Are We Hurting Our Gifted Students by Using Them as Peer Tutors?


I was part of a conversation recently in which a parent voiced a concern about his elementary-aged gifted child. He said she was spending a significant amount of time tutoring other students in the class after finishing her work during the regular school day. He thought maybe this tutoring was hurting more than helping. My instinct was to agree with the dad and his concerns (#watchoutformamabear), but as a person who likes to base advice on more than just a gut feeling, I listened to his concerns and made a decision to look into finding some research before offering input. 

{P.S. If you're reading this as a parent of the gifted child, I hope my findings will be helpful as you advocate for your gifted child. If you're reading this as a teacher of gifted children, I hope that this helps arm you with more information as both an advocate and as someone who uses, or has considered using, peer tutoring in your classroom! Questions and comments always welcomed at the bottom of the post!}


His main concerns:

  1. He felt his child was basically being given the job as a way to keep her busy because she is always a fast finisher.
  2. He indicated that while she first thought it was fun to have the "special privilege" to act as an assistant teacher, she was growing weary. Certain classmates started referring to her as the "teacher's pet," which hurt her feelings added to the inklings she already had sometimes about being a little different than the other kids in class.
  3. He acknowledged that teaching others is a great skill to learn, but his biggest concern was that by spending time teaching other students material that she already knew, she wasn't being allowed the opportunity to learn new material. 

I thought these were all very valid concerns. Though, assuming the teacher had positive intent in making the decision to use this practice (always assume positive intent first, right?), perhaps there are some positive aspects to peer tutoring that she thought would benefit the child. In any case, using peer tutoring in my own classroom wasn't a practice I employed, so I spent some time researching, reading, and reflecting. Call me nerdy, but this is how I operate. #wordnerdforlife #bookworm 


Here are my thoughts (with a little research sprinkled in for good measure):

Is it hurting or helping? Well, the answer is, it's complicated. 

Keeping gifted students engaged is one of the biggest challenges any teacher faces. Because of the gifted student's ability to learn new content with few repetitions (and because they come to us already knowing up to 80% of your grade-level content). Allowing a child to help out her classmates once she's finished with her work will certainly keep her occupied. However, in my opinion, the step that needs to be taken before deciding how a child should spend his or her free time in the classroom is asking questions like, "Why does this child have so much free time in my classroom? What is happening with the work completion that she is finishing so much faster than the rest of the class? Is the work too easy? Too hard? Did she learn that skill two or three years ago and no longer needs the practice with that skill?" We have to ask these questions because this will give us better ideas about how to respond to students needs. Pre-assessing the student will give insight into the answers to the questions above. You can read more about pre-assessment here

The student feeling singled-out in this situation is something we can't ignore. Any time a child expresses discomfort with a situation, we need to reflect on whether the feelings are just a normal part of what a child experiences with growth and learning, or if there is cause for concern. Gifted children, in particular, can experience feelings of being different which can sometimes lead to negative consequences. As a part of their giftedness, children can be more perceptive and more sensitive to people's perceptions and attitudes. You can read more on emotional overexcitabilities here. It's hard to know where the line is sometimes, you know, the one between growing pains and actual pain? We want to push our children because we know that true learning comes with a little discomfort. But it's important to know how far is too far. Because this peer tutoring is an optional activity, and we don't yet know what the intent is behind the assignment, if the child is uncomfortable, it's a good idea to stop the practice (if only temporarily).  Until the objective is better defined, and it's determined that the benefits outweigh the strife, stopping seems like the best option. 

Okay, so here is where things got a little more complicated in my research. Finding true, solid, peer-reviewed studies on the effects of peer tutoring (particularly the academic effects) on the gifted child lead me to, well, many dead ends. What I did find, however, is a fairly large amount of research that concludes that peer tutoring (when implemented correctly) has benefits for most children. For example, author Christopher Yawn from the City College of New York had this to say about peer tutoring:  "Peer tutoring is an effective instructional method that permits a teacher to provide in-depth specific instructions to an individual students while at the same time ensuring that the remaining students in the classroom remain actively engaged with the assigned task (Harper and Maheady, 2007). Peer tutoring is an empirically validated instructional tool that has systematically evolved over the years to accommodate the needs of ELL students and students with and without disabilities (Gardner, Hessler, Yawn, & Heron, 2007; Saenz, Fuchs, and Fuchs, 2005)." 


