Once upon a time, tutors were hired only when a child was struggling academically.

But these days, parents are hiring tutors for all kinds of reasons: to teach organization, improve concentration or even just to get ahead academically.

"The interesting thing that's happened is people from all walks of life are beginning to realize how important doing well in school is," says Stephanie Wilson, area director and owner of the Charleston branch of Club Z! In-Home Tutoring Services. "Like most generations, parents want their children to do better than they did."

Parents of bright kids have their children tutored to keep them challenged, said Kate Froseth, director of tutoring programs for Kaplan Tutoring.

"We always had people who have brought their kids to us who are at or above grade level," Froseth says.

"The shift we've seen is in our online programs. A lot of parents bring their kids to the online programs to keep them engaged about learning in a little bit of a different way than they may be getting in the classroom and to keep them excited about learning," she said.

ABCs of studying

Often, the tutoring is not just about learning reading, writing and 'rithmetic. Tutors also help with college preparation and applications and serve as academic advisers and personal mentors.

"We find frequently that organization and study skills are big issues," Wilson says. "Not only are we helping them with subject matter, but we are also finding that we're having to get down to fundamentals. Taking notes and organizing to study for a test are as much an integral part of it anymore. We are tutoring them in life skills."

Mary Beth Dacey, executive director of LifeManagement Center, agrees.

"Certain children will always need the tutoring," she says. "There are definitely kids who are not learning how to read or who have a difficult time with math, but there are a lot of kids who could be more successful if they just had some strategies.

"We work with a fair amount of kids who need academic coaching because they can get the material, but they just can't keep it all together."

Many students have "academic, sports and social commitments, maybe they are taking honors or AP classes, and it's just keeping all those balls in the air and not getting overwhelmed that they need help with," she says.

Students need to learn how to read their textbooks, how to take notes efficiently and how to study.

"Teachers tell you to go home and study," Dacey says. "Parents tell you to go upstairs and study. But a lot of kids don't have a clue how to study. Some kids take notes and don't know what to do with their notes."

That results in a lot of wheel spinning, Dacey says.

"They are not as efficient as they can be. We can show them how to be organized in 10 minutes."

Being organized involves labeling papers and finding a filing system that works for the student, whether it's pocket folders for each subject or one big binder.

Dacey says it's important for students to learn how to work independently and use their time efficiently, but the solutions are not a one-size-fits-all thing.

"Sometimes we have to work with the parents," says Dacey. "As I tell them, 'Love the child you got, not the one you wanted.' Sometimes parents may not have clear expectations of their child's abilities. Sometimes it's hard for parents to fully understand that if everybody got A's, we wouldn't need grades. Focus on the process, what they are doing and getting things in place, and the grades will come."

Homework time

If a child spends an inordinate amount of time on homework, don't automatically blame the teacher or assume you need a tutor.

"You may think your child is struggling, but your child may actually think the subject is boring," Froseth says. "One way to find out is to spend time with your child as he does his homework. Does it come easy? Is he making sloppy mistakes?"

Doing homework also can take longer because of distractions.

Wilson says parents often say their child has studied for hours, but on closer inspection, the student is "studying" while listening to the iPod, texting on a cell phone and chatting on Facebook.

"They have all these things going on while the textbook is open," she says. "But as long as the textbook is open, they think they are studying."

The parent can and should remove those distractions.

"We urge parents to take charge, not control," Dacey says. "We teach the kids to take control of their own school work, but parents need to take charge by saying, 'These are the times that homework needs to be done. The cell phone stays in the kitchen, and the computer can only be used for research.' A lot of parents are afraid to take charge of these things, or they take them away as a punishment instead of just because they should be taken away."

Families should work together to design a quiet area for the child to do homework and carve out a time to get it done.

"Set up expectations with your child about what homework time will look like," Froseth says. "One of the ways parents can encourage it is to make it their 'study' time, too. Use the time to work on the computer or pay bills. Tell your child, 'This is really the time when our family quiets down.' "

Learning styles

Sometimes, however, there are other factors that need to be addressed. A student may have a learning disability or sight or hearing problems that interfere with learning, Wilson says.

"If parents are suspicious that it's something like that, we recommend that they talk to the school and see about having the child tested," she says.

Many times, parents who hire tutors find that just hearing a new voice makes a difference to the child.

"They don't want to hear that stuff about study, study, study from mom," Dacey says.

Wilson agrees.

"When a tutor comes in, that's all he does, is work with the student," she says. "That's all the child identifies him with, so he listens. Then the parents will say, 'I've said that to him a million times before.' It's not that the kids aren't smart enough to understand it, it's just that they aren't listening to you."

Once the tutoring is under way, check in with your child, the child's teacher at school, and the tutor to be sure they feel tutoring is making a difference.

"The whole idea is to help them find their best learning style so they can move on and be successful," Wilson says. "Honestly, our objective is to work ourselves out of a job."

Brenda Rindge can be reached at 937-5713 or at brindge@postandcourier.com.