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How to Tutor a Preschooler on Facetime with the Help of a Mischievous Stuffed Lion

It was my mom’s idea for me to tutor Cameron. My 4-year-old nephew had been attending a free pre-school on the military base where he lives. But unfortunately, he no longer had a ride to school. Cameron’s dad, my brother, worked in the fort. His mom ran a daycare inside her home. Neither could take him. My mom, Cameron’s grandma, worried he’d fall behind.

“You can tutor him,” she suggested.

“But Fort Irwin is an hour and a half away,” I said.

“You can Facetime him.”

I had experience in education. I worked as a tutor, a teacher’s aide, and a substitute—but usually with junior high or high schoolers. Not little kids. And trying to teach a very energetic preschooler via my phone sounded like a nightmare to me.

But it was only for a few months, just to make up for the time lost in preschool. And it was my nephew. So, I said I’d try it out.

* * *

What are kids expected to learn before they enter kindergarten? I had no idea, so I quickly Googled it. It turned out to be a surprisingly long list, some of which were academic (counting to ten, knowing their ABCs), and some of which were behavioral (following directions, getting along with other kids). I decided that, since Cameron would be with kids at daycare, he’d learn social behavior. I just had to do academics.

But before I committed to any sort of schedule, I wanted to see where he was at and if this whole Facetime tutoring would even work. I printed out a number chart, some ABCs, and a few words. His mother set up the computer and called me up. I said, “Hi.” I asked him to count for me. I asked him to say his ABCs. I showed him the words “dog” and “log” and asked him to tell me the letters.

Cameron, it turned out, was pretty good at numbers. He could count to thirty almost unprompted and to 100 with a little help. He could sing the ABC song, but he couldn’t identify individual letters and he was completely lost when I asked what sounds they made. He knew his colors and most of the basic shapes. He did not know how to cut.

Having figured out his strengths and weaknesses, I came up with a plan. The one thing I really wanted to do was go through each letter of the alphabet, individually. I wanted him to know what the uppercase and lowercase letters looked like and what sound each letter made. The goal was not to have him master the alphabet; I just wanted to introduce him to the concept of phonetics. He’d re-learn everything in kindergarten but having an introduction would make it go that much more smoothly.

So I looked up alphabet worksheets and bought the ones I wanted from Etsy. I wanted to do one letter a day, so as not to overwhelm him, but also make sure that we got through the entire alphabet before summer. I also wanted to have him continue to work with numbers, since he was good with them, and I wanted to build up his strengths. After that, I’d alternate between colors, shapes, and cutting. That would just be practice. A few minutes of practice each day would be better than trying to cram too much stuff into an hour.

I had my plan. I had my schedule. I was ready to begin.

* * *

On Week 2, I hit resistance.

Cameron fussed. He complained more about his “homework” and began deliberately scribbling on his worksheets rather than trying to write properly. His attitude was “This is boring,” and “I hate this.”

I wasn’t surprised to meet with resistance. After all, the activities I had chosen were repetitive, and that does get boring. Repetition is part of learning; there’s no getting around that. At the same time, I didn’t want him to have such a negative view of education at age four.

Another problem was that, since I wasn’t physically in the room, it wasn’t easy to get him to do his work if he didn’t want to. I couldn’t see him working from the phone. I had to ask him to show me his papers, and even then, getting him to hold it up straight, right-side up, aligned with the camera was nearly impossible. At best I got a blurry glance. If he messed up his paper, I couldn’t print him out a new one. The only thing I could do was text his mom and get her to make him do his work—which kind of negated the purpose of me tutoring him.

So I did what I could to make things interesting. I let him choose which worksheet he wanted to do first. I let him draw on the back of the worksheets when we were done. At times, I let him get away with not finishing the unimportant parts of a worksheet (like coloring). I tried to be patient, knowing that if I got through the week, it would get easier.

Repetition means boredom; but repetition also means routine. Kids hate boredom, but they secretly like a routine, because knowing what to expect gives a sense of power and security. Once Cameron got used to the routine, he would be less fussy. I just had to keep going and figure out ways of combatting boredom until that time came.

* * *

“Where’s Marshmallow?” Cameron asked me one day.

“Marshmallow?” I said. “He’s in my room. Why?”

“Can I see him?”

Marshmallow is a stuffed anime-style lion I got for Christmas a few years ago. I told Cameron to name it for me. He called it “Marshmallow.” And once Marshmallow was named, a personality soon followed.

Marshmallow is a whiney baby. He’s always crying. He gets sick and needs to go to the hospital. He gets mad and claws at people’s faces. But he is Cameron’s favorite stuffed animal—at least, out of the ones at my house. Whenever he comes over, Cameron wants to see Marshmallow. Often, we play imaginary games together.

Upon hearing Cameron’s request, I popped into my bedroom, grabbed Marshmallow, and quickly came back. A huge smile broke out over Cameron’s face.

“Hi, Marshmallow,” he said.

“Hi,” replied Marshmallow (ie, me, in a baby voice).

And that’s how Marshmallow became part of our tutoring.

