Describing what we do can be a challenge. We work with students of many different abilities and needs, in short term and long term programs, targeting individual goals in a customized fashion. We think one way for you to understand the process is through a variety of case studies, profiles of students we think represent a good cross-section of the many students we work with everyday. All of the case studies reflect actual student history; we have changed only the name to preserve student privacy.
As you read through the case studies, we encourage you to find you or your child in these stories. We will be rather surprised if you cannot identify with one or more of the profiles, as their struggles mirror the battles so many other students face, whether in grade school, high school, college or graduate school.
Tom attended a large public high school. When he began working with us, he ranked very high in his class and had become accustomed to success. For the most part, academic achievement came easily to Tom, much to the envy of his peers. Tom very much wanted to attend an elite university, yet we could see his immense potential needed polish and direction. Tom knew he needed help because his PSAT scores as a sophomore failed to meet his high expectations. Normally a “math guy,” Tom realized he would need his verbal skills to match his math talents if he wanted to be competitive in his bid for a ticket to the Ivy League. Tom worked with us over the stretch of fifteen months; in that time, he managed to pull his verbal scores from 560 to 710, and his math from 720 to 800. He became a National Merit Scholar and got into his dream school. Tom learned an important lesson in life – that sometimes the greatest of our achievements come with difficulty, and that no matter how gifted we are, we all face challenges that require us to put our ego in check and raise our work ethic to reach a lofty goal.
Kevin came to us in his senior year. A standout athlete at a parochial school, and a generally good student, he found himself struggling with the ACT. His college choice, which promised him a full athletic scholarship, required he to reach certain minimums on the ACT to comply with NCAA regulations. We had a very short window to try and raise his ACT scores those few precious points. While Kevin had a marked weakness in math, we saw that area as one of great potential growth. We analyzed his testing difficulties and devised a strategy to attack certain sections where he had the greatest chance to raise his score in the shortest period of time. We focused on the grammar foundations of English, the math fundamentals he forgot, and the keys to maneuvering through the science reasoning. Kevin brought the same dedication to his test prep that he showed on the field, even though he lacked the confidence he had as an athlete. Kevin would later admit he was very worried about losing his chance to play in college. But as we continued our preparation, he realized he could get more and more questions right and remember more of the concepts covered on the test. By the time he sat again for the ACT, Kevin felt a bit anxious but also believed if he followed our attack plan he could bring home the winning score. Kevin exceeded his goal, received his scholarship and proved to be a star college athlete. As with many sports, the greatest step forward usually comes off the field, a lesson Kevin never forgets to this day.
Kathleen had an enormous sense of pride and questioned the need to seek help with testing. Yes, she had a diagnosed learning disability and received some accommodations at her parochial school, like extended time on tests. But she did not like to take the extra time unless absolutely necessary. She steadfastly wanted to prove she could succeed on the same playing field as her peers. She had a very solid A- grade point average but always struggled with standardized tests. Because she wanted to attend a highly competitive college and have real choices, she began working with us in her junior year. Kathleen learned how the SAT and ACT are designed and we analyzed where her processing issues caused her problems and devise strategies to eliminate those problems. Kathleen found success gradually until we hit her “tipping point” where confidence and ability fell into sync and Kathleen scored 1450 on the SAT and cracked 30 on the ACT! Kathleen became more comfortable with coaching and limited accommodations and left with a lifetime boost in self-esteem. Oh, yes – she was accepted to her dream college!
Paul loved math and computers, but as a junior in high school, he lacked confidence in his ability to be a “complete” student and to compete with the brightest in his class at his large public high school. He hoped that working on the SAT and ACT would give him the confidence that he did belong with the “brains” in his peer group. A kind, gentle and diligent young man, Paul worked as diligently at preparation as any student, if not harder. He regularly asked questions and charted his progress. He loved having the ability to get personal feedback and detailed explanations about the subject matter, not just simple test strategies or tricks. Though quiet, Paul commanded a lot of respect from his peers and they cheered with him when he scored a 33 on his ACT and cracked 1400 on his SAT. Because of his high scores, Paul earned both a National Merit Scholarship and an additional merit scholarship to the college of his choice. We would not be surprised to find Paul on the cutting edge of computer technology in the years to come, and to this day, his parents continue to credit us with giving him the motivation to find his inner ambition and belief in his capabilities.
