Supporting pupils outside of school: in praise of tutoring for the neurodiverse child (and their typically developing friends)

The practice of ‘tutoring’ is viewed with scepticism in certain circles, especially by teachers in schools. I think this is a shame. 1:1 tuition can offer both neurodiverse and typically developing learners the opportunity to develop deeper awareness of how they learn, what constitutes individual differences, why it may feel like a disability in certain contexts and what strategies are required for self-support. As learning differences manifest differently across different subjects, understanding who I am as a learner enables me to see how my unique profile is likely to react with curricular demands, and what response I can employ to meet these demands.

This requires Metacognition.

When I sit down with a pupil for the first time, I always begin by asking the same question: how can I help? Without fail, the child will tell me what they find problematic. Pupils as young as Year 2 can self assess with some measure of accuracy: ‘I can’t remember spellings’ or ‘I can’t remember times tables.’ Older pupils may be more astute: ‘I can do it at home but not under timed conditions.’ ‘I know it but I can’t get it down on paper.’ We call this thinking-about-our-thinking metacognition, and it is a skill that improves with age and practice. What constitutes metacognition?

• Awareness of knowledge—understanding what one knows, what one does not know, and what one wants to know. It is just as unhelpful to not know as to think you know but don’t.

• Awareness of thinking—understanding cognitive tasks and the nature of what is required to complete them. What does this task require? What am I actually being asked to do when I approach this French grammar?

• Awareness of thinking strategies—understanding approaches to learning. What can I do to make the irregular verbs/high frequency words/physics formulas stick? How do I go about the steps or micro-steps of writing this essay?

In order to improve performance in a given subject area, we must start with considered assessment. We must consider not just measures of attainment (eg. can do 5 times tables, can’t do sevens or eights) but what underlying cognitive processes need support in order to facilitate fluency. This question is critical, because any strategy to improve performance must be based on supporting the exact nature of the difficulty. Is the issue organisational? Memory? What kinds of memory? Is information going in and then going missing? Is it going in at all? The problem is not spelling per se (or maths or science.) The problem is with a problematic element of learning made apparent in attempting to spell accurately.

Personalised learning is what successful 1:1 instruction is all about. It is what makes tutoring a success. Without the hullaballoo in the classroom and competing demands on attention, a teacher can assess a pupil with greater precision and analyse how the pupil learns. What happens next is beyond the scope of classroom instruction: not because classroom teachers lack the skill (most don’t) but classroom teachers lack the time.

When I watch a pupil begin a task, I watch what they have in their tool bag. I see what they believe the task entails. I observe the efficacy of their strategy, the strength they rely on, the limitations of that strength and the weakness they aim to support. All these observations can be made without distraction, with concentrated attention on both our parts and with some modicum of ease outside of the curricular demands of a school-based lesson.

Next, I explain what I have learned to the pupil. Without fail, every child is attentive – because they are looking for solutions and it feels good to be seen. Then we begin again with what we have learned through assessment. We ask ourselves: What skills and steps do we need to accomplish this task? What do we need to know? How do we get started? Get organised? Structure the work? How much time do we need? How do we know when it is finished? Do we need practice time later? We learn what questions we ask to solve a given problem and we match those to targeted, practical strategies to improve performance.

Exploring learning through a metacognitive lens fosters independence. Understanding how one's brain works is empowering. It helps to demystify what is tricky in the classroom and with homework. It supports the sense that having a learning difference can be managed and this self-efficacy builds on itself. It helps a pupil help a teacher by guiding them in differentiating curriculum delivery and resource support.

Can this support take place in schools? Absolutely. Many schools have learning support departments staffed with able, educated learning specialists. But many do not. Budgets are tight. Criteria for inclusion in support programmes may miss those who are doing well but could do better. Gifted and talented programmes are thin on the ground particularly for pupils in secondary - and many pupils with learning differences are both challenged and gifted.

Neurodiverse pupils may have had more contact with 1:1 support throughout their education, but their typically developing friends can benefit from this approach as well. It may be an educational luxury rather than a necessity, but it is not intrinsically questionable. Nor is outside support a rebuke to classroom instruction or classroom teachers – truly the information culled in assessment could found effective classroom differentiation. If we work together.

Questions about learning, assessment, neurodiversity or differentiation? Get in touch.

Interested in research on metacognition and educational performance? I’ve put some suggestions for further reading below.

Bransford, John D., Brown Ann L., and Cocking Rodney R. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Brown, A. L., Bransford, J. D., Ferrara, R. A., & Campione, J. C. (1983). Learning, remembering, and understanding. In J. H. Flavell & E. M. Markman (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology,Vol. 3 Cognitive development (4th ed.) (pp. 78-166). New York: Wiley.

Flavell, J. H. (1979) Metacognition and cognitive monitoring: A new area of cognitive-development inquiry. American Psychologist, 34, 906-911

Pintrich, Paul R. (2002). The Role of metacognitive knowledge in learning, teaching, and assessing. Theory into Practice, 41(4). 219-225.