Tutoring Case Studies

Schools measure academic performance constantly and in varying ways, from homework assignments to quiz and test grades to the big class grade at the end of the term. And while most teachers surely refrain from comparing students to one another, students make those comparisons all the time. And students can be mean in their candor. For kids in elementary school worried about tracking low, grade anxiety can become performance anxiety. Labeling, whether by the individual student or peers or parents, has serious consequences for self-esteem and motivation to improve. The students we work with in tutoring situations all share this apprehension about “making the grade,” whether they admit openly or only subconsciously. As you read about some of these students, you will see how our tutoring program accomplishes far more than better grades.

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The No-Longer-Angry Young Man


Gabe hardly could make eye contact in our first meeting. He resented his parents committing him to getting tutoring. He made it seem like he had everything under control and that he had no idea why others thought he needed help. But he soon acknowledged what we already knew – Gabe wanted to be like all the other “normal” guys at his parochial high school, but with academics he simply did not know how to make it “happen” like they seemed to do. A handsome and athletic young man, Gabe could not let go of the anger. He knew he had a learning disability related to processing problems, but disliked having special treatment. Behind the anger, behind the resentment, Gabe had a great deal of fear. He worried whether he could learn the right way so that he could go to a regular college and be the man he envisioned. We started work in his worst subject, math. Gabe had developed a variety of tricks to compensate for his problems with numbers. We started over with the basics – simple arithmetic, fractions, one-step word problems – reprogramming what he learned so he could understand algebra and beyond, all of which required a fluency with number concepts he could not grasp. Using a lot of sports metaphors and analogies, we got ourselves in shape. In the span of about six months, Gabe became grade level proficient in math, no small feat for a high school freshman with years of math phobias. Using the same battery of sports metaphors and analogies, we looked at verbal skills as word games and together decided how to master each one. Gabe started to smile more and literally tuned out anyone else and focused in only on his work, even if it took him twice as long as those in his class. He stayed true to task and true to himself, and his grades dramatically improved. A freshman report card filled with D’s and C’s turned into a sophomore card of A’s and B’s and one C. By junior year, he made the honor roll. By the ACT, he managed to do well enough to get into a very respected competitive college. The angry young boy became a happy and proud young man.

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No Longer Afraid, No Longer in the Shadows


Madeline wanted to get better grades in school and asked her parents to get her help. An eighth grader at a large public school, she struggled mightily with math and regularly underperformed on standardized tests, even though she tested to a superior IQ. In school, Madeline had few friends and kept to herself. She had trouble relating to the other kids; she felt so different, even though in many ways she was just like her peers. Madeline spent a lot of time in the shadows in her school because she did not believe in herself inside; she worried constantly what others must think of her. She figured if she could pull her grades up, she would fit in better with a certain group of smarter kids in school. Madeline still counted on her fingers when not strapped to a calculator; we went back to the beginning and developed comfortable number fluency and eliminated her dyslexic tendencies. Through modeling, she learned to solve equations and word problems. She discovered that in little chunks presented in her learning style, no subject seemed out of reach. By freshman year of high school, Madeline found some self-confidence; she took some honors classes, saw her strength in writing flower and she even joined some clubs and the newspaper staff. Throughout high school, Madeline continued to mature academically; we went from literal comprehension to sophisticated literary analysis. Science became a favorite and a strength. Suddenly, when we began looking at colleges, Madeline could envision herself at schools she would not even have dreamed of when we first started. With a great deal of effort, Madeline had an SAT score above 1350 and ultimately acceptance to several top-50 schools. Madeline traveled abroad for the summer and had a steady boyfriend. Madeline stayed true to her values and her core belief in her abilities, and in the end found far more than good grades or a great college – she found herself. Sometimes students who work with us over an extended period of time learn more about themselves through our relationship than in therapy. Madeline certainly falls into that category. Indeed, because of what she learned, she found the courage to get help for some specific problems. Madeline went from being afraid to open the door of possibility to joyfully seeking new doors to open. Bravo Madeline!

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Am I Really That Smart?


Many of our students ask themselves this question, and the lack of confidence can be a real barrier to finding success. On one level, Suzanne would not seem a victim of insecurity. She had performed well in grade school, lived in different countries and attended one of the best private schools in town. If she had one academic flaw, it would be testing. She underperformed regularly on the ERB and worried she would face a similar fate with AP exams, big school finals, and the college boards. While we started helping Suzanne with testing, we increasingly found ourselves working on helping her to the next level in school. Suzanne worked very hard, but procrastinated. She lacked solid organizational skills and generally did not trust her answers to assignments or tests. She practiced with us on testing to develop more confidence in her instincts and skills, and to learn how to stop second-guessing herself. We developed a study plan for her week that eliminated last-minute learning as an option. Classes she disliked became classes she loved; instead of focusing on grades, she started focusing on learning. Afraid of writing, she learned to express her thoughts in well-developed arguments. Over two years, Suzanne discovered she was just as smart as the best in her class and had the college acceptance letters to prove it! Suzanne learned the best lesson we can teach – that education is about self-discovery and self-reliance, meeting and exceeding personal goals rather than the expectations of others. To thine own self be true!

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The Little Train That Could


Study after study establishes how girls get well ahead of the curve on average compared to boys in elementary school, and even later, with regard to academic achievement. If one spends enough time around girls and boys of that age group, one quickly sees how this can be the case. Boys want to play; they usually have little interest in sitting down and learning. But at some point they must, and most fall into line. But some have more difficulty making that transition. Greg loved to play sports, video games, even shop – but he avoided school like the plague. It seems part of the avoidance stemmed from real learning issues, mainly processing. Small for his age, Greg already lacked a certain self-confidence, and his school problems made matters worse. His older siblings attended top private schools, and Greg’s parents wondered if he could even be okay in public school. Though usually aloof, Greg became depressed when faced with attending a public school and leaving his friends behind. We attacked the learning problems right away, starting with the basics and building a solid foundation. Greg had developed some very bad learning habits, and it took some time to lose those habits and replace them with new techniques. Because of his age and in part his personality, he resisted at times. We would have three steps forward, two steps back at times. But we seemed to cross a big threshold during an intensive summer where he proved he could compete with other private school kids in summer school. He also made a big sports club team. Confidence started to grow. We spent many sessions examining private high school fits, preparing for the ISEE and the need for reasonable expectations. Greg made it to the right school for him – which happened to also be the one with his friends – in part because we sent the school a detailed report of Greg’s experiences with us. The school took a chance on Greg, knowing he would have academic support. And Greg did not let anyone down. And he even had his big growth spurt too!


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