti art and see if she's interested in creating her own (on paper). Not all hip-hop is "I'm in Love with a Stripper"--just the trashy stuff. So introduce her to the good stuff. The good stuff is not only more lyrically intelligent but often offers a more intelligent message (though not always).

As others have said, what do you do with her now besides tutoring? Though you should be moving away from financially investing in her, if she shows a strong interest it may be worth giving her a few dance lessons or something with a musical instrument.

I see you're near Baltimore. I know what you're going through, and I applaud you.
posted by schroedinger at 5:44 PM on June 10, 2007

The Wire is an HBO drama series set in Baltimore. The whole series is fantastic but you don't need to have seen earlier seasons to appreciate season 4, which focuses largely on the city's public school system and follows four middle school kids who are dealing with a lot of the same issues you mention.. which is why I thought of it. Some of the really disruptive kids are put in a pilot program, a special class.. the teachers are struggling with No Child requirements, lack of resources, kids who have unstable home lives, kids who don't have the skills to do work but were socially promoted.. it's very sympathetic and thoughtful. Highly recommended whenever they get around to putting it out on DVD. (There are reruns on some of the other HBO channels as well, if you happen to get those.)
posted by citron at 5:55 PM on June 10, 2007

Go rent Learning Curve, and watch it. Then decide whether you want to watch it again with Sarah.

As somebody busily tearing his hair out to figure out ways to make a teenager want to learn the times tables he missed out on in Grade 3, or even express any desire to learn anything at all, you have all my sympathy.

Watching the Mom from Hell screw her daughter's life over can't be easy, either. But hey, at least you're able to do *something*, and worse things happen in Darfur.
posted by flabdablet at 6:34 PM on June 10, 2007

If the mother is acting like that and not making her improve her grades, perhaps she needs to be reported to child protective services.
posted by IndigoRain at 7:04 PM on June 10, 2007

Best answer: I'm n'thing the stop with the hired tutor even though that is a very kind, positive thing that you've been trying to do. And perhaps let go of your own expectations in regards to her academic performance. Which is hard to do (I know, I was a mentor, I've been there).

Instead, think of all the things that she either has improved at or have remained stable because you have been involved in her life. Baby steps here. You aren't going to be able to affect huge sweeping changes in the role that you play in her life. Even if you could, big sweeping changes can riccochet all over the place in upsetting, dramatic ways.

You want to cherish the little victories. Have you made her feel supported? Has she built trust with you? Perhaps she has been inside of a museum or has learned to carry on a conversation with an adult because of you. Compare Sarah to SARAH, and not to other kids.

If she likes hip-hop, she might really get a kick out of Teen Poetry Slams. She'd get to see urban kids who are into beats AND poetry AND politics.

Maybe it's enough just to see you interacting with your baby in a different way than her mom interacted with her. You don't have to point that out to her, however. She'll see it.

Please, please don't be disappointed that she is repeating sixth grade. Or at least don't communicate that to her. This can happen. It is not the end of the world, though it may seem unusual to you from your context. Let her know that you'll be there for her if she needs you.

The relationship with her, her mom and her history is complicated and you will never be sure what is going on there. Maybe she feels that if she dismisses her mom's lifestyle that she is being disloyal. Or that she would lose her mom. Her mom could feel very insecure and threatened by changes in Sarah that are outside of her own experience. You'll never really know. And, honestly, that part isn't that important because you aren't her or her mom's therapist. As a mentor, your role is to just yourself, be different than the other adults she has in her life, be consistent, be stable, be emotionally functional (versus dysfunctional), be accessible. Just be. Your role is not to parent or rescue or reprimand or change her mom. As much as you'd love to, no. That is not your role.

Don't underestimate the power of just "being" with Sarah. Many, many kids in Sarah's position don't have anyone to just "be" with them without some agenda. Her mom has an agenda, her teacher has an agenda, her friends, boys, etc. They all have agendas for Sarah. Just be with Sarah.

Best of luck.
posted by jeanmari at 7:12 PM on June 10, 2007

Best answer: Could you expose her to your own family and involve her in the care of your little one? By modeling parenting skills and talking about the decisions you make, you may be able to pass on skills that she can use if she has her own children. For example, you could ask her to help you make food for the baby and talk about healthy and lower cost choices. You could talk about how you respond to your baby and how those sorts of things affect the kind of person the baby becomes. By shifting to more of a role model approach and giving her opportunities to build her own skills, you may have a more lasting effect...perhaps one that will affect the next generation.

You might also be able to talk about career choices and ways of keeping doors open. Although I wouldn't give up on school, you might want to talk about non-academic career paths...perhaps by pointing out a woman working on a construction site or bringing it up in casual conversation if you have a plumber come to do work (or whatever). You could also involve her in some life skills, like changing a light bulb, maintaining a car, or what-have-you. But as they come up, not as in "a very special moment" lessons.

Success in school is important, but not always possible and certainly not the only important thing. From my work with lower income families, I'd have to say that relationships, parenting, food choices, life skills and money/household management have even more powerful effects on one's success. In fact, those things might be what influences whether someone goes very far in their schooling or work.
posted by acoutu at 7:18 PM on June 10, 2007

You should probably stop focusing on getting "results" from Sarah. Try to approach Sarah with something like unconditional love, and accept that she will be exposed to influences of which you do not approve. Unfortunately, it would be almost impossible for you to save her from unsavory hip-hop lyrics; they're everywhere in the world that Sarah lives in.

