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While other kids are out playing in the sprinkler or attempting to watch all seven Harry Potter movies in one day, Brydon Pires is mulling over fractions and decimals. Every Wednesday and Saturday, he heads to the Kumon of Mississauga-Lisgar, a learning centre, to bone up on his math skills.

Brydon, a bright and inquisitive 10-year-old, is part of a growing trend. Increasingly, Canadian children are attending tutoring classes – not to catch up at school – but to get ahead.

A 2007 report by the Canadian Council on Learning shows that 33 per cent of parents hired a tutor for their child, even though a majority of them have children with grades in the A or B range. The report, which surveyed more than 5,000 Canadians, suggests that "parents are increasingly involved in doing whatever they can to position their children in the best possible way for success in their working lives."

"I have noticed that more and more families are coming in specifically because they know their children are doing well, and they want to do more," says Michelle Kolozetti, owner of the Mississauga centre. "Probably about 30 to 40 per cent of my student population is working ahead of grade level."

Like other tutuoring centres such as Oxford Learning and Sylvan Learning, Kumon offers academic programs in reading and math. The company says it fosters independent-learning skills by encouraging its students to study on their own (through homework assignments) with the support of an instructor.

These centres are proving so popular that children who haven't even entered the school system are being signed up for "premedial" lessons.

Maureen Arellano's four-year-old son Marko has been enrolled in Junior Kumon since the spring. Acquaintances have criticized Ms. Arellano's decision, saying Marko is too young to attend classes. She counters that she's simply preparing him for school.

"I'm keeping [Marko] ahead in terms of math or English and [his] interest in studying," she says. "It's more that attitude toward studying … getting him interested early on."

Marko cried during the first two weeks of attending Kumon, but has since accepted his math drills as part of the regular routine. Ms. Arellano says she can tell "it's not something enjoyable" for him, but thinks it's worth it.

Diana Pires, Brydon's mother, enrolled her son in Kumon's enrichment program last September because she also wanted to be pro-active in preparing him for the future.

"We were not parents who want to put pressure on our kids, but at the same time I'm trying to explain to [Brydon] about him wanting to fulfill his dreams and how this would help him," Ms. Pires says, adding that her son aspires to be an astronaut.

Ms. Pires finds that the lessons are particularly useful during the summer, because instead of "putting him in front of the TV every day," she can help Brydon maintain an academic schedule until he returns to school in September. She emphasizes that Brydon himself wanted to continue attending Kumon throughout July and August, and even asked for more homework.

"I didn't know it would be this much of an education. I just thought it would be simple math, but it's reaching heights that I won't reach very early," Brydon says. "Now I'm able to do math that almost nobody in my class can do."

Not everyone agrees, however, that more lessons are always the best medicine.

Calgary-based parenting expert Judy Arnall stresses that children need time to relax and play: "Research supports that the brain needs downtime, so kids need to be spending their days doing whatever they want to do that's not structured, not micromanaged by adults, not classes – they have enough of that all year."

Playtime enhances creativity and problem-solving, and helps children learn communication skills, she adds. The school system already provides a solid education.

Tutoring companies tend to play on parents' fear of their child not getting into university, Ms. Arnall says. For instance, Oxford Learning informs parents on its website that "it's extremely competitive to get into post-secondary education," and that they need a "competitive edge" to succeed.

She says parents should get the consent of their child before enrolling him or her in a tutoring program: "It's okay to want your child to get ahead, but the child has to want to get ahead."

Angela Marseglia, owner and director of two Toronto-area Oxford Learning centres, agrees that children should have a say in whether or not to enroll, but takes issue with the "misconception" that tutoring is not fun.

"If a child is not on board, the program is not going to be effective," she says. "[But] if you have a child who's truly showing interest in wanting to do some enrichment, would you deny that child?"

Anju Dhawan, mother of eight-year-old twins Alaina and Jillian, says a well-rounded child is "paramount." While her daughters are high academic achievers and attend enrichment classes outside of school, she emphasizes they also do a variety of sports and play with friends.

The enrichment programs cultivate discipline through rote learning, Ms. Dhawan adds, but they also help children develop confidence by giving them the skills to perform well at school.

"As long as they're learning something and they continue to want to do it, I'll keep them in it."

When the need is real

Although there's some debate on the usefulness of tutoring services, these are signs that your child may benefit from enrolling in a remedial or enrichment program:

  • Grades begin to drop
  • He develops low self-esteem and thinks negatively of his academic performance
  • She loses interest in learning and resists doing school work
  • He misbehaves in class
  • The teacher sends notes home, recommending parents assist with homework, or suggesting remedial help
  • The child is a gifted student or advanced learner and wants to be challenged with enrichment classes
  • She’s preparing for exams or university/college applications

Some tutoring options include:

  • Retired teachers
  • Recent university and college graduates (especially those with Bachelor of Education designations)
  • Teachers who want to earn extra money
  • Centres such as Kumon, Oxford Learning and Sylvan Learning

Editor's Note: Marko Arellano has been taking tutoring sessions since the spring. Also, the proper names of the tutoring centres are Oxford Learning and Sylvan Learning. The original version of this story contained errors; this version has been corrected.