School Struggles

By Brett Freeman


With the start of the school year already around the corner, It’s helpful to have a  plan in
place in case everything doesn’t go swimmingly once things get underway. In particular,
at what point should parents look for outside help, i.e., tutoring, if their children seem to
be struggling?
It’s tempting to give students a fair amount of leeway to figure things out on their own,
and there’s definitely value to doing so—if it works. Finding their own way through rough
patches breeds confidence in students which in turn makes it easier for them to do the
same the next time they find themselves struggling. But it’s also important to monitor the
situation to make sure they’re actually making progress because when students fall
behind, they not only face an increased workload trying to get caught up, their
confidence also suffers which makes catching up more difficult.
Think of it this way. When students begin to struggle, their initial reaction is generally,
“Wow, this is hard.” If they continue to struggle, that can morph to “I don’t think I can do
this,” and, ultimately “I’m not smart enough.” Getting caught up once they’ve fallen
behind is a daunting enough task for students, but once they start doubting that they
even CAN do the work, it becomes overwhelming. Confidence matters.
Having worked with hundreds of students I can honestly say that I’ve never encountered
a student who wasn’t smart enough to do well. I often tell my students, “I’m not going to
teach you anything difficult. I’m going to persuade you that it’s really not that hard.” For
most students, the difficulty comes from the fact that what worked before isn’t working
anymore. In English and History, for example, simply doing the assigned reading is
generally enough for students to do well through 9th or 10th grade at which point the
expectations change with little or no warning. Simply knowing the material isn’t enough
anymore—students are expected to interpret historical events or analyze the author’s
intent. They’re expected to think independently and offer their own analysis, and this
change catches many of them flat-footed. In math, I encounter a lot of students who
were always able to do problems in their head, but as arithmetic gives way to algebra
and geometry, the equations get too complicated for this approach to work. Students
who never had to bother learning the step-by-step approach suddenly find themselves
Unfortunately, the longer a student has struggled, the more difficult it can be to
persuade them that what they’re struggling with really isn’t that hard which is why it’s
important to get them help before their confidence craters. My goal as a tutor is to get
my students to the point that they can succeed without my help as quickly as possible,
and that task is much easier if they come to me before they start feeling overwhelmed.
Students should be given the chance to work their own way through their struggles, but
if you feel like your student is starting to doubt that they can manage this on their own,
it’s probably time to get some extra help.