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Jun 26, 2017

You’ve reached one of those moments in parenting that you’ve dreaded: For the second quarter in a row, Does my child need a tutor or an executive function coach?your son Ethan has come home with poor math grades on his report card. You want to get him the help he needs, so you hire a highly recommended tutor named Zak to help him out. Problem solved, right?

With Zak, you’re getting someone with expertise in math to deliver personalized, one-on-one instruction. Unlike the teacher, Zak can go at exactly the pace that Ethan needs, and can tailor explanations to his learning style. Zak can give extra help and practice that the teacher, who has to juggle a couple dozen students, often can’t. And Ethan certainly prefers learning this material from a cool outsider like Zak to learning it from a parent. (And, perhaps, you might be feeling a little rusty on how to do binomials.)

Ethan works with Zak throughout the third quarter, reports that the sessions are going “fine” — in precisely that detailed, teenage way  and you happily think Ethan's problem in math is being addressed. However, when Ethan brings home his third quarter report card, you’re surprised and disappointed to find that the math grade is exactly where it was for the previous two quarters. On top of that, you're seeing that he's slipping in other classes, too. How is this possible?

When Tutoring Isn't the Best Solution to a Student's Challenges

First, don’t beat yourself up. Hiring a tutor like Zak can be a terrific idea when the struggle is with understanding content.

Don’t give up on Ethan, either: It’s possible that hiring a tutor just wasn’t exactly what he needed. There are many students who earn less-than-ideal grades for reasons that are not fully related to the difficulty of the subject matter. Perhaps Ethan sits down to his biweekly math quizzes and panics. He studies all week but goes blank when it’s test time. To you and Zak, it doesn’t make much sense because he knows how to graph quadratic functions; Zak’s practiced that with him a bunch of times. Even if Zak uncovers Ethan’s test-taking meltdowns as the source of his poor scores, emotion regulation strategies are not in his wheelhouse. Zak’s area of expertise isn’t the sort that Ethan really needs.

When content comprehension isn’t the main problem, that’s when coaching is the better choice.

Executive function coaches help students to build the skills they need to solve problems that transcend subject matter. If Ethan has test-taking anxiety in his math class this year, no amount of subject-specific tutoring is going to help him when he moves on to Trigonometry next year and has the same fretful approach to exams. However, a coach can introduce emotion regulation techniques to help him out in any testing environment. For example, a coach might practice mindful reflection techniques with Ethan to help him to recognize and manage his anxiety. If he instead has difficulty slowing down to read instructions, a coach can help him fine-tune his attention challenges by introducing a method for diagramming his prompts. If his slipping grades are due to his inability to turn in his homework, a coach can help him develop routines for organizing and transporting his work, perhaps with the integration of color-coded folders, calendar reminders, and visual cues set up at home.

As you can see in all of these instances, working through a set of practice problems with Zak isn’t going to help Ethan at all  but working with a coach could be exactly what he needs to help him manage his demands across all of his classes.

Wondering whether subject-area tutoring vs. Executive Function coaching is the better choice for your child? Download our useful checklist that helps determine the appropriate support for a struggling student.

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photo credit: Shutterstock

About the Author

Dan Messier

Dan Messier is an Executive Function coach with Beyond Booksmart from Holbrook, MA. He received his bachelor's in English from Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy, Mass., and his master's in English composition from the University of Massachusetts Boston, where he has taught first-year writing as a member of the English department since 2010.


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