Three of the students that I tutor, I get to tutor at the same location because they’re siblings – a 5th grader, a 1st grader, and a kindergartener. I am so so so (I cannot stress enough how much so) fortunate that the kindergartener has two older sisters who are not only very willing to work with me but also work really hard to help one another, particularly the oldest 10-year-old sister of the family, who I can sometimes see acting as a sort of a second mother to the family.
Today is Tuesday and every Tuesdays and Thursdays up to this point I have tutored the kindergartener Ishmael. It’s been an incredible challenge because he really puts up a resistance to being tutored. The first time I met him, which was also the very first time I met the whole family, Ishmael saw me dressed in a suit and tie, and thought I was a doctor. He cried very loudly for close to half an hour and demanded that his mom hold him as he sat next to me. The mother had things to do of course so it took a lot of promises and rewards to get him be more motivated to work with me. In that first tutoring session, what turned out to be most effective was a piece of gum.
Up to this point, I have tutored Ishmael seven times, each time being two hours long. Except for today, Ishmael cried in all of the six previous sessions. The tutoring session I had last Thursday was the worst. He cried for what must have been for forty minutes. His mom and I tried everything to get him to agree to work with me. His mom used a mix of fear tactics and promises of rewards. Fear tactics included, calling his father who was currently at work and saying she’ll take away his DSi forever. He would respond vehemently to the threats (most of which I knew to be rather empty threats) but when asked, “va a trabajar?” he shook his head and boldly replied, “No,” each time.
I was taken aback because in the session before that one, Ishmael had been so cooperative with me. Well, he still was putting up a resistance in various ways by trying to make me digress from a learning topic or talking a lot about unrelated subjects, but he had only cried for about five minutes that time. It still took an immense amount of energy because I literally had to run around the room with Phonics Alphabet flashcards and invent some creative ways to learn math using colored markers, but I had expected Ishmael to be more willing after we had established such a great learning session. Now I know to never ever take willingness and cooperation for granted when teaching such an unwilling kindergartener.
Facing such fierce unwillingness, I was at a loss for words, until suddenly, I thought back to the system my 3rd grade teacher utilized to motivate students to do well. I pictured that classroom room wall, plastered with a poster of all the students’ names, with a lot of stickers put next to the names of those students who behaved well and excelled in school work, and I realized that many educators have such a reward & disincentives in place. I had to come up with something quick or else, this two-hour session with Ishmael was going to be totally unproductive and if that turned out to be the case, then Ishmael would take from this experience that if he resisted enough, he’d be able to get out of these sessions without cooperating with me, without learning anything from me. I couldn’t reschedule either for that exact same reason.
This was a situation I could not lose. If I lost, it’d spoil Ishmael even more. I remember one time when I was saying to him that junk food is not good for your health, he asked me, “So If I eat junk food all day and feel sick, does that mean you won’t come to tutor me?” He asked that question so casually but I knew exactly what he was getting at. It was a dangerous question because if I answered it incorrectly, he may actually eat junk food all day just to get sick, just to avoid me tutoring him. The truth was that I probably wouldn’t be able to come if he was sick, and I couldn’t lie because I know how much the truth means to kids his age. So I responded, “Well, I’ll still try to come to make sure you’re feeling okay. And maybe if you’re too sick, I won’t be able to tutor you. But really, you will not like being sick. How was it that last time you were sick?”
He ended up dodging my response question by saying he had to go to the bathroom, illustrating to me just how ingenious Ishmael was, and making me realize more and more, a lot was at stake with what was said between us. Somehow, I needed Ishmael’s cooperation and I needed a system for it.
I came up with a pretty crude system, and the last-minute nature of it felt apparent as I kept adding more and more rules about it as I explained it to him. As it stands currently, if he cooperates with me and does educational work with me, he gets a smiling apple sticker on this note page. 15 stickers and he is able to get a $5 gift from me. But also, he can also choose to not receive the gift and continue earning 15 more stickers to get a $10 gift. The same option applies further on, until the ultimate $30 gift. I hinted that the ultimate gift may actually be a DS game and his eyes lit up immediately.
(Of course, I’d never buy him a DS game, but he doesn’t need to know that. It’s my firm belief that students his age should not be playing video games, especially on consoles that you can take with you anywhere. I learned today that his mom also agrees with me on this, but fact of the matter is, one day, his grandma, without consulting with Ishmael’s parents, bought him a DSi.)
Rewards are great and all, but I also needed something to discourage Ishmael from not being cooperative. Most importantly, they couldn’t feel like empty threats. Initially there really wasn’t much disincentive I could think of. I couldn’t threaten ground him or put him in a corner and give him a “time-out.” I didn’t have that kind of authority and even if I did, I really didn’t like that approach. I also felt I shouldn’t rely on the discipline of his parents to have him work with me. Then what little authority or respect I had would be even more diminished.
I thought for a while and then I randomly blurted out, “And here’s another thing. If you keep refusing to work with me, that’s only hurting you. And here, in 3 seconds, if you don’t agree to color this here, I will give you a frownie face.” I counted 3 seconds, he did nothing, and I drew a frownie face. He was totally apathetic to that frownie face. I had to give the frownie faces some kind of meaning and that’s when I came up with something, saying, “If you get 20 frownie faces, you’re going to spend five more minutes of tutoring with me.” To make sure he understood how long five minutes was, I got out my iPhone, got on the Stopwatch app. I sat silently waiting as the numbers rolled. As expected, he started talking and asking me questions at around the 2-minute mark.
“Nope, we’re still only two minutes in,” I told him. “See how long five minutes can be?”
Now the threat was real; now the frownie faces had meaning. He got a lot of frownie faces that day, but it sort of worked because today, he actually didn’t cry all that much. He put up a different sort of resistance than just outright refusing to work with me. He did engage with me, but now, he’s fighting a different sort of battle. He’s fighting to distract me from the learning material. I ask him what 2 + 3 means, and his response is picking up my marker and drawing on my white board, saying that he’s making a game.
It’s challenging but I think it’s progress. I’m gonna need to come up with yet another creative approach to resolve this kind of resistance, but I don’t think I actually lost to Ishmael. I didn’t reschedule and I didn’t end up making him spoiled. It’s gonna be hard, but by the end of this month, I am going to try everything I can to have him be able to understand simple addition, and also how letters can be used to form words by focusing on the Phonics sounds of the Alphabet letters. And as said before, the most helpful thing about this situation is that Ishmael’s oldest sister is acting as my right-hand assistant, tutoring him and guiding him, when I’m not there to tutor him.