* * *

Having Marshmallow was kind of like having a puppet. I felt a little like Sheri Lewis. (I watched episodes of “Lambchop’s Play Along” as a child.) Marshmallow was not a good student. He wouldn’t listen, and Cameron would laugh. He’d mess up, and Cameron would laugh. He’d try to bite my face, and Cameron would laugh.

Marshmallow was a good scapegoat. Cameron would tell me to make Marshmallow act bad. Marshmallow would misbehave, and I would scold him. I preferred scolding a puppet, rather than Cameron. It was a way for me to model classroom behavior and discipline without making Cameron feel like he was bad.

Of course, it was a lot of time and energy to make Marshmallow so amusing, and sometimes Cameron got too distracted, and I had to set Marshmallow aside for a little while. But I thought it was worth it. I liked making learning fun and interesting. I wanted him to have a good attitude toward learning and not see it as boring. And Cameron did his work. Maybe not perfectly—but he was learning.

* * *

A routine had set in.

On Sunday, I would find and download free worksheets off the Internet. I’d write up a schedule and send the worksheets to Cameron’s mom to print up.

On Monday through Thursday, at 9:00, I’d wait with my copy of the worksheets, some colored pencils, my books, and Marshmallow. Cameron’s mother would call, and school would begin. We’d do three worksheets a day: letters, numbers/ addition, and coloring, shapes, or cutting. Marshmallow would often mess up, misbehave, and cry. Cameron would finish the worksheet and ask to draw on the back. We’d draw together. I’d read him a story.

We went through every single letter of the alphabet. He traced the letters, he said the sounds. He did not memorize them, but he seemed to get the concept.

I notice, when he’d draw on the back of the pages, that he’d ask me to spell words. I told him, and he’d try to write out the letters. He wanted to write, “Mom,” or “I love you,” or “Marshmallow.” I took this as a good sign.

When Cameron turned 5, I drew him a cake, with a candle on it. Marshmallow blew out the candle, ate all the cake, and got a stomachache. I drew Cameron presents: one square, one rectangle, and one circle. Cameron “opened” them, and I told him what gifts he got. Cameron bopped to my off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday.”

And then, after 10 weeks, it came to an end.

* * *

The last week was hard. And I don’t mean emotionally hard, like feeling sad about things ending. I mean hard, as in Cameron once again giving me resistance. I gave him number charts to fill in; he complained those were too hard. I gave him color by number worksheets, and he complained those were too boring.

Marshmallow only goes so far, after all. There is no one solution to deal with a child’s resistance. But you keep going and you adapt and, if there is time, you try something new.

But there wasn’t time. I told Cameron that our tutoring sessions were coming to an end. “No,” he said. As much as he whines and complains, I know he secretly likes having me tutor him.

And I will keep teaching him. I am his aunt, after all, and if I do not formally teach him, I know the value in little lessons. Pointing out letters. Spelling words. Giving him little addition problems. Even just coloring together and reading stories. Learning doesn’t just happen at appointed times. The world is full of opportunities to learn.

As for Marshmallow, he still sits in my room, and Cameron still asks about him. Cameron’s very attached to my patched-up stuffed lion, and I like him, too, for he reminds me of all the times I spent with my nephew and all the little ways I have made an impact on his life.

* * *

Tips for Tutoring a Small Child Online

Note: Please, please take all these tips with a grain of salt. These tips are just my own casual thoughts that came from my experience of tutoring my nephew. If you try it and it works for you, great. If not, throw them away. Kids are all different, teachers and tutors have different styles, and every situation is different. Find a style that suits you both.

1. Research Standards

To start, you want to have an idea of what you’re preparing your child for and get an idea of where they ought to be. This is easy enough—just type it into a search engine. You may find the list to be overwhelming. If so, start by considering your priorities. What do you want to make sure your child knows?

2. Assess the Child’s Abilities

“Assess” is a fancy teacher word for figuring out where your child is in relation to those standards; what he or she does and does not know. Most teachers do this by testing, but you can do this by trying different worksheets and seeing where your child succeeds and where they struggle. If something is too hard, you can take a step or two back and try something easier. If they ace it, try challenging them with something harder. After a while, you’ll get an idea of where they’re at.

3. Set Goals

Once you have an idea of both the standards and your child’s abilities, you can set goals. I like to think of each academic standards in sets of threes: introduction to the concept, practice, and mastery. For example, with Cameron I wanted to introduce him to the concept of phonetics (that each letter makes a sound) by going over each letter and sound with him. I also decided to introduce him to the concept of addition. We practiced cutting, coloring, identifying shapes, writing letters and numbers, and reading. But I did not expect him to master (ie, know perfectly and automatically) any of the concepts I was teaching him, since I figured that this would come later, with time.

4. Come up with a Consistent Schedule

When kids have a consistent schedule, they know what to expect. For me, this means not only having set days and times, but also being consistent with the amount of work I give. For example, I like to do 3 worksheets (letters, numbers, and craft) and a story. On the other hand, there is a fine line between being constant and being boring, so if you need to occasionally mix it up, that’s fine, too.

