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You’ve probably seen a television ad for a national chain of tutoring centers: an older boy has a question about his math homework, but his mother takes one horrified look at the textbook and runs out of the house, straight to a tutoring center. Surely there’s a different, less-costly and more immediately-helpful response. But when the homework’s too hard – even for you – what else can you do?

First off, set some mental parameters for yourself.
•   Shake off your own memories of freshman algebra or English 101 and focus on your child, not yourself.
•   Make the quite reasonable assumption that the work really isn’t too hard for your child. Your kid is smart enough right? She does okay in other things, right? She can get this.
•   Understand that it’s okay that you don’t have all the answers. You can learn along with your child. In doing so, you demonstrate how to tackle tough assignments and plow through to success.
•   Do not transfer your dislike for a subject or your helplessly confused feelings to your child. Don’t be like the mother in that ad.


Second, follow some specific steps when your child throws down his pencil and yells for your help.

1. Make time for hard stuff. Set the hard work aside, do the other homework and reserve an hour or two for the tricky thing. Just doing this takes some pressure off and opens up the space for thinking. Putting the work aside for a while, calms the head and also lets the unconscious brain come up with answers.

2. Read through the assignment directions or problem together. What is asked for? Where is the disconnect between what your child understands and what she’s expected to know or do?

3. Read through the chapter together. You can read it aloud, stopping to discuss the text with your child. Realize that most likely the key to the homework’s solution is in the text.

4. Read through the assignment directions or problem again. Does the assignment remind you of anything you just read together from the text? Is it clearer now what the child needs to do? If not, where is the disconnect? Go back and figure things out.

5. By now, things should be pretty clear. If they’re still not clear, now is the time to pick up your Southwestern Advantage books, log-in to, activate your school’s homework hotline or call the reference desk at your local public library. Dial up a friend from class and see how he’s managing this assignment. The reason for waiting to activate these “lifelines” is this: now your child will be able to evaluate the suggestions he gets and understand how they are reasonable or off-base. He will be able to talk intelligently about the assignment and the content it represents. Even if your child doesn’t wind up doing the assignment correctly, he will understand the correct solution once he gets it.

One word of caution. Often, halfway through these steps, a child will say, “Oh, I get it!” and dismiss you from the homework table. This might be because he doesn’t want you to help anymore or because he really has figured it out. Either way, this is your cue to say, “Fine! Let me know if you need me later….” and get out of the way.

And a second caution. Resist the impulse to check your child’s work. If she asks you to, that’s fine, but only point out where you think she might have taken a wrong turn. Don’t actually fix her answers. And if she doesn’t ask you to check her work, don’t do it. This is her work, not yours.

Your role here is not one of supplying the answers. You don’t need to know anything about the subject at all. And getting everything right in the homework is not so important as understanding how to tackle tough assignments and get them done.

Your role is to be a calm supporter, who works alongside the child in figuring things out.

© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.

Now that the school year is well underway, it might be clear that your child is falling behind in key skills or essential subjects. The school can only do so much. To get your child back on track and level with her classmates, you might be thinking of hiring a tutor.

If this is your situation, then here are some points to consider.

Get clear direction from your child’s teacher. Some kids are behind in subject-matter skills, like arithmetic or phonics. Other kids lack focus and organization skills. It’s important to know exactly where the problems lie, if you’re going to find a tutor capable of making a change.

Decide if you can do the tutoring yourself. There are advantages to being your child’s tutor: less cost and more flexibility in the schedule are two. But there are disadvantages too, if you are uncertain how to teach what needs to be learned or if you are likely to get impatient with your child or let sessions slide. If you really can do this work and really want to, then here are some steps to take:

  1. Set daily goals for practice. Daily practice is the most important thing. It’s too easy to let things slide but there’s no way to cram 10 weeks of work into the last two weeks before the term ends. So make working on school skills part of the regular routine of every single day.
  2. Round up practice materials. Every bookstore has workbooks and that’s a good starting point. But also try to locate instructional websites for kids and good books to read. Math, reading and writing are part of everyday life. Make opportunities to find these in the activities your child does for fun.
  3. Choose a location that signals “this is serious.”  You might find it works best to hold tutoring sessions with your child at the local library  or some other place different from home. This makes this session more formal, less open to interruption, and assures that you and she will take the time needed to really make progress. If you can’t leave the house for your tutoring sessions, at least designate a particular time and place, and turn off distractions.
  4. Be professional and pleasant. Your child already knows he’s behind. He doesn’t need you to threaten him or get frustrated. If your child doesn’t understand or can’t master a skill, find alternative ways to explain it. You and your child share equally the responsibility for teaching and learning.

You might decide you want to hire someone else instead. If that’s so, then here are some factors to consider. 

  1. Find a tutor with the greatest chance of success. You might consider a high school or college student you know. You might choose a tutoring center. Or you might select an independent tutor who takes individual students. Your school district might have a list of local tutors or other parents might be able to refer you. But this is your money and your child’s future at stake. Find someone you have confidence in.
  2. Be clear about what you want covered. Some tutoring services work to their own agendas and take a long time to start working on the skills your child needs right now. Make certain that while a tutor works on foundational skills your child missed years ago, he or she also works on grade-level skills or the homework help your child needs right now. Set clear goals with the tutor. 
  3. Schedule tutoring sessions at least weekly. A weekly tutoring session provides accountability and a chance to notice progress made and progress not-made. While a monthly or every-other-week schedule might cost less, it will also result in slower progress or no progress at all. You might find that twice-weekly sessions support your child the best.

If you or if someone else is your child’s tutor, the key is to not use tutoring as a punishment. Don’t threaten your child with tutoring if he doesn’t shape up at school. Don’t make comparisons between the child who needs tutoring and another child who is doing well in school. If you hire an outside tutor, that might mean there’s not enough time or money for an extracurricular activity, but resist the temptation to use tutoring as the reason for cutting back on fun things. Doing better at school shouldn’t come with negative effects.

Doing better at school starts early. Helping the child who is off to a weak start academically just makes sense. Starting tutoring early in the school year gets better results than waiting until the end of the school year.

One way or another, help your child to feel success.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Look for free downloads on Dr. Anderson’s website at