Grace Kelley was like many other fourth-grade students. She started off the school year with ambitious plans of acing every subject. "She was so excited and wanted to do well in school," reports her father Alan. But several weeks into the school year, that excitement waned. "Her math papers were coming home with 30 and 40 percentiles. It shot her confidence to work so hard and get these kinds of grades."

Nicholas Connell was about halfway through first grade when his parents realized he was having academic issues. "As we read with him at home, we noticed he was memorizing words rather than sounding them out," recalls his mother Deborah. "I was concerned and didn't know if he was a slow learner or just having problems." After talking with his teacher and guidance counselor, the Connells decided get their son help.

There are a number of signs that a child needs a tutor, says Debbie Martini, director of a local Sylvan Learning Center. "These could include difficulty doing homework, unfinished assignments, poor test grades, frustration and tears."

Laura Kouba, learning support teacher at a local private school, agrees. "Frustration while doing homework is a sure sign. So is hiding test scores. One thing I hear from parents is that they themselves are frustrated and oftentimes don't know how to help. When it gets to this level, the family should consider tutoring."

"I think all kids can benefit from tutoring," suggests Martini. "It's for remedial. But we also do a lot of enrichment and maintenance work, too."

Before finding a tutor, discuss it with your child. "Keep the conversation as positive as possible," says Beverly Stewart, president and director of Back to Basics Learning Dynamics, Inc. "You are trying to get the child to buy in - 'You know how reading is kind of hard sometimes? We're going to meet with someone who can help you.' Most kids are okay with this because they don't want to struggle with school work."

Dodi Hebert found this to be true. "Ryan has struggled with reading since he was in kindergarten and I've tried to get help through the school." But because he wasn't labeled special needs, there were always roadblocks. "This past year, he was being tested to get into ninth grade at a private school, and his test scores came back at a sixth-grade reading level. That's when we talked with him. He already knew there was a problem; he was tired of struggling and ready to get help."

When choosing a tutor, start with a good recommendation. "I began with the school and asked if they could recommend anyone," Connell recalls. "Then I asked my sister and a few people at work."

"Word of mouth is an excellent approach," says Kouba, but more importantly are credentials. "You need to know who is working with your kids - if they have the right education, experience and training."

Another point to consider is availability. With sports, extracurricular activities and work schedules dominating the clock, how do parents find time for tutoring, let alone the "right time" for their child?

"It's very individual," says Stewart. "This is where parents need to advise us." Some kids, she says, really need a break after school - 30 to 45 minutes. But other kids, if you give them that down time, they totally unplug. Her advice? "Make it a priority. Get the child in when he can learn."

"Ryan goes right after school and gets it out of the way," says Hebert. "This works best for us. He does have a little break - about an hour - before tutoring starts. Sometimes he gets started on his homework so he's not doing it late into the night."

Once a tutor has been selected, some children undergo comprehensive testing to determine what academic goals need to be set. The Kelleys had this done prior to enrolling their daughter in a center. "When we had Grace tested, she came in at a seven-year-old math level, yet tested at a seventh-grade reading level - that's a huge gap!" recalls her father. Armed with that information, the Kelleys, along with the tutoring center, were able to begin addressing Grace's needs.

"I think it's important to get the key players' input when setting goals," says Martini. "The teachers and tutors know where the student needs to be academically, but the parents know their child and are paying for the service."

Even more, they need to know what progress is being made. "I meet with parents every three weeks to discuss the child's skills - what he's mastered out of and what he's working on," Martini continues.

And mastery of skills is what it is all about. Grace, now in fifth grade, has found that love of learning again. Ryan, a high school freshman, has achieved a new level of self-confidence. As for Nicholas, he is a second-grade rising star.

"Before Nick began tutoring, he never wanted to be in the school play because he would have to read," explains Connell. But after tutoring, he finally volunteered. "The day of the play he was so cute. The part he was supposed to read was written on the back of his card. When he finished reading it, he held the card up over his head like he was a Super Bowl champion - he was so proud of himself!"

QUESTIONS TO ASK WHEN CHOOSING A TUTOR

  • What age do you tutor?

  • Is it for remedial work only? Or do you do enrichment and maintenance too?

  • What subjects do you offer?

  • Do you have summer programs?

  • Can my child go during school hours?

  • Do you offer diagnostic testing? Is it required?

  • Do you teach in small group sessions or one-on one?

  • Where does tutoring take place?

  • What qualifications do you/your teachers have?

  • What if my child has a personal problem with the tutor, can I get another one?

  • How often is the child required to go?

  • Can you work sessions around my family's schedule?

  • How often will I receive progress reports? Will they be written or verbal?

  • What is the duration of the contract?

  • How much do you charge?

  • Are there any hidden fees?

SIGNS A CHILD NEEDS A TUTOR

  • Doesn't want to go to school

  • Difficulty doing homework

  • Gaps in learning

  • Poor test grades

  • Hiding test scores from parents

  • Teacher reports missing assignments

  • Unable to keep up

  • Multiple wrong answers

  • Unfinished assignments

  • Frustration and possibly tears

  • Decreased self-confidence

  • Parents are frustrated and don't know how to help


Denise Yearian is a former educator and editor of two parenting magazines. She is the mother of three children and six grandchildren.