How to Tutor Young Children

Working with young children is vastly different from working with middle school or high school aged students in that younger children are fundamentally at an earlier developmental stage. Their sources of motivation and ability to work independently differ greatly from older students. In our experiences at General Academic, we have recognized a whole host of unique challenges in working with younger children and several teaching schemas and strategies that work well in meeting these challenges. That is not to say that working with younger students is more difficult or less effective than working with older student; younger children certainly tend to be more open-minded and straightforward in their communication with the tutor. Here, we have compiled the challenges we have identified in working with younger children and the teaching strategies we have employed with the most efficiency.

Unique Challenges

Working with Parents: With most of the children we work with, we have found that a quick meeting with the parents is important before a tutoring session begins. This is a great time to ask about recent grades and discuss any areas of improvement or issues brought up by a teacher. With elementary school students, the focus of your sessions may need to shift drastically from one session to the next, depending on what area needs the most improvement, or when a STAAR test may be coming up, etc.

It is critical to discuss the agenda with parents especially since younger children are more likely to forget about upcoming assignments. Avoid this by communicating with parents, as well as looking through their school materials and/or planner on your own before you jump into covering material. If your child brings a lot of material, feel free to ask parents what is a priority since reviewing everything the child needs to accomplish may not be possible in one session.

Encouraging Responsibility: Even with younger kids, while you are in charge of driving the flow of a session and determining how time is allocated, you can start encouraging good study and time management skills. For instance, sometimes you might write a to-do checklist on the board and encourage your child to check off items as they are completed. They can get used to having a checklist and also be actively involved in the process.

Finding Study Materials: First of all, make sure that you are making full use of the resources available to your child! If they have a take-home book, use that to work on reading comprehension. Some parents that come to GA already are proactive and may have supplemental material that they use at home, so start by asking about that. Some free worksheets can be found online; but for most concepts, the easiest path is to start with given materials. Make your own practice problems on the whiteboard. One place to look online is for a lot of basics.

Explaining Difficult Concepts: If you are explaining a difficult concept, many times the first way you think to teach something won’t “stick.” Don’t stress! If you need to, take a second before you think of different ways to explain something, i.e. draw on the board with pictures while you talk, etc. Use the simplest words you can and draw from an idea or topic they connect to. Don’t get frustrated if something you discussed last week didn’t stick 100%… just review it again, and lots of times children will remember once you jump into an explanation.

Bad Grades: The younger child is less experienced in dealing with the emotions that come with bad grades. Sometimes parents will talk about bad grades with you while they are there. This may not always be a constructive conversation. If adults focus on their child’s bad grades, children will mostly feel shamed and not necessarily contribute to that conversation. It might be a good idea to talk to the child, without parents there, to figure out what actually happened to contribute to the bad grade.

Useful Strategies/Advice

Take Breaks: It’s hard for a smaller child to sit still for a full hour of tutoring after a day of school. Let your child go to the restroom or get water/snacks as needed, but it is useful to motivate them to focus by suggesting that you finish a task before running away from it. If a child is being really studious, it’s great to reward them with a break. Some other study breaks could include drawing, using a fun app on your phone for a minute, or whatever motivates them.

Watch for Changes: Shifts in demeanor, attitude, or voice can indicate something the child doesn’t want to say; for instance, they may not understand, or they may be sad about their bad grade. Be friendly and try to figure out what is going on.

Be Proactive: If you are working on reading, a lot of children won’t always ask for help. If there is a word that looks like it might be hard for them, ask them to tell you the definition. Many times we find that if you ask, they don’t know.

Study Different Ways: It is important to “break up” sessions. Even if you need to work on the same subject, i.e. math the entire time, try different ways of teaching. For instance, quiz the child verbally, and then transition to having the child complete problems on the board. Also, it can be useful to have them teach you what you just taught them to assess where the child’s weaknesses lie.

Motivation: What motivates an 11th grader (good grades, getting into a good college) doesn’t motivate a younger child. So, what motivates them aside from taking fun breaks? It might be getting stickers or looking forward to playing outside or perhaps (to a degree) trying to get into a specific school next year. Be creative here. Also, if there is something that is a big goal, maybe you can suggest to parents that perhaps they can help think of a reward if “x” happens, whatever “x” may be.

An example of a session working with a younger child might include:

  1. Go over upcoming tests, homework assignments, and areas of concern with parents.
  2. Let the younger child get a snack and settle into the working environment while the tutor checks over completed homework and returned assignments.
  3. Tell the child what will need to be completed today so he or she knows what to expect and so that no assignments or upcoming tests are forgotten.
  4. Allow the child to independently complete any leftover homework and correct mistakes on returned assignments. If the mistakes are concentrated in any one area, be sure to review the relevant concepts with extra example problems.
  5. Read (either out loud or silently, depending on the child’s reading level) a book or short reading passage together for 15-20 minutes. Go over comprehension questions afterwards.
  6. Let the child take a short bathroom or snack break.
  7. Study for any upcoming tests or quizzes. Reward good performance with stickers.
  8. Review general math or grammar skills with any left over time.
  9. Let the child independently pack up and clean his or her study area.

As a final note, it is important to recognize that younger kids tend to be fall into a large spectrum of intellectual development. The strategies chosen by the tutor should be modified as suitable to the individual student. If a child is noticeably ahead of his or her class and appears bored with assignments, consider teaching the child more advanced concepts to keep him or her engaged. Younger children are a unique group to work with and these challenges and strategies are by no means exhaustive. In addition to the list compiled here, the tutor should communicate clearly with the parents and the individual student to develop a clear, case-by-case model to best help the younger child.


About the Authors

Connie Wang and Teresa Monkkonen each have significant first hand experience working with young children. They have both tutored numerous elementary, middle, and high students over a multi-year span with General Academic. Connie is currently a junior at Rice University majoring in Cognitive Science and Cell Biology. Teresa is finishing her PhD in Molecular and Cellular Biology at Baylor College of Medicine and holds degrees in Biochemistry and Cell Biology (Rice ’07).

Photo by: Jayel Aheram

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