Abby absolutely wanted to be a doctor, and made that clear the first day we met. Abby had very high aspirations, but realized she had difficulty retaining information and staying organized, which seemed to hurt her on big tests, both in her public high school classes and also on standardized tests. Also, she suffered from real test anxiety. We explained to Abby that even high performing students like her get nervous over exams, particularly ones on which your college dreams depend. We helped with organization and familiarity with test structures and psychology – the why behind a particular style of question. Abby soon had a real command of the material. She learned to set her own test agenda rather than letting the test impose itself on her, which considerably eased her anxiety and increased her confidence. Abby realized she underperformed on tests because of carelessness produced by anxiety – she rushed to get finished, rather than to get the best score. Over time, Abby became more self-assured and more deliberate, and the results matched her growing domination – she scored a 32 on the ACT and now attends her desired six-year B.S./M.D. program.
Renee seemed very shy and reserved when we first began working, but she had great inner determination. A popular student at her private high school, Renee often seemed to be her own worst enemy, “psyching” herself out on any type of test. Much of our work with Renee focused on internal motivation, visualizing herself as a champion competitor rather than a passive fan. In her own quiet way, Renee began believing in herself and she jumped to commended Merit in her junior year. As she began thinking about colleges, big name, highly competitive schools started to appear on her list and in our discussions, including one in particular, the dream school. We continued pushing harder on the tests, working on strategies to master the hardest questions on the SAT. Renee delivered when it mattered most, cracking 1400 on the SAT and posting a 30 on the ACT. After eighteen months of hard work, Renee had her acceptance to her dream school (and a handsome boyfriend she met in our office!).
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.
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!
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!
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!
Mentoring students often provide both the greatest challenges and the greatest joys. We work with mentoring students over a rather extended period of time, working toward a set of sizeable goals that hopefully open the door to possibilities and opportunities once thought foreclosed. Through forming a long-term relationship predicated on trust and honesty, our mentoring students find an ally, a sounding board, a friend, a reality check, an instructor and a guide. As you read about the diverse scenarios for mentoring, you will find that above all the program has to do with faith – in the self, in the future, and in frayed relationships with family members and friends.
Mitchell came from a difficult home; his parents’ divorce did not settle the situation, but only created more problems. He found himself withdrawing from regular activities and rebelling against authority, particularly school. Mitchell ended up dropping out of high school, later earning a GED while he worked as a laborer. A relative who had her children work with us convinced Mitchell to meet with us and discuss his situation. We saw the great amount of pain in Mitchell’s face, but also underneath the bad boy image and poor work ethic a real ambition to succeed. We talked about career options and did an educational assessment of abilities. After several discussions, we agreed on a plan that would take Mitchell through junior college and give him a chance to develop the skills left hanging years earlier in high school. Learning to read in a critical manner, to write in a more sophisticated fashion, to think analytically – all these challenges took time. But Mitchell had one area we could use for motivation – pride. Mitchell simply did not like the idea of being told he could not do something. He was a competitive athlete who hated losing, and we channeled that sense of pride and passion into the academics. Once he aced a math class, his worst subject, he became a changed, more mature person. He saw he could reach the top of the mountain. He no longer feared climbing. Mitchell began to see career ambitions related to his love of sports and interest in science. Currently, Mitchell is pursuing a graduate program in his career field of physical therapy, on a career path not even he would have imagined in those difficult days in high school.
