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Parent-Teacher Conferences
By Stacy DeBroff

As October careens to a close, we still face the daunting prospect of getting our kids—and ourselves—truly acclimated to back-to-school schedules. Amidst this chaos and slow settling into the routines of fall come the parent-teacher conferences. Your conversations in the parent-teacher context give you access to a trained professional's assessment of the developmental, academic, social, and creative issues that our children face during the day. Teachers see your child at work and at play, in large social groups or alone. They gain invaluable and objective insights about where your child is going and what he needs to work on to get there.

~These meetings exist for you to learn your child's progress in school, but they also present an opportunity to for you to help resolve behavioral or developmental concerns. Teachers use the information they glean from you to contextualize their impressions of your child, and these impressions help determine their educational and developmental goals. With your input, teachers are also in a position to help you structure how you approach education at home.

~These formal sessions are critical, usually crammed into a half-hour, when we can sit down one-on-one with our children's teachers with their undivided attention.

~Facing our child's education is daunting. The temptation is to dash in with a few questions or issues in mind, and to let the teacher take charge of the session.

~The parent-teacher conference takes on particular significance for parents of children with special needs. All children have unique learning styles and capabilities, and many need particular care and supplementary aid in and out of the classroom. The parents of a special-needs child should view the parent-teacher conference as a way to clarify for the teacher what has been most problematic and most helpful for their child, assess whether enough is being done at school to provide for the child's necessities, and determine what other courses of action must be taken with regard to their child's education. The parent-teacher conference becomes a valuable starting point from which to implement measures essential to your child's development and education.

~Bringing your own agenda to a parent-teacher meeting ensures that the issues foremost on your mind are discussed. If you are not proactive about organizing your thoughts and setting goals for what you need to communicate and learn during this meeting, your concerns can be overlooked. Most teachers seek to cover ambitious grounds during these sessions: from academic assessments, progress reports, behavioral issues, to impressions about social interactions with classmates. Even if the time allotted for the session runs over or a follow-up meeting should be scheduled, you can feel confident that the most important issues in your children's lives are addressed.

~To prepare for a parent-teacher meeting, set aside a sheet for each child at the beginning of the school year, and jot notes to yourself based on what's going on outside of school, your key concerns, and your child's reactions to school. These issues range from your child's academic progress to family events to concerns about exclusion or harassment from particular classmates.

~Arrange your worksheet in whatever format works best for you. Look through the information you have at home—report cards, homework, notes from the teacher, the parent handbook—to help you frame your ideas.

Important subjects include:

Comments and reflections your child has shared with you as to how school is going that tell the teacher how your child has been internalizing his or her school experience

Your own observations about your child—changes in behavior at home and with your family, particularly strong likes and dislikes, fears personality, problems, habits, and hobbies you feel it's important for the teacher to know

Significant changes outside of school of which your child's teacher should be aware—a move to a new home, the birth of a baby, a divorce or death in a family, specific family circumstances affecting your child, or medical issues

Specific concerns you have about academics, homework, how classroom time is structured, socializing, music, art, or athletics

Concerns about the school's programs or policies

Has my child taken standardized tests within the past year? What were they for and what were the results? How significant are these tests? What kinds of tests are being done? What do the tests tell about my child's progress? How does my child handle taking tests?

What grade level is my child performing on in various subjects?

How does his work compare to that of his classmates?

How do you keep parents informed of progress or problems?

Have the teacher explain how she tracks your child's progress

~Concerns or complaints which you feel must be aired, such as problems with classmates or discipline or the teacher's interaction with your child:

How is my child behaving in class?

Are you aware that my child is having difficulty working with you?

What suggestions do you have for finding ways to improve my child's relationship with you?

Do you think that a transfer to another class would be in the best interest of my child?

~Tips for talking with the teacher

Make an effort to get along with the teacher, even if this means biting your tongue, as an antagonistic relationship will not help your child.

Don't be confrontational; approach the situation with a cooperative attitude.

Make a list of both positive and negative experiences your child is having at school and share them with the teacher

Make sure you hear both sides of the story; so far, you have only heard your child's.

If you have done something to offend the teacher, make sure to offer a sincere apology.

Try to be open-minded and listen to the teacher's views.

Look for something positive for which you can praise the teacher.

