In the America educational system, parents and teachers meet at least once a year to have a parent-teacher conference, to discuss the unique needs of each child, and how they can work together to help the student achieve success.
While the intention of these meetings is to foster communication, many parents await them with trepidation because they’re unsure of their role in their child’s education, and don’t know how to get involved. The most productive parent-teacher conferences end with a solid plan of how to move forward, but it takes a lot of work on the part of both the parent and the teacher to get there.
If you’re going into your first parent-teacher conference this year, or just want a refresher, here are some tips on how to get the most out of a parent-teacher conference this year.
1. Be informed before you go
When you get the notice for the impending parent-teacher conferences, it’s tempting to add it to your calendar, then forget all about it until the day arrives. The best way to ensure that the parent-teacher conference is a success is to prepare for it in advance. Look back through all of the tests and homework your child has brought home, and see where they’re struggling or succeeding.
Pay close attention to any grading rubrics you have access to, and see what system the teacher is using to evaluate their pupils. Read through your child’s curriculum for that particular class, and make sure you’re familiar with the upcoming material. That way, you won’t use up time during the conference asking redundant questions.
2. Talk to your child and ask for their input
A few days before the parent-teacher conference, sit down with your child and ask whether there’s anything they want you to bring up with their teacher. Even if they’ve been honest with you about their opinions of the teacher or class, there may be relevant things that they just haven’t thought to tell you yet.
For older children, it can be helpful to ask them how they think they’re doing, and relay that information to the teacher. Ask them if they have any questions for their teacher, and even if they don’t sit in the meeting, it will help them feel more involved in their own education, and let them know that both their parents and teachers are working together for their benefit.
3. Make a list of questions
With class sizes that are larger than ever, many teachers don’t have more than half an hour to spend with parents, and sometimes even half an hour is generous. In order to maximize every minute of the rare face-to-face time that you have with your child’s teacher, it can be helpful to write your questions down in advance. It’s easy to get caught up in details once the conference begins, and if you’ve got a list of questions, you’ll probably find it easier to stay on topic. Put your most important questions towards the beginning of the list, in case you run short on time.
4. Begin with a positive attitude
Many parent-teacher conferences are derailed when parents and teachers are unable to communicate effectively. One way to encourage upbeat and effective communication from the beginning is to start on a positive note. List all the things that your child loves about the teacher, the class, or the school itself.
Listing all of these positive things doesn’t just help your child’s teacher feel good about themselves — it’s a way of showing them what your child enjoys, and what has been effective so far. If issues come up later in the conference, try and hold on to your positive outlook; seek solutions, rather than assigning blame.
5. Avoid reacting defensively to any criticism of your child
One of the worst things that you can do when faced with negative information or criticism of your child is to take it personally. Remember, it’s not about you. If your child’s teacher is giving you an honest, clear-headed assessment of your child’s weaknesses and flaws, try to be open-minded. The teacher wouldn’t bring up the issue if it wasn’t a problem, and they’re not doing it to be unpleasant.
Instead of reacting defensively, or trying to explain away your child’s weaknesses, work with the teacher to figure out the best way to handle it together. If you really distrust their assessment, ask them to provide examples or discretely seek a second opinion from another teacher, or a school administrator.
6. Be honest
One of the best things that you can do at a parent-teacher conference is to be honest with your child’s teacher when they ask you questions. It doesn’t help to give excuses for your child if they’ve fallen behind, or are behaving badly, but you can give them much-needed background on issues that may be affecting your child’s performance or behavior in school. Relevant information could include any pertinent health or medical conditions, or events going on in their personal life that could be affecting their in-school performance, like a death in the family or a change in living situation.
Don’t be shy — if there’s something you think is relevant, making the teacher aware of it will probably help your child. Disclosing these important family issues may feel embarrassing or overly personal at first, but it will really help the teacher develop a more well-rounded understanding of your child and their unique needs.
7. Ask for clarification if you don’t understand
One of the worst things that you can do as a parent during a parent-teacher interview is to sit mutely while the teacher shares information with you and leave without asking any questions. If you don’t understand what the teacher is saying, or are confused about the next steps in your child’s educational plan, you need to speak up and ask.
Don’t get embarrassed that you need clarification — leaving without being on the same page as your child’s teacher will only lead to miscommunications in the future. Some teachers can get caught up in educational jargon without meaning to — it never hurts to ask them to restate their point in layman’s terms.
8. Come up with a plan together
At the end of your parent-teacher conference, you should feel like there’s a solid, realistic plan in place to help your child succeed. Don’t just walk away with a lot of new information buzzing around in your head with no plan of how to use it. If your child’s teacher is bringing up problems with no solution in sight, gently steer the conversation towards a concrete plan of action.
The best way to ensure that your child is supported both at home and at school is if you and their teacher are on the same page. If your child is old enough to attend the conference themselves, try and include them in the process of coming up with a plan. Make the plan as concrete as possible by including specific milestones and goals along the way.
9. Figure out the best way to communicate together
Once there’s a plan in place, and both you and your child’s teacher are on the same page, the next step is to figure out the best way to communicate with each other. Many schools have a preferred method, which ranges from email to social media to a simple phone call. Even if one method is more convenient for you as a parent, your child’s teacher has to follow official school policy. Whichever way that your school uses to communicate with parents, ensure that you respond promptly whenever your child’s teacher reaches out.
10. Follow up with your child
If your child was not present during the parent-teacher conference, it can be helpful to fill them in on what was discussed, so they don’t feel like the adults were talking over their head. Thank them for their earlier input, and share what you discussed with their teacher. As much as possible, try to be honest with them about their teacher’s feedback. Share the plan that you and their teacher came up with, and let them know what you’re hoping to see from them moving forward.
Having a clear set of expectations will help them to thrive, and knowing that both their parents and teacher are there to help will allow them to feel even more comfortable and confident at school.