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Five Tips to Creating Meaningful Parents Teacher Conferences

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Every year we get students that show red flags from day one. These students may be demonstrating poor academic skills, delayed social development, hyperactivity, difficulty focusing or just inappropriate behaviors. Our mind immediately jumps to all the things we want to say to the parent and how we can advise them on plans we have to get the student into services. STOP! And think a minute… this conference meeting might be the first time you interact with the family or maybe the only time you get a face-to-face with the parent(s) or guardians. How are you going to approach this important 15 minutes?  

Here are Five Tips to creating an open dialogue and successful meeting:

Greet the family and ask them how they feel the school year is going.  Frequently,  the parent(s) or guardians have the same concerns you do -- and by allowing them to set the rhythm of the meeting -- you open up the conversation to solutions.  Many times parents will begin with something like, “Pretty good, but I have noticed this… Have you?” Answer honestly and state, “Yes, I was going to ask you how you handle it at home,”, then listen.

Take advantage of concerns the family brings up to lead your questions.  When parents are given the opportunity to share their parenting styles with the teacher, this can  lead to answers about the student’s behaviors at school. Parents are the best source for understanding a student’s reactions.  For example, you may have noticed that Joe yells “no” or cries every time someone sneezes. Mom shares that Joe got a nose bleed after sneezing and is afraid there will be blood now when someone sneezes.  It may seem silly to you, but it is a real fear for the child.  

Use positive and encouraging language when discussing difficult topics.  There are situations that require discussions but think about your wording.  Think about the difference in these two communications. A teacher needs to talk to a parent about a student who intentionally hits whoever walks in front of him.  Approach #1:  “Hello, we need to discuss Joe’s aggression toward his peers.  Every time he is in line he hits the person in front of him. I have written him up, sent him to the office, and talked to him about this behavior.  He is still hitting his classmates.” Approach #2:  “Hello, thank you for coming.  I appreciate you meeting with me.  As we have been talking, there is one area that I need your help in.  I shared notes telling you Joe is hitting in line. We have tried a few interventions, such as talking to him, placing him near the teacher while in line, and letting him hold our class roster.  Unfortunately, these interventions have not worked well. Would you have any other ideas I could try?” Both statements are letting the parent(s) or guardians know you have a concern, but the first one puts the parent on the defensive, while the second option brings the parent(s) or guardians into the conversation and a partnership to identify a potential solution. 

Use a positive - negative - positive method, sometimes called the sandwich method.  When approaching a behavior or academic concern, begin with something positive the student is doing before jumping into the negative and end with something positive.  This is not always easy and takes a lot of effort to be intentional. This approach makes a big difference in the attitude of both parties. Since our culture focuses on critiquing and criticizing to improve each other’s behavior, it’s a good bet the parent has heard your concerns before, but may not have heard what their child is doing well.  When you notice that Joe always helps others clean up without being asked or reminded, that is a strong social skill. When you notice Joe will sit with someone and share the materials without incidents, that is also important. His parents know he cannot read well and struggles in math, but they may not know he helps others and can socialize well. Thinking about and reporting back about your student’s positive characteristics, no matter how small, allows you to appreciate them, too.

End the discussion on a positive and empowering note. After a long meeting of discussing concerns and brainstorming ideas or plans, remember to end with a smile.  Parenting is hard, just like teaching, and parent(s)/guardians are doing the best they can with what they know, just like we are. Thank the participants for coming in and remind them that you are eager to try some of the ideas they shared. These ideas can go a long way toward behavioral improvements and meaningful future conversations.  

Conferences are not always fun and we tend to invite the parents we have to talk to. I would recommend inviting the parents of your shy or quiet students as well.  You may not have behavioral or academic concerns, but many times these parents get no information about how their child is doing. They see the good grades and know you never send home a behavior note, but they may not be aware that Joe rarely talks in class and spends a lot of time alone.  These could be red flags, too. Have a great school year and remember to think about each of your students’ strong skills and area(s) of improvement when planning your conferences.

Shawn Patterson Educator

Since 1991, her career has ranged from teaching assistant to educator with a master's in Curriculum and Instruction, Special Education endorsement. Along the way she has been an Early Interventionist (working with families and children birth to 3-years); an assessor for Tennessee Early Intervention Services; and Director of an early intervention program, including home visits. Currently, she teaches Pre-K, special education. Shawn's philosophy is simple - high expectations lead to growth and every child will grow to the best of their ability.

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