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.

  • 1
    Have you tried a sequence of small problems which he can do easily? Increase the difficulty gradually. Confidence can be built and maintained by experiencing a string of successes. Oct 14, 2018 at 7:16
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    This may not be the most helpful thing to say, but it‘s worth reminding yourself that you are a math tutor, not a therapist. At the end of the day, it’s the student’s job to learn, and if he doesn’t — especially if he doesn’t because of psychological issues that go way beyond the expertise and training of a math teacher, and you’ve already tried everything you could think of to address the problem — well, then, you have done all you could. As frustrating as it may be to have to deal with such a situation, at least know that you are not expected to have a magic bullet to solve his problems.
    – Dan Romik
    Oct 14, 2018 at 7:23
  • @DanRomik That is apropos, actually, and helpful. It may be wishful thinking to hope that I could do much. I try with all my students to be supportive and encouraging at the level of an inter-personal relationship, because it makes our time more pleasant and contributes to learning, but this is not therapy, not only because I'm not trained as a therapist, but also because the students are coming for math---i.e. the context doesn't allow for supporting them in non-math ways. Oct 14, 2018 at 8:11
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    Sadly, this may be infeasible. Throughout the U.S., community-college students who fail these type of classes are about 90% likely to never pass them, no matter what supports are given. I suspect this is, in many cases, a significant learning disability. (Large U.S. colleges are now removing algebra as a graduation requirement for this reason.) You may find more questions like this on SE Math Educators, e.g.: here. Oct 14, 2018 at 16:44
  • You might also want to ask this question at matheducators.se, after the answers here are finished.
    – Tommi
    Oct 15, 2018 at 14:22

2 Answers 2


Let me make a suggestion that may or may not target the real reason. I don't have a way to evaluate its relevance.

I've almost never had to give up on a student, but it has happened. The reason wasn't them or me, but just time. I've had students in math who were really terrible at it and didn't really know why. Nothing seemed to work for them.

But in exploring things, I learned that somewhere in their background some teacher (or several) just failed to do their job and let them slide by. In order to help them learn (I think it was) statistics, I would have had to take them back through elementary school math from the beginning. They had never learned to add or multiply properly.

Even worse, no one ever gave them any incentive to learn math, nor any insight into why it might be important. They never had any experience with figuring out how to translate a problem into symbolic form, much less equations.

I had to give up, just because I didn't have the time to teach them ten or more years of things they'd missed.

It is possible, I suppose, that someone has figured out how to short-circuit that process and bring a student up to speed relatively quickly, but at the time, I had no real idea how to do it.

My action suggestion is to give your student a diagnostic test of some sort, even quite informal, to find out if they are just missing so many basics that the new material has no foundation on which to build.

I'll note that in my personal case, I was neglected by one teacher and didn't learn my multiplication tables. I managed to overcome the problem and finally forced myself to learn them - just after I completed my doctorate in mathematics. Now, I can faithfully recite seven times eight = .........

  • Thanks for the suggestions. I did ask him to consider seeing a counselor at his school, or approach the office that handles accomodations for disabilities, but he rejected both suggestions. At least, for now. I have a feeling that he will come to see the wisdom of this in time. If not this year, maybe next year. Oct 15, 2018 at 22:22

You may not like this, and neither will he, but you will have to be robotically single-minded in that the next sentence out of your mouth will concern (and only concern) part (a) of exercise 5.2.

Either this works, or else he passes into a realm where he needs a therapist not a tutor.

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