I'm a private math tutor, and I have an adult student right now (age 28), who is enrolled in algebra II in a community college. He is both very bright and has a kind of inferiority complex about academics because his siblings were much more successful than him in school and employment. This is his third attempt to pass algebra II.
He seems to struggle with math not because he can't do it, but for two reasons: because that's where he feels most inferior to his siblings, and because he has a hard time concentrating (perhaps has ADD).
The trouble is that when math gets hard for him, or when he's disappointed by a test result, he spends the sessions with me talking about anything but math, changing the topic when I try to bring it back to math. Or if I do manage to get in a couple minutes on math, he starts asking questions on peripheral topics that superficially seem like they are about math, but I think are really another way of avoiding the task at hand.
I've tried different ways of bringing him back to math, starting with using my body language (I'll, say, start writing with my pencil), then verbally suggesting we come back to math, then gently pointing out the pattern so he sees that he has to make a choice, etc.
One thing I don't do is criticize him. He's so vulnerable to shame, and so anxious (his voice trembles sometimes when we do math), that I have a feeling if I'm strict or demanding with him, that will be the end of all tutoring. He'll fire me or become even more intractable.
I've also tried supporting him by pointing out his strengths, and I do it honestly and with integrity : I genuinely see strengths in him and I can point to specific examples, so he knows I'm not flattering him.
As of now, he spends about 50% of our lessons avoiding math entirely like this. There are always other periods in which he learns, and the situation is not completely stuck.
I would like suggestions for how to handle this. Everything from how to more directly suggest or control our session activities, to how to support him in feeling less anxious and inferior so that he would more spontaneously choose himself to put in the effort.