Extra Help? Smart Idea

By: Pat Ross

Gayle O’Connor didn’t waste any time. Right at the start of the school year, she decided to get some extra help for her son. Christopher was starting grade 7 at a new school and she wanted to make the transition an easy one.

She’s certainly not alone. Across the city each school year, parents contact learning centres, seek out tutors and track down supports outside the classroom to help their kids thrive. That makes sense, Gayle says. “It’s important for a parent to be proactive and involved in their child’s education. It’s also important for the child to know the parent … support[s] them with any struggles or concerns they may have.”

Gayle’s way of thinking has some support in the child health-care community. Earlier this fall, Dr. Robert Milin was part of a panel of youth mental health experts at Resilient & Ready: A Luncheon Conversation for Parents. The sold-out event at the Centurion Convention Centre was hosted by The Royal Ottawa Hospital and D.I.F.D., a youth mental health initiative. Dr. Milin, a psychiatrist and clinical scientist involved with The Royal’s youth program, discussed stress, transition and life events — and their impact on youth. When he listed the personal strengths contributing to resiliency in children and adolescents, one of the key factors was “perceived access to support.”

Urging parents to know their children and to make additional supports available, Dr. Milin mentioned a peer who used tutoring for math courses in second-year university. “Having access to a tutor is very helpful,” he said. While parents may have the know-how to help their children with homework or coursework, assistance from mom or dad may not be the best option for the youngster. “Children respond differently, in many ways, to the teaching of a tutor.”

Would-be parent helpers, take note: kids respond better to the teaching of a tutor

Dr. Milin also listed a “sense of mastery” as another factor contributing to resiliency in youth. When kids are able to grasp a concept or master a lesson, those “aha” moments are powerful. Whether it be tying shoelaces for the first time successfully, deciphering algebra or winning the King-Lear battle, kids have a real sense of accomplishment — and sometimes relief. As Susie decodes the words and reads the storybook by herself, and Andy gets his times-tables down pat, they feel more confident and better overall.

But answers don’t always come easily. Kids learn in different ways and at different speeds. While the classroom is a comfort zone and schoolwork is a breeze for some students, the opposite may be true for others. In some subjects or situations, there aren’t enough “I can” moments. Most adults can recall a time when they, too, were flummoxed by a certain lesson or topic and the information seemed indecipherable. When this happens in a classroom full of peers who seem to be “getting it” and there’s no easy access to one-onone help or a review for clarity, a youngster can wind up feeling unhappy and insecure. Gayle points out, “It helps a child’s self esteem when then feel they know the lesson and can answer questions in class.”

Absences, a change in schools, prolonged illness (of either the student or the teacher) and different group dynamics can also affect a child’s ability to cope, to process information and to complete work in class. That’s why it’s vital to talk to your children, ask how they’re doing, take a look at their homework with them and see if they need help.

“It is important to set the scene for success for our children; we only have one shot at this,” Gayle asserts. While she got a jump on putting support in place, this is an excellent time to do the same. As the school year continues, there are plenty more quizzes, book reports, projects, spelling tests, assignments, worksheets, tests and essays to come.

Just weeks from now, high school students will be studying for and writing exams. The marks matter, particularly for teens in the higher grades. After all, those numbers help determine whether students are accepted into post-secondary schools. Already, for some, the pressure is being felt. For others, who have access to assistance, there’s less worry.

Many kids don’t hesitate to ask for help. On one local competitive sports team, a number of players used the same tutor for high school math. The instructor, a teacher, went from household to household helping kids — and their parents — ensure they knew their stuff. In some cases, kids aren’t actually struggling, but they want to reach ahead or to have the security of knowing their understanding of subjects is comprehensive and solid.

At the elementary level, outside help can boost kids’ understanding and confidence. Many families opt to go the learning centre route to achieve these ends. Learning centres often offer an assessment, determining at what level your kid is at and whether there are any gaps in knowledge or understanding that need to be filled.

Whatever fits your youngster’s needs — a couple of hours a week spent with a university student at the library, time with a regular at-home tutor or at an established learning centre — extra help is always a smart investment.

Christopher O’Connor’s mom puts it this way, “As parents, we cannot leave it all to the school. These are our children.”

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