Support for PBS Parents provided by:

  • Cat in the Hat
  • Curious George
  • Nature Cat
  • Daniel Tiger
  • Dinosaur Train
  • Odd Squad
  • Peg + Cat
  • Bob the Builder
  • Sid the Science Kid
  • Super Why!
  • Wild Kratts
  • WordGirl
  • Thomas & Friends
  • Arthur
  • Martha Speaks
  • Sesame Street
  • The Electric Company
  • Cyberchase
  • Between the Lions
  • Mama Mirabelle
  • Caillou
  • Chuck Vanderchuck
  • Oh Noah
  • Fetch!
  • Fizzy's Lunch Lab
  • Maya & Miguel
  • Mister Rogers
  • Postcards from Buster
  • Clifford
  • SciGirls
  • Wilson & Ditch
  • WordWorld
  • DragonFly TV
  • ZOOM


Going to School

Student-Led Conferences

Traditional parent-teacher conferences can feel like a chore for everyone involved: parents frequently come out of the 10-minute conference feeling like they don’t have a good sense of what their child does on a day-to-day basis; teachers can feel burned out after a day of nonstop meetings with parents; and students, who are typically left out of the process entirely, may feel anxious about having people discuss them behind closed doors. So, in the face of these realities, some schools are doing away with the conferences entirely and implementing student-led conferences (SLCs) instead.

Phil Wagner teaches science and math at High Tech High, a charter school in Chula Vista, Calif., that has used SLCs since its inception in 2007. Wagner describes the conferences, which happen twice a year, as “similar to parent-teacher conferences, but with the student leading it.” At High Tech High, parents come in for 20-minute meetings with their child, during which time the student presents a portfolio of work from each of her classes. Several parent-student conferences take place at the same time, with one teacher in the room and available to assist if necessary. But though the teacher is there, the idea is that the student is the one speaking and taking ownership for her work—and of the subjects she needs to work on.

“If the teacher sits down, then the parents talk to the teacher … the idea is to put the student completely in charge of the conference so the educator tries to stay out of the picture as much as possible,” explains Patti Kinney, the associate director of middle-level services at the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Kinney is an enthusiastic advocate of SLCs, which she helped implement as a middle-school principal in Talent, Oregon. She says there’s no age requirement for the conferences—she’s seen kindergarten-age kids participate in them—but she notes that younger children generally need more support and facilitation from the teacher. “With younger students, the child’s teacher generally sits at the table but has the student lead the conference and go through the portfolio with their parents,” she explains.

Kinney says that overall the conferences were a very positive experience at her school—and parents seemed to agree. “When we started, we had 40 to 45 percent attendance rate [for traditional parent-teacher conferences], but when we moved into SLCs, it shot up to 90 percent,” she says.

But how forthcoming are students in the conferences—especially if the teacher is out of earshot? Will a kid who fails to turn in assignments ‘fess up to it? Kinney says yes. “Kids are pretty good about being honest when you give them a chance.” Besides, she adds, because SLCs rely on samples of work, if the work isn’t there, the child is forced to explain why not.

Not only do SLCs hold students accountable for their successes and failures, they also allow them to practice real-life skills, like speaking with adults, advocating for themselves and setting goals for the future (each SLC typically ends with the student presenting specific goals for himself). Wagner compares the experience to a job interview, and he says that visitors to High Tech High are often surprised at how comfortable his students are speaking with adults. When the students go off to college, says Wagner, they have a “complete fearlessness” in talking to professors.

But not all parents are sold on the experience. Carma Bruckner, whose teenage son attends a charter high school that uses SLCs, says the experience was “very limited” in terms of usefulness and overall “very awkward.” Though she acknowledges that the conferences may be beneficial to parents who don’t have ongoing conversations with their children, she adds, “If you are a parent that has a good dialogue with your child, there’s only so much you can say. … As a parent, it would have been much more helpful if the teacher had more input into [the conference].”

Wagner acknowledges that SLCs might not be for every parent, but he adds that when it comes to parents and kids, “There’s no such thing as too much communication.” And for her part, Kinney agrees. “Anytime you have parents and a child sitting down talking for 20 to 30 minutes, it’s a positive experience,” she says.

  • Paul Williams

    Having read this and hearing about it for the first time, it sounds like a combination of the 2 systems would be best. As a parent, I appreciate the input of the teacher who tells me what the child is like in class. I like the idea, however, of the kid taking ownership in front of me. It promotes positive interaction and setting of goals. Incentives are a natural outgrowth of this process.

What's this?

Sign up for free newsletters.

Connect with Us

PBS Parents Picks

  1. Play Learn App

    PBS Parents Play & Learn App

    Get new seasonal backgrounds and fun fall stickers. Plus, more parent tips!

  2. Irrational Behavior image

    What to Keep in Mind About Irrational Behavior

    These incidents can be important opportunities to teach children how to manage emotions. Here's how.

  3. Science Birthday Party image

    Reading Food Labels: A Cheat Sheet

    When food shopping for young children, you only need to pay attention to a few things.