You're obviously a well-meaning, altruistic middle-class person. You're probably tempted to try to make Sarah like you. Just try to be there for her without being so anxious for results.
posted by jayder at 8:43 PM on June 10, 2007

Considering the way our relationship has evolved, however, I can’t see the value in reverting to that type of arrangement.

I think that you may need to step back and reconsider your role in Sarah's life. It may be more useful for both of you if you move your focus back to spending time with her and being a positive presence for her, rather than trying to teach her mother to be a better parent or to be that parent yourself.

Sarah has plenty of "fun" in her life - in fact, I get the impression that her life is pretty much all fun...

Would you consider trying to have a relationship with Sarah on her own current level, rather than trying to push her and her mother into being different people than they are? If Sarah is interested in music and relationships and MySpace right now, your role as a mentor can be to experience these things with her, as well as exposing her to influences from your own life.
posted by lemuria at 9:56 PM on June 10, 2007

I just want to repeat that your influence in her life may be far more important in the long run than just helping her pass school would be. Modelling a life where hard work pays off, and providing that example to her, may end up being really influential later on when she has a chance to really choose her own way. Don't give up on your relationship with her, and on encouraging her to become what she can be; but trying to fill the parental role isn't going to be possible in your situation.
posted by Lady Li at 10:24 PM on June 10, 2007

Don't sell your own efforts short. You've already made an incalculable difference in Sarah's life, I'm certain; far more than the $6K that you and your husband have totted up.

If you can't stomach the idea of throwing more money at tutoring for this child, that's OK. No one's telling you you have to, and in the long run, as others have pointed out, that might not be the right way in any case.

I believe that in the long run, what you do provide and will continue to provide - steadfast friendship and a good role model - will be more valuable for Sarah, no matter what happens to her in the short term. And for what it's worth, you and your husband have my respect.
posted by ikkyu2 at 12:07 AM on June 11, 2007

If you really want to keep with the tutoring the first thing you should do is fire your existing tutor. This may not be a popular answer with the rest of the green but I cannot imagine what the hell is going on with someone who has taken that much of your money, spent that much time with her and yet in mid-June you're just now getting the message that she may fail? I know you're invested here but you need to read this with an outside perspective:

I can’t explain to the tutor even one more week why Sarah isn’t following through with any of the study strategies they’ve devised

Why would the tutor being looking to you to understand why this 12 year old isn't putting in the follow through? S/he knows this isn't your kid and she doesn't live with you, right? Continuing to take your money to pursue a course of action that doesn't work is flat-out unethical.

One of two things is going on here. Either you're setting out marching orders for this tutor that are sub-optimal (in which case the tutor should be telling you that your approach is bad and s/he won't do it) or the tutor is unable to cater his/her offering to Sarah's needs. If this kid isn't sitting down and doing the homework - sorry, following through with study strategies - at home then the tutor's time would be best spent sitting with Sarah while she does the homework and providing direction.

The more I ponder this the more dumbstruck I am. You're just now finding out about this failure situation, so... what has the tutor been looking at from the school? Has s/he just been doing his/her thing with no feedback via returned tests and lesson sheets from the school? How does this come as a surprise to a decent tutor?
posted by phearlez at 9:39 AM on June 11, 2007

If the girl found school or studying to be rewarding for it's own merits, what you have done would have borne fruit by now. If she doesn't have goals for herself that involve school, your having goals for her that involve school is setting everyone up for more heartache. School may have been your proper path to success as an adult, but that doesn't mean there are not other paths.

On the other hand, I've heard of people who were terrible students until they fell in love with the idea of a certain career, and they knew that the career required school.

One of your jobs as a mentor is to expose this girl to options, and provide the sort of example that her immediate circle of influence may not be able to provide. Middle-class individuals have this concept of what is possible in life, and the times I've seen mentoring work, much of what was taught was possibilities.
posted by Mozzie at 10:19 AM on June 11, 2007

Mozzie's right. When you're middle class, you've got a much broader view of career choices. I grew up in a working class area, where the only people with degrees were doctors, lawyers and teachers. And most doctors and lawyers didn't send their kids to my school. My principal wanted me to go into engineering, but, when I asked what that was, I was told that it involved working with pulp mill chemicals or building pulp mill machinery. That's what engineers in my town did. When I said I wasn't interested in that and that I wanted to help society, no one mentioned that I could be doing biomedical engineering. Not a soul could explain what a business degree would prepare you for. And what good was a science degree, unless you wanted to be a teacher? I went into Arts, because I knew that, with an English degree, I could do journalism, freelance writing, teaching or communications. And people who studied English would have a good knowledge of all those things "educated" people talked about, such as books. I really could have used some exposure to other careers and the middle class way. I've had to spend my adulthood acquiring cultural capital. And I had excellent parents and far fewer strikes against me than Esolo's mentee.
posted by acoutu at 3:54 PM on June 12, 2007

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