Frustrated Parent Tutor

Nope.  Something about the student-parent relationship just doesn’t work when it comes to whether parents should tutor math.  We’ve had hundreds of phone calls from frustrated parents that have tried tutoring their own kids in math with results ranging from frustration to crying and shouting.  Do you think that sounds like a conducive environment for learning? 


Why can’t I tutor my own child?


There are a lot of reasons why parents should not tutor math. The most common I will list here:


  1.  Your child is trying to impress you and live up to your expectations.  They want you to think they are smart.  When the problems get challenging your student will feel like you are watching and judging them while trying to figure out the problem.  This creates stress, and when you are stressed you simply cannot learn anything.  
  2. You know each other better than anyone, this is great for parenting but bad for tutoring mathematics.  Every dynamic of your relationship will come out, be it rebelling on the part of your teenager or the demand for hard work from the parent.  Once again the result is stress which basically turns off the brain.
  3. As a parent you may be great at math.  Maybe you are an engineer.  Doesn’t matter, there is no correlation whatsoever between being good at math and being good at teaching math.  Many parents don’t have an understanding of what topics need to be taught in what order.  You are probably making the situation worse.
  4. Many parents are easily frustrated when trying to tutor math.  If your child senses your frustration they will become uncomfortable and shut down.  Once again, no learning will occur.


I’ll never forget early in my career when a Ph.D. in physics hired us to tutor his son in physics.  At the time I couldn’t understand it, I asked him “why don’t you do it yourself?”  He responded in frustration “I tried it doesn’t work!”  As you can see the dynamics of the parent/student relationship just don’t work for effective mathematics and physics tutoring.


What is it about the student-tutor relationship that does work?


Ok so now you have some insight into why tutoring your child in math has gone so terribly wrong.  Now let’s take a look at why a professional math tutor can bypass all of these pitfalls.  The most important thing to understand is that the student must be in a relaxed and safe state of mind in order to learn anything.  As soon as you activate the math students defense mechanism there is no chance of learning anything, period.  In order to better understand this image approaching a stranger on the street and aggressively shouting at them “what’s your address!!!!”  You can imagine that the unsuspecting stranger would be jolted and have difficulty recalling something as simple as their own address!  The reason for this is the fight or flight response has been activated.  The brain is solely focused on survival, not memory recall.  Believe it or not when a student is trying to learn math and they are stressed out they are in a fight or flight mindset.   For example if a math  teacher calls the student in front of the class and asks a challenging question the student will be much more concerned about what their peers think than about learning anything.  They will go to fight or flight survival mode and the brain will not work for learning, just surviving.  The same thing happens when you as a parent try tutoring your child and get frustrated with them.  


This leads us to understanding the beauty of the student-tutor relationship.  As you can see the most important thing in that relationship is making sure the student is totally at ease and not worried about what you think of them.  Many students are afraid of feeling dumb, so it’s the tutors primary job to put them at ease.


How do math tutors put their students at ease?


  1. The first few minutes of every tutoring session is spent talking to the student and really getting to know them as a person. We want to know what your passions are, what your favorite classes are etc. It’s so important to create a personal connection. This is the first step at creating a real relationship.
  2. We then show how mathematics relates to the students passions.  We are not trying to convince you to become a mathematician, we are trying to convince you that a knowledge of mathematics will make you better at your passion. If you’re a musician we can talk about frequency and the harmonic series.  If you’re an artist we can talk about the golden ratio and how it was used in renaissance art. If you’re an athlete we can talk about statistics and sports betting.
  3. We react very calmly to the students mistakes and let them know it’s not a big deal. Everyone makes mistakes, especially in math.  It’s SO important that your student feels comfortable making mistakes and that they won’t be judged as “dumb” for making those mistakes.
  4. We never get frustrated with the student. If a student is working on a math problem and you become frustrated, the student can absolutely feel that frustration. It will make them feel dumb and they will shut down.  No more learning on that day.
  5. Praise is a powerful motivator. When a student does something right we give lots of praise. This will build confidence and continue to put the student at ease.  Once the student has that “ah ha” moment we give them lots of praise which really starts to change the math story for the better.  


As you can see there is a lot more that goes into the process to tutor math than just doing math. It’s a complicated process that engages students deepest fears and insecurities.  This is why most parent attempts to tutor their kids goes horribly wrong.  There are too many expectations and frustrations tied up in your unique relationship that will get in the way of great mathematics tutoring. By engaging a math tutor you get a clean slate to develop a new kind of relationship free of past experiences and expectations.