Michelle wanted very much to be a doctor. Or a lawyer. Or both. She had a great deal of ambition, she loved the luxury of privilege, and she did not shy away from hard work, though she had to be pushed a bit to find that work ethic. Michelle admits to setting her sights higher than her abilities at times, and her desire to attend one of the finest medical schools in the country would be her greatest challenge. She had worked hard enough in college to secure quality grades. We worked on her MCAT testing to be sure she hit the requisite level for the highly selective pool. But in an arena where so many have higher grades and test scores, where acceptance rates are in the low single digits, Michelle needed a coach, a guide – and she was smart enough to seek our help. We worked on developing a marketing plan, with Michelle as the product and admission the goal. Her essays became marathons in thinking, writing, editing, rewriting, revising again until many weeks later the perfect set of essays had been completed. She also had an interest in the legal issues impacting medicine, so we explored a joint MD/JD program. We worked very hard on readying for the LSAT, a feat more difficult than the MCAT for Michelle. But we hit our mark and we set out on the essays again. After a tense waiting period, Michelle got that magic acceptance letter, and she is currently in an MD/JD program in the Ivy League, her dream fulfilled through hard work and the wisdom to know when to seek outside help.
Steven had always had a hard road in school, in large part a result of some significant learning problems. Like many students with these diagnoses, Steven wanted to avoid the label of “different” and “accommodations” – even if those tracks would get him the necessary help to level the playing field. Consequently, Steven did not have the opportunities available to him for college he otherwise might have if he had less sensitivity about his learning difficulties. When we met Steven, he was in his junior year of college and his parents hoped he could pursue a masters program in a business or management related field. We talked about the realities – his GPA, the necessary score he would need on the GMAT, the requirements of graduate schools of various levels of selectivity. Steven wanted a better business school, but he shied away from any accommodations that would help us level that testing playing field. He chose instead to work very hard over several months to prepare for the different skill sections on the test. We simulated computer-adaptive testing and covered a great deal of new concepts in math and logical reasoning. Steven lacked a strong sense of self or direction when we met; by the time we finished, he proved to himself he could meet a serious life goal. His GMAT score was satisfactory but underrepresented his ability because of his learning issues and the opting out of accommodations. Steven saw this and decided to retake the test with extra time, and raised his score to reflect his ability. Making this leap may have been the biggest feat of all, as it helped him move away from any feelings of shame or resentment about his disability and to see he simply processed information differently, but with a few adjustments he could do what his peers could do, if not better. We researched many different graduate programs, completed applications, tailored essays to market his unique life story, and ultimately received acceptances to several programs of great fit. Steven went on to graduate school with a new and confident sense of self, on a path to career success. Best of all, Steven took a hard look in the mirror and began embracing the man he saw as the man he could actually become. He learned that reality wins over denial or self-delusion, and that perseverance and a good plan make great personal and business sense.
We usually work with students for two or three years, but six year journeys are not uncommon. Cheri met with us when she was in sixth grade, new to St. Louis and struggling somewhat in school. Cheri had very high IQ scores and some minor processing issues. A precocious child, Cheri seemed hampered not by her ability but her complete lack of confidence. Labeled as very bright puts a great deal of expectations on a child, particularly where, as here, the label exaggerates the intellect. Cheri was above average, but she would need to work very hard in high school to make “A” grades. Cheri also seemed to enjoy talking over studying and had no organizational system or plan. We helped Cheri navigate between the competing beliefs on her skill levels by focusing less on expectations and more on daily methodology – how to structure homework time, how to focus on the task, how to analyze information in a way that would “stick” in her brain. As Cheri moved through high school, she made solid improvements in some areas, but lagged in others, the result not of lack of ability but lack of work ethic and follow through in the plan. Like the old adage, “you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink,” we can pave the way to progress in gilded stones, but the student still has to walk the walk. Cheri often proved so all-over-the-map in terms of focus and commitment that she would take three steps forward, two steps back. Cheri did well, but far underperformed in terms of mutual expectations, and Cheri will be the first to admit it happened because she chose not to stay on track and pursued other interests. But the Cheri we saw as she went off to college (a very competitive one in fact) was a more mature and self-aware young woman more comfortable in her own skin. She ended up transferring to a different college, another smart choice in her own personal development. Growing into our abilities amidst a flurry of expectations can prove quite challenging, but if we find our path in the process, the road ahead becomes clear so that we find that path when we are in fact ready. Precocious children can be late bloomers – Cheri is a perfect example of that reality, now in full bloom and grateful for the journey.