Do ‘Toddler Tutoring’ Programs Do More Harm Than Good?

Teaching kids to read and write before they're fully out of diapers is big business—and a growing trend—but it may not be what's best for them.

September 6, 2017

By Margaret de Silva / Photo: Hieng Ling Tie

When Burnaby’s Sonya Minhas enrolled her son in a pre-school tutoring program at age three, she was amazed at his progress with reading, writing and vocabulary. Likewise, Surrey’s Shabbir Dhalla was thrilled to see his son Aayan learn to write his name, read the alphabet and patiently follow instructions soon after he started attending 90-minute reading sessions twice a week—before his third birthday.

Both parents credit these programs for their children’s strong academic performance now that they’re in school. Minhas, an elementary school teacher, says her son, now age 9, has been “reading way above his age level since kindergarten.” Meanwhile Aayan, now 7 and in Grade 1, reads at a Grade 3 level.

Results like that have parents throughout the Lower Mainland clamouring to give their children a head start in life by signing them up for so-called “toddler tutoring” programs that are seeing enrolments surge. Kumon, an after-school math and reading centre with more than 45 locations in the Lower Mainland, has seen enrolment increase by 16 percent this year among students of kindergarten age or below—nearly double the increase among all age groups. Another centre, Oxford Learning, attracts about 100 to 150 kids each month to its Little Readers and Readers Elite programs, aimed at three- to six-year-olds. And supplementary education is big business on a global scale. The industry is expected to reach $102.8 billion (U.S.) next year, according to Global Industry Analysts, Inc.

But sitting desk-bound for up to two hours at a stretch may not be as valuable for the kids. Critics argue that introducing structured education at such a young age can lead to anxiety and does little to develop critical thinking skills.

Shaheen Fazal, director of Oxford Learning’s Surrey branch, says she thinks parents increasingly want to see their kids reading before they start school as a form of insurance against the education system. Some parents enrol their kids in tutoring to prepare for private-school interviews, while others worry about the quality of education their kids will receive at public school. “Being able to read puts you in a position to be able to learn independently,” Fazal explains, adding enrolment at her centre spiked after full-day kindergarten was introduced three years ago—many parents sought to supplement B.C.’s largely play-based learning curriculum with more academic programs. She also suspects media attention on teacher strikes and legal battles over class size has driven demand. “Parents are worried heading into that.”

UBC associate professor Julian Dierkes has researched the effects of supplementary education and agrees the trend is due to dwindling confidence in the public school system. But there’s no basis for parents’ fears. “This is a bit peculiar in Vancouver, as when we look at international tests, usually B.C. and Canada do quite well,” he says. Additionally, there is no empirical evidence that tutoring makes students smarter—although he understands that parents would rather hedge their bets. “Parents want to over-invest rather than miss the boat.”

That instinct, while understandable, may be counterproductive, says Dr. Vanessa Lapointe, a Surrey-based registered psychologist and author of the book Discipline Without Damage. The past decade has seen a dramatic increase in societal pressure around children’s academic performance, she says—a phenomenon likely tied to the rise of a “parenting culture” that revolves around setting kids up for professional success in an ultra-competitive world. But tutoring for such young kids can have a negative effect on long-term learning outcomes, says Lapointe, especially when it comes at the expense of exploratory play, which is essential in developing a child’s natural creativity and curiosity. “Play is the epicentre of neural connectivity for kids,” she says. “We are moving away from what is supposed to be happening in a child’s environment and pushing children into contrived experiences that have a glossy facade as being educational.”

Kids who start their ABCs early will seem advanced, she acknowledges, but mastering rote repetition doesn’t equal improved cognitive ability. “I can tell you right now that it’s fake learning. If you have been force-fed rote skills from the time you are knee-high to a grasshopper, you actually don’t have critical thinking skills.”

Rather, children develop best when they are allowed to explore, play and even get bored, she says. “Some of the most amazing neural connections happen when we’re bored, as creativity comes alive.” Given that, the best thing a parent can do is “take a step back and let nature do its job.”


Making the Grade

Here’s how B.C. high school students stack up against their national and international peers.

Reading: We’re number one! B.C. gets top marks in this category, followed by Singapore, Quebec and Ontario. Canada comes seventh, behind Hong Kong and ahead of Finland.

Science: B.C. ranks third in the world when it comes to science scores, behind Singapore and Alberta and above the Canadian average, which ranks tenth.

Math: When it comes to numbers, B.C. is in ninth place, behind Singapore, Hong Kong, Quebec, Japan and Korea. Meanwhile, Canada’s average math scores put the country in twelfth place, right between Estonia and the Netherlands.*

*Source: The Counsil of Ministers of Education, Canada, based on data collected by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.  


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