5. Search for Worksheets Online

There are so many good, free resources online, and all you need to do is search for them. You can also buy worksheets from Teachers Pay Teachers, Etsy, or other sites. The key is to know what you’re looking for (counting, addition, number charts) and be specific about the age range (preschool, kindergarten). I found it took me about an hour to search for/ print/ send the worksheets each week. I’ve listed a few websites that contain multiple worksheets below.

6. Make Use of Modeling

“Modeling” is another fancy teacher word that means you do the activity first and the kid learns from your example. It’s basically copying, which is how most young kids learn. What modeling meant, in practice, was that we both did the worksheets together. I showed him, slowly, how to write letters and numbers. I made him repeat sounds after me. I told him the answers, and he copied them. This is not to say I never made him try to figure things out on his own. I did. But modeling is a simple, easy learning technique, and given my limited resources, the best one I had.

7. Find Ways to Make Activities Fun

It can be hard to make kids do something they don’t want to do, and that goes double for when you aren’t in the same room with the kid. I, personally, find it important to make learning fun, so the kids want to keep engaging in tutoring (even if they sometimes complain or get distracted). If you’re unsure of how to do this, listen to the kid. Cameron was the one who suggested I bring in Marshmallow. All I did was go along with his idea. He also likes to draw and color and tell stories, and so I factor in time for “play.”

8. Give the Child Choices

Another way of keeping the child engaged is to give them little choices. For example, I ask Cameron which worksheet he’d like to do first, or which story he’d like me to read, or what he wants me to draw. This is an advantage tutoring has over a traditional classroom. You have lots of one-on-one time. Make use of it.

9. Let Go of What You Can’t Control

When you tutor online, there are a lot of activities you can’t do or things you can’t control. My mom had so many suggestions about using tangible items in activities that I couldn’t do, because I wasn’t in the room with him, providing him those things and working with him. I had to let those activities go and focus on worksheets. When Cameron did his worksheets, I couldn’t see him work. I had to ask him to lift the worksheet up and even then I could barely see what he’d done. I had to let that go, and just trust that, even if it was sloppy, he was still practicing and it would get better. Ultimately, no learning is bad, and if things don’t always go as planned, just continue to try your best and keep going.

* * *

Tips for Using a Stuffed Animal or Puppet While Teaching

1. If Possible, Find a Puppet the Child is Attached to

The stuffed animal/ puppet I used, Marshmallow, is a toy Cameron named, one he likes and has infused with a personality. Would this have worked so well if Cameron were not attached to Marshmallow? I’m not sure. But if you want to try it out, I suggest letting the child name the puppet and play a role in developing its voice and personality, so that the child becomes invested in the puppet. It becomes his or her friend.

2. Take Turns Controlling the Puppet

When Marshmallow joins us for tutoring, I control the stuffed animal’s actions and I give it a voice—most of the time. Sometimes Cameron makes Marshmallow speak. Sometimes he tells me to make Marshmallow do this, make Marshmallow do that, and I oblige. In this way, the puppet is a collaboration between the two of us. I think this is the key to making it work. By giving the child a voice and some control over the puppet, he or she becomes invested in it. But you need to have control over it, too, in order to make sure you teach the lessons you want the child to learn. It should be a fun and cooperative exercise in imagination and improv for the both of you.

3. Have the Puppet Model Behavior (Even Negative Behavior)

Marshmallow frequently engages in bad behavior. He throws fits when he loses, doesn’t do what I say, eats glue, and sometimes tries to bite my face. Cameron is usually the one to suggest this, because he finds it funny. I don’t mind, though, because it gives me a chance to explain discipline and consequences, without having to scold Cameron directly. I give Marshmallow warnings, put him in time out, send him to the principal’s office, and have his “mother” take away his video games. Although I do occasionally have Marshmallow model good behavior, I find that having the puppet be bad is much more useful.

4. Let the Child “Win” Against the Puppet

No one wants to feel inferior to a puppet. When Cameron and Marshmallow “race” to see who finishes the worksheet first, Marshmallow loses. Marshmallow gets answers wrong and doesn’t understand the lesson. Marshmallow can’t draw and cuts terribly. This gives Cameron a chance to gloat and feel good about himself. Granted, gloating isn’t the best behavior… but Marshmallow is a toy. It’s all play, and so I let Cameron gloat a little.

5. Prepare for Some Distractions

Marshmallow engages in a lot of antics that takes up time, and most of the time, I’m okay with it, because it keeps Cameron engaged and happy. But there are times when I want Cameron to focus. During those times, I either put Marshmallow in time out or find some other excuse to take him off camera, so we can do our work. The key is finding a good balance you’re comfortable with.

* * *

Resources (a.k.a. Free Worksheets)

My Teaching Station:


Clever Learner: (You will need to sign up for a newsletter to get access to the free worksheets)

* * *

Thank you for reading. If you found this helpful or interesting, please let me know by giving this a like or writing a comment. I’m a writer (most of my books have elements of fantasy), and if you want to check out my books or other writing, you can find it on my website:


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