Advice on how to tutor a twelve year old that starts to cry?

I have a new math pupil. She is an emotional 12 year old girl who starts to cry when she doesn't understand something.

Her father said she is sensitive. I was asked to do more praising and encouraging from her parents.

I am looking for ways how to provide a better service.

Have you dealt with a similar situation before? What is the best thing to do?

• As her father said, she is sensitive. Building rapport looks like a good idea. I asked about her math teacher in school, whether they come in time to the class, how old is the math teacher etc. To get her point of view and to understand how does the whole math thing makes her feel. She doesn't like math. It is too abstract for her.
– Jan
Dec 1 '21 at 22:47
• "It is too abstract for her." Then perhaps make it concrete. Counting geometric objects. Kirigami to fold an $n$-pointed star. Etc. Dec 1 '21 at 23:35
• Take her shopping. With cash. Addition, multiplication, ratios, percent, estimation. Also a possibility to establish rapport. Dec 2 '21 at 1:05
• Are you a tutor? If so, is this tutoring one-on-one? Dec 2 '21 at 3:35
• @Joel Reyes Noche: Yes and yes.
– Jan
Dec 2 '21 at 6:16

Empty praise is no good

Do not give praise when it is not deserved. It is not healthy and does not lead to stronger character or anything else good.

Maybe, and I am guessing here, the pupil reacts badly to being shown inadequate. Maybe mathematics has always been a subject full of right/wrong -type exercises: you either get it or you do not, and it is right or wrong.

How about trying tasks that are not of this type? There are many sources for these types of questions, but one typical thing is to ask the pupil to make something. Maybe you give an answer and them to create an exercise. Or maybe it is an open exercise with free parameters the pupil can themselves choose.

The point here is to reduce the emotional intensity and the matter of winning and losing, showing you are smart or stupid.

Intense emotions surrounding math are not uncommon. Importantly, they tend to "feed back" on themselves - the memory of a bad experience with math makes doing math more stressful later, which then creates new bad experiences. So, taking action sooner rather than later will help immensely. Here are some suggestions.

• There's no such thing as being just "sensitive". Emotions have a reason; the more you can find out about the reason, the better you can help. What makes this student distressed? Is it when learning something new, or when trying to use something they think they should already know? Are there particular topics that cause more stress than others? Is it starting a problem that causes stress, or does the stress kick in somewhere in the middle? Are word problems a greater stressor? Answers to any of these questions will help you figure out how to help the student.
• As another answer here pointed out, empty praise is worse than useless. If a student picks up on you praising them for nothing, they won't trust you anymore, and they'll rely on their own judgment of how they're doing - which will always mean feeling bad about their math ability. That said, there is always something to praise honestly. When I'm working with a student in this situation, I'll often praise the process ("see, setting it up like this was great, it was only later that things went wrong"), inventiveness ("well, that didn't turn out right, but it was a really cool way to approach it!"), and even awareness ("that's great, being able to spot when you don't know something is a super important skill").
• Lower the stakes. The perception of math as a "right-answer-or-bust" field is toxic. In between the right-or-wrong questions, ask questions that don't have clear-cut answers. I'm a fan of process-suggestion questions ("which of our tools do you guess might help here?") and even emotion questions ("what's your gut feeling about this problem? What does that tell you?").
• Model error-positive thinking. Many students get stressed about math because they feel (often by observation of instructors, stronger students, and popular media) that the "right" way to do math is to always be sure of exactly what to do next, never make mistakes, and never run into dead ends. But no one does that. The math I teach is math I've been practicing almost daily for more than a decade, and even I mess up sometimes. Even when I look perfect, it's just because I'm good at noticing and fixing my mistakes in my head before anyone sees them. I've found that it helps to turn off that reflex in myself: let the student see me make mistakes, puzzle over what to do next, or try something that doesn't end up working. In doing so, I can show them the right way to emotionally deal with an error: you welcome it as an opportunity to practice spotting and fixing mistakes.
• Give control, where possible. In my experience, many students think of math as something that happens to them, not something they do. And of course that's stressful - when you feel like you're fending off an attack, why wouldn't you get upset? It can help to provide opportunities for the student to take control of the situation. That can be as simple as giving them a choice about which problem to attempt next, or suggesting multiple ways to solve a problem (e.g., to find $$2 \times 3 \times 5$$, you might ask "would you rather multiply $$2 \times 3$$ first, or start with $$2 \times 5$$?").
• Self-care is a skill. At 12, many (most?) students are still working on developing their coping mechanisms. Older students might be expected to recognize when they're feeling stressed out and frustrated, and to know what steps to take to get back on-track. But a 12-year-old probably needs help with that. Practice naming emotions, and offering simple solutions. For example: "It seems like you're getting frustrated. Do you want to take a break for a few minutes?" Or, "You seem upset about this problem. Do you want to talk about why?"

Her parents say she is sensitive and needs praise and encouragement, but you say she has gaps in her knowledge.

Some suggestions:

Assess what she knows and doesn't know. Give her an oral written assessment of the skills she needs. Make sure she understands that you need to know what to teach her.

Make the parents your partners. Tell them you are happy to encourage and praise her, but she also has to learn the material, which is hard because she has gaps. Tell them about your plan to assess her and ask them to encourage her to approach the assessment without worry so that you can best figure out how to teach her. Ask them to encourage her to be comfortable saying I don't know and also to be comfortable when making mistakes.

Give her opportunities to succeed. This will be easier to do once you have assessed her. Ask her easy questions that she can answer.

Praise and encouragement should be for effort not for success.

Both Amy B and Reese Johnston have given some excellent suggestions but make sure you pay attention so that the student doesn't use tears (even unconsciously) to avoid work or get spoonfed answers. Without observation or more details, I cannot tell if the parents are simply accommodating a more sensitive child or have fallen into the habit of removing anything that frustrates the child.

Let me clarify the situation: you are her teacher, not her parent. This makes it your job to explain matter to her, and it's the job of the parents to prepare her for that.

As you have stated:

Her father said she is sensitive. I was asked to do more praising and encouraging from her parents.

This is not your job! Not at all!

Let's face it: crying is an enormous time and focus waster: when a person starts crying, he or she looses his or her focus for quite a long time, so it should happen as less as possible.
I remember that, also at the age of 12, during one lesson, I've been crying too. As far as I know, the teacher did not even speak to me, he just let it happen, and I never had any bad feelings towards that teacher for that.

I have the impression that the parents are not dealing well with their sensitive child and let the burden on you, and that's not the way education is to be done: it's your job to deliver the matter and it's their job to make her ready for dealing with that matter.

Oh, if you think I'm being harsh here, just think about this situation: I imagine you have a regular class of about 20 students, and you are planning of adapting yourself to the "special" needs of one single student. Another student might notice that and invent a "special" need for him- or herself too, do you see the snowball effect coming? ... at the end you'll be dealing with "special" needs that much that you won't be able to teach your class anymore.

Does this mean there is nothing you can do? Well, the easiest you can do is increase praising of every student in your class. Like this, her need to praising might be fulfilled (or at least reduced) and you don't make an exception for one student. But don't go further than that.