In an article from Gifted Child Today,  author Matthew E. Coenen wrote about an after-school tutoring program developed by educators at a middle school. The program was essentially a daily after-hours homework session in which gifted students volunteered to tutor peers who needed help. The author noted, "Peer-tutoring programs have positive social and cognitive effects on many of the participants (Foot & Howe, 1998). Tutors can benefit cognitively by repeated exposure to previously learned material and the use of higher order thinking and organizational skills (Cohen, 1986); in fact, tutors often make academic gains as well (see Chiang, Thorpe, & Darch, 1980; & Miller, Barbetta, & Heron, 1994). Tutors practice empathy, manage and organize their thoughts, concentrate on the topic at task, set limits as to what and how much to teach, and demonstrate responsibility (Cohen, 1986). Other documented social benefits include increased positive social interactions between peers, decreased inappropriate behaviors, enhanced self-concept, more improved positive attitudes toward school and racial relations (Maheady, 1998)." It is important to note that the participants in this report were not only volunteers, but this peer tutoring took place outside of regular school hours. 

The research sounds pretty good, right? And if you have a student who is in need of development in the areas of positive social interactions, self-concept, empathy, and demonstrating responsibility, goal setting, etc., it seems like engaging in this type of activity could prove beneficial. The thing is, while these papers have good things to say, it's what they didn't say that gives me pause. Aside from mentioning how "tutors benefit cognitively from repeated exposure to previously learned material," (true, but gifted children don't always need the extra repetition), I didn't see much about how gifted students are learning more in any academic areas of study. Yes, learning organizational skills and managing and organizing thoughts are important skills, but I also think gifted students are in school to grow academically just as much as any typically developing peer. 

Suggestions for how to proceed: 

First off, it's important to remember that there is really only one person who can tell you why the child is tutoring other students in the class. So I would always, always recommend just asking the teacher why she made that decision. What are the teacher's objectives for both the student tutor and the tutee? What does she hope they gain by interacting like this? Are the objectives academic, social/emotional, or both? And of course, asking in a, "I respect you as a professional, I'm just curious" kind of way will get you so much farther than approaching her with any kind or presumptive, combative, or defensive grilling. 

Maybe the child needs some work with organizing thoughts, communicating, or any of the other social-emotional benefits from peer tutoring, in which case this tutoring could turn out to be a good thing!

Let's assume the teacher answered that she had already given some sort of pretest and determined that the work she provided was matched with what the child needed to learn. Maybe she's already read up on differentiated instruction (!) and has put the research into action. Maybe the student is just suuuuper fast at finishing work!  Again, we're in the territory of the tutoring being an okay strategy to use, as long as the child is still willing to do it because it seems as though she is learning new material, and she's just got some extra time to spare. 


Some possible alternatives to peer tutoring

If the questions have been answered to your satisfaction but your child is still uncomfortable with tutoring during class, perhaps one of the following options will be a suitable alternative.


  • If the student is finishing quickly because the work is too easy, it's time to differentiate! Changing the depth or breadth of the content being studied is a must-do so that this child has an opportunity to learn new content during school! 
  • If the student is a fast finisher on appropriately-leveled work, developing a long-term independent study project may be just the thing that keeps her both engaged and learning, while perhaps allowing her to feel less singled out. {Click here for a FREE copy of an Independent Learning Contract you can use with your students!}
  • If peer tutoring is a must-do, perhaps finding opportunities for all of the students to be tutors at one time or another will help normalize the practice in the eyes of the gifted student. Others might stop referring to her as the teacher's pet because they will also be doing that "special" job that she once had sole ownership over. 

Sources used and/or referenced in the preparation of this post:

https://www.verywell.com/social-and-emotional-problems-affecting-gifted-children-1449336
http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.4219/gct-2002-49
http://josea.info/archives/vol1no1/article-03-FT.pdf 

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