10 Tips for Tutoring Your Younger Siblings

By Emma Anderson

In the midst of COVID-19, tens of millions of students are getting their longtime wish fulfilled: they don’t have to go to school anymore. However, for many, that has not ended up being as joyous an occasion as they had once dreamed. As students, and educators, are attempting to adjust to remote schooling, learning via Zoom meetings and Google Classroom is proving to be challenging. 

Given the inequities in the U.S. education system, those challenges are especially difficult for marginalized student populations. While some students have access to private tutors online, parents who have degrees and are able to answer their questions, food for breakfast and lunch, and technology with a steady Wifi connection, to others those are unimaginable luxuries. Right now, those students are attempting schoolwork largely on their own with limited resources and growling stomachs

On top of those challenges young people are facing as students, they also are bearing the weight of responsibilities and stress that come in their role as family members. Many college, high school, and even middle school-aged students are being expected to care for their young siblings, preparing meals and helping them with school, while their parents have to work. Here are some tips for all those big siblings out there taking on the role of tutor for a younger sibling. 

1. Start with mindfulness

Right now, it is easy to become overwhelmed by all the change and stress that has come with COVID-19. Adults are feeling it, and kids are feeling it too. So, it is important to start your day on a positive and calm note with mindfulness. Due to all the benefits research has found, many schools have started to implement mindfulness practices into the classroom, so your sibling might even be familiar with it already! Inner Explorer is a commonly used resource in schools and is now offering free, short mindfulness audio recordings that are available at all different age levels. Additionally, UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center offers a free UCLA Mindful app that has audio meditations in both English and Spanish. 

2. Create a designated workspace

In the minds of many kids, work happens at school, and rest and play happens at home. You may find that it’s hard for your sibling to focus at the kitchen table with people cooking around them or in their room with all their toys. Depending on the set-up of your home, it could be difficult to create a designated workspace, but try to be creative! Whether you build a fort with a couple of chairs and a sheet or use an adjustable ironing board as a desk, work together with your sibling to make a spot where they can focus and get work done. 

3. Form structure and routine

While students no longer have the structure embedded in a school day, it is important to form a new daily routine. Research shows that schedules help children “feel secure and comfortable” and lessens the amount of behavior problems, like tantrums. By creating a routine, your sibling will know what is expected of them, and, therefore, they will be more likely to meet those expectations (making your life a lot easier too!). You can do this by making a list of items to be checked off, regularly completing things in a certain order, or setting a time limit on how long to spend on any one thing. Even small things, like always ending the at-home school day with a “final click-through” to check their work, goes a long way— even farther if you say it to the tune of “The Final Countdown.” 

4. Use audiobooks

Many students are being asked to read daily for a specified amount of time, which can be a loved or dreaded time of the day. If you are needing a break or they need an added component to keep them interested, set them up with a pair of headphones, audiobook queued, and their book of choice. Right now, Audible is offering a wide variety of free audiobooks for kids to listen to in quarantine, including recordings in multiple languages. Of course, they can choose to just listen, but maximum benefit comes if they read along with a physical book. While they read, make sure to take some time for yourself! 

5. Tell them what they should do, not what they shouldn’t

Although you’ve probably heard a kid say “Don’t tell me what to do!” many times, and maybe you’ve even said it yourself, it is far better to tell your sibling what to do rather than what not to do. This might seem obvious, but once you notice how often you say “Don’t interrupt,” “Don’t run in the house,” and so forth, you’ll see how easy it is to say everything they shouldn’t be doing, without mentioning what they should be doing. By simply switching to saying “Listen and then speak” and “Use your walking feet inside,” you are setting clearer expectations, making it more likely they’ll follow them, and setting a more positive tone. 

6. Let the experts explain

By now, you might have discovered that math has changed since you were elementary and middle school. If you are at a loss for how to explain how to solve for x or find the area of a trapezoid, have no fear, there are a lot of experts out there to explain that for you. Khan Academy is a great resource used by many schools that explains topics for levels K-12. Of course, YouTube offers endless videos explaining topics from all different angles if you ever need more back-up. 

7. Check for understanding

At some point or another, we’ve all been asked “Does that make sense?” and we’ve nodded and said “Uh-huh,” even though we were totally lost. As you are explaining things to your sibling, you might get that very response. Make sure to check for understanding by asking more questions or giving them another example to figure out. Even though this might expose their lack of understanding and require more time as you explain again, it is worth it! Remember, the goal is that you want to send your sibling into this next school year as prepared as possible. 

8. Know when it is time to take a break

With everything going on right now, everyone needs to take a break from time to time. When you are feeling tension rising, your patience running low, or a tantrum mounting, take a step back, do something else for a bit, and reconvene. You can simply take a minute to get some water, set a timer for 5 minutes of free time, take some time to exercise together, or a quick practice some mindfulness. If your sibling is in early elementary school Go Noodle videos are a great option and if they are older try learning a TikTok dance with them! 

9. A little reward can go a long way

Two words: positive reinforcement. The change and stress that has come with COVID-19 can lead to tantrums and challenging behaviors as your sibling is trying to cope, and adding negative discipline on top of that might only exasperate the situation. Try being proactive to avoid ever getting to that point by using positive reinforcement. This can take the form of giving them a sticker after they finish their Language Arts work, letting them share their new favorite TikTok video with you if they reach a goal, or even just verbally affirming their positive behaviors. A small sticker, 10-second break to watch a video, or quick comment can go a long way! 

10. Teamwork makes the dream work

Most of all, it’s important that you establish a team dynamic in this school at home effort. Unlike your sibling’s teacher, you can’t sign off and go your separate way after a tough day teaching. In order to keep the learning environment positive and unified, try to emphasize that you are learning together. You can do that by admitting when you don’t know the answer, figuring it out together, sharing what you are personally working on, and simply verbalizing that this is a team effort. Right now, we all need to be a team more than ever.

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