Roger Wilkerson, founder of Homework Sanity Inc., calls himself "the only tutor that fires parents" and considers his work with students to be a success when they no longer need his services. Wilkerson, who is based in Los Angeles, tutors students of all ages, nationally and internationally, in-person and now via Skype, and frequently works with students diagnosed with ADD/ADHD.
In his new book, "Homework Sanity: Insights for Parents From a Private Tutor" (Fast Pencil, $22.95; also available as an e-book), he writes about ways to eliminate the battle between parents and children that is frequently provoked by the dreaded end-of-day question: "Have you finished your homework?" He advocates instead for a parent-child partnership regarding homework, study environment and interaction with a child's teacher.
Q In the book, you stress the value of kids and parents forming a partnership when it comes to tackling homework. Why is this important? What if temperament issues get in the way?
A Children want one-on-one time with a parent, and the partnership aspect is really about just sitting down and monitoring what they are working on. Is the assignment something they already know how to do? Is it busy work? And if they don't know how to do it, talk to them about taking it back to the teacher the next day. Write a note on the homework saying the child doesn't know how to do the assignment and could use more direction. If they do know it, ask the teacher why your child needs the homework.
If the parent and child are out of sync about homework, it's because the parent is taking the parental tone, using black and white thinking, rather than working as a partner. The worst mistake parents can make is doing the work for the child. You want to help your child to be a thinker and a problem solver. As a parent, you want to judge less and encourage more.
Q What are some suggestions for setting up a good learning environment?
A If the child is younger than sixth grade, home really is their primary learning environment, but when I work with students older than that, I will typically meet them at a coffee shop for a tutoring session, so that's something parents can do. It's close to the same amount of distraction they will have in the classroom, and being able to work with distractions is important. They can get up and move around. There's music playing -- I suggest they use music at home, too.
When they really want to learn, they will work beyond the distractions.
Q Why do you think homework can be such a challenge for kids?
A The number one problem I think kids have with homework is slowing it down. No matter what age they are, 20 minutes at a time on one subject, followed by a break, is the best way to approach it.
Q Although many teachers suggest that parents should get in touch via e-mail if they have concerns about their child, you are opposed to this method of communication. Why?
A Ninety percent or more of communication is a combination of body language and tone of voice. With e-mail, those factors are taken out so everything is a matter of interpretation. When you send an e-mail, you can end up with more problems than solutions. If you have questions about your child, pick up the phone and talk to the teacher. If you and the teacher decide to meet, include the child. The idea of talking behind kids' backs is a problem.
Q When should parents consider hiring a tutor?
A There are two different reasons a child would need tutoring. The first happens when a child is behind a grade level and needs to be brought up to speed through remediation. In this case, I talk to parents and help them develop a plan with the child's teacher to take them out of school one half-day per week for tutoring. This way, they don't have to go to school all day and come home to more school. I have found that great teachers are receptive to this because they want to see the child come up to grade level as quickly as possible, which can usually happen in about 90 days using this method.
The other type of child that benefits from tutoring is a straight A student. Parents might not be worried about kids who are doing well, but in fact, going to school has become too simple a task for them. The child needs to learn how to take that intellect into the real world and discover other types of learning opportunities.
Julie Pfitzinger is a West St. Paul freelance writer.