Janice Pope used to dread helping her 7-year-old son, Logan, with homework. "He would get frustrated and cry, and I would become angry," says Pope, a high- school teacher in Long Beach, California. "It was a big mess." Months of trying to work it out on their own were just making things worse; Logan seemed overwhelmed by his workload, and he didn't want to go to school. "He started to withdraw and didn't seem like himself anymore," she says. So Pope handled the problem in the same way a growing number of parents with kids Logan's age are -- she talked to his teacher, but then hired a tutor.
At least $5 billion is spent per year on private tutoring, according to industry reports. Part of the reason for the growth: Kids are getting tutors at a younger age. "In a class of 20 second-graders, three or four might have been tutored at some point in the school year," says Margaret Pierce, Ed.D., professor of education at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts. "But only one or two of those kids actually needed it." Does yours? Study up on the types of kids who are most likely to see tutors, and learn whether yours needs any help before you shell out the cash.
Like Logan, kids find that second and third grade bring a huge leap in schoolwork and expectations. If your child begins to have a hard time keeping up with his work in all subjects, consider possible underlying causes such as too many after-school activities, poor behavior in the classroom, and whether he's getting enough sleep before you consider a tutor, says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Temple University, in Philadelphia.
If you've eliminated all those possibilities, talk to your child's teacher about how to proceed. "His teacher may offer to get him extra help during the school day or request that he be tested to see if there are areas of weakness," says Dr. Hirsh-Pasek. On the other hand, don't be surprised if she suggests hiring a tutor. Faced with budget cuts, some schools no longer have enough staff to give more attention to every kid who needs it. Since your child isn't vastly behind yet, you can save up to 50 percent by hiring a local college student with references rather than signing up at a learning center. Plus, a 7- or 8-year-old might respond better to a teenage or twentysomething tutor than to someone who reminds them of their teacher or mom. "Start off with twice-a-week tutoring sessions, and then drop it down to once a week," recommends Dr. Pierce. Sit in the first few times to make sure your child and the tutor are comfortable together and are making progress. After that you'll want to be in a nearby room during the tutoring session, but there's no need to hover.
Children this age typically take many more tests than their younger counterparts -- and state-mandated standardized evaluations usually start in third grade. "With all this testing, both kids and parents may become obsessed with grades," says Eileen Leong, a third-grade teacher in Chino Hills, California. If you want to hire a tutor to turn your "B" student into an "A" student or qualify for a gifted program, experts urge you to resist. "Your plan could backfire," says Dr. Hirsh-Pasek. "Your child may feel pressured by your expectations or the extra work and start to feel anxious." What's more, she points out that enrichment tutoring may be never-ending; for instance, if your child needed tutoring to pass a gifted test, she's likely to require help to do well in her advanced classes. A smarter approach: Enrich her in other ways. Take regular outings to library events, science centers, and natural-history museums even if their programming and exhibits don't match up to what she's learning in class at the moment. Says Leong: "My students who have experiences like these outside of school tend to be more enthusiastic learners -- and that's better long-term for your child than an A-plus on a science test."
Is your child having a hard time in a single subject, like reading or math, and fallen behind his peers? Many schools have specialists with specific content training to help get children up to speed. If yours doesn't or your child's teacher thinks even more help is in order, consider hiring a private tutor who specializes in the problem subject, says Dr. Pierce. Ask your child's teacher for recommendations; freelance specialists are typically less pricey and equally as qualified as the ones at learning centers. Also consider chipping in for a tutor with another family. A University of Miami analysis of 29 studies on first- to sixth-graders showed that one-on-one and small-group tutoring equally improved a child's reading skills.
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of Parents magazine.