The leaves are starting to drop — and so are some of those can-do start-of-school intentions. What can you do if it seems like your kid’s academics are taking a downturn?

Many parents immediately call in the reinforcements: get a tutor, stat! But hold up a hot minute. Before you make that call and kiss a substantial amount of money goodbye, see if you can get a sense of the following: 

  • Does he seem frustrated?
  • Is she complaining about feeling lost or unable to keep up?
  • Does the teacher share your concern?

If the answer to these questions is yes, then some outside help might be in order. Heidi Robinson of Varsity Tutors says that parents should keep an eye out for signs of academic distress — such as more frequent requests for help or changes in behavior. “Academic struggles can manifest in lower self-confidence and even anxiety,” she says. So while it’s a good idea to consider all causes and options, you should feel comfortable interceding if you do determine that your child requires more academic support than she's getting.

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Involve the classroom teacher

Clair McLafferty, a veteran math tutor, says that involving the teacher in this process is a big advantage. Since the teacher directly observes your child’s daily learning, they should be able to help you identify any challenges. “Since the teacher sees the student more often [than the tutor does], they usually have a better grasp of a student's strengths and weaknesses,” she says.

Robinson believes this as well. “Teachers have plenty of insight into a student’s day-to-day performance,” she says. “They can confirm a parent’s concerns and pinpoint specific areas for improvement.” If you’re told that one-on-one help would be beneficial, you know you’re on the right track in seeking a tutor.

You may also find that the support of tutoring helps with school anxiety; if your child is stressed about meeting expectations with grades or test scores, having someone to effectively coach them on targeted skills or strategies may help to lessen any concerns. And if the tension is yours, a tutor might be the ticket to relieving that as well. Robinson points out that “newer teaching approaches, such as common core, unfamiliar types of assignments or advanced material can create anxiety for parents, who may not feel equipped to support their children well.” 

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Choose the best tutor for your child’s needs

So, let’s say that you’ve decided to get a tutor — what should you look for? Once you’ve identified a reputable service or independent tutor, preferably through a referral from someone who’s used them before, you’ll want to interview this person.

A good tutor is someone who understands the material and how to communicate it in a variety of ways. This is essential because your child may need a few different explanations to find one that makes sense for him or her. Additionally, you’re going to want to know that this person will be able to communicate with you: How is she progressing? What seem to be the trouble spots? Connecting the tutor and the teacher offers a direct line of communication that’s helpful for everyone.

Get the most out of your time

Beyond these insights into your child’s learning, what else should you expect from a tutor’s services? While your kid may be hoping that the tutor will do his homework, that won’t really help in the long run. McLafferty states that the work needs to be the child’s — not the tutor’s. “If a tutor is working through every problem for them, the student isn't learning anything,” she says. "That's not to say that one or two of the problems won't be used as examples, but the student should be able to demonstrate a concept by the end of the session.” 

Instead, as Robinson puts it, a tutor should “suggest new approaches to solving problems, pinpoint additional areas for improvement and focus on helping the student build confidence as they gain mastery of the material.” 

McLafferty has found that the students who benefit most from tutoring are the ones who are ready to accept help and prepare for their sessions. “If the student is willing to put in the time to do the work to be prepared, they'll usually see a more significant improvement in their grades than those who come to a session with no work done and no specific questions,” she says.

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Maximize learning impact

Since tutors can’t work magic, parents can help to boost tutor effectiveness by maintaining consistency of routines and providing a reliable study environment. Kids who are well-rested, eat nutritiously and have a quiet place to work are more likely to reap the benefits of tutoring. Some families find that scheduling sessions outside the home, at a library or a coffee shop, is more beneficial; other parents like having the ability to check in on what’s happening. McLafferty also stresses that even with tutoring, continuing to take advantage of help at school is important. “If the teacher offers help, provide the resources (scheduling, rides, etc.) that they need to make it to those one-on-one sessions,” she says.

Explore alternative solutions

If you’ve determined that your child needs support, but traditional tutoring isn't working — or just plain doesn’t fit your budget — know that there are other resources available. A lot of high schools coordinate peer tutoring for different honor societies. Call to ask if such programs exist near you. Similarly, many public libraries offer free homework assistance during specific hours and some even do so online. Sites like Khan Academy offer free tutorials in a variety of subjects, and online services such as Varsity Tutors allow you to skip the hassle of in-person meet-ups.

Tutoring isn’t always the answer. After all, maybe your kid just needs a little more encouragement or freedom — or the problem isn't academic at all. As a parent, you’ll often be able to tell whether a bad grade is a one-time blip vs. an emerging pattern. But when some extra help is needed — or when you simply don’t know where else to turn — tutoring can be a lifesaver. As long as you make sure to choose your tutor carefully, communicate well and prepare your kid to make the most of the tutoring time, you might find that the school year just got a lot less stressful.