If you feel it would be difficult for you and the teacher to have an effective conference on your own, ask for the principal, guidance counselor, or another teacher to be present as mediator.

~Questions to ask if you do not get along with the teacher:

What can each of us do to be able to work together this year?

Can we avoid involving my child in our differences?

Can we find some ways to help my child do well in school?

What are your views on our areas of disagreement?

May I tell you why I don't agree with you views on (topic)?

~Questions to ask if your child is struggling academically:

What is my child's ability level?

What do you feel is causing my child to struggle in school this year?

What special help can the school offer my child to get back on track?

Would it be appropriate to test my child for a learning disability?

How can I help my child do better?

Questions to ask if you child is not challenged in school

How is my child doing academically in your class?

Do you feel my child is breezing through class assignments with little or no effort?

Could you make class assignments that are more challenging for my child?

Does the school have a program for gifted and talented children? Should my child be tested for it?

What can I do at home to enhance my child's educational experience?

~Tips for talking with the teacher:

Discuss with the teacher the possibility of adding extension and enrichment opportunities to your child's curriculum.

Parents are often the ones who must expand the school's curriculum in order to challenge their children and keep them interested. Consider enrolling your child in some enrichment classes or activities either after school or on the weekends.

Join a parent's group involved in the education of gifted children.

~Questions to ask if your child is having a tough time socially:

Does my child have friends at school?

Why do you feel my child is having problems socializing with other children?

Is there anything you can do in the classroom to help my child feel more comfortable around his peers?

Do you have suggestions about what I could do at home to help my child get along better with his classmates?

Would it be a good idea for my child to talk to the school counselor or psychologist about ways to improve his socialization skills?

~Ask for an assessment of your child's progress so far this year:

How does this compare with the teacher's assessment?

Does my child regularly complete assigned tasks, including homework?\

Is my child performing at/above grade level in basic skills (math & reading)?

Is my child working up to his or her ability?

Are there areas my child needs extra help or seems less motivated?

Does my child participate in class discussions and activities?

What are my child's strengths and weaknesses in major subject areas?

Can we review some of my child's classwork together?

Do you recommend that my child receive special help in any subject?

Do you believe my child would benefit from special counseling for social situations?

What services are available for my child?

Have you observed any changes in how my child learns this year?

What academic progress has my child made since our last conference (or beginning of the school year)?

In which areas does she struggle?

What do you perceive my child's strengths to be?

Is my child in different groups for different subjects? Why?

What are my child's best and worst subjects?

What do your see as my child's interests and strengths?

Does my child seem challenged academically?

How are my child's creative thinking and problem-solving skills?

How well does my child follow instructions, listen, and work independently?

Does my child seem happy at school?

How does my child react to trying new things or making mistakes?

Have you observed any behavioral changes this year?

Does my child get along well with classmates?

Are there specific ways I can help my child at home?

How actively involved should I be with homework assignments?

Is there anything you would like me to particularly focus on outside of school?

~Before the conference:

~Talk to your child about his experience at school:

What activities does he like the most? How does he like classmates and the teacher?

Does he have some questions or issues he'd like you to address with the teacher?

What does he believe the teacher will have to say about him?

~If your partner can't attend the conference with you, ask him to add his concerns and questions to your list.

~Bring paper to jot down notes during the conference so comments, suggestions, action items, and follow-up items are not forgotten

~At the conference:

Clarify confusing comments and ask for examples if you are not sure what the teacher means.

Ask which children the teacher would encourage you to arrange playdates with for your child.

Update your child's teacher on any emotional upheavals at home that may be impacting your child, what extracurricular activities your child participates in and how much he enjoys them

Use these suggestions as a springboard for you to begin a thoughtful conversation with your child's teacher to make sure the fall stays on track for your child. Remember that the purpose of this meeting is not only to hear complaints or compliments about your child; rather, the conference offers a forum for fostering cooperation and communication between you and the teacher to help your child grow, develop, and learn in the best way possible.

Arrive on time. Your child's teacher may have conferences scheduled back-to-back, so if you are late you will deprive yourself of meeting time.

If possible, both parents should attend and should be in agreement about what you want the meeting to accomplish.

Introduce yourself and begin the conversation with a smile. If you put the teacher on the defensive it will be more difficult to have a successful meeting. Be positive and ask objective questions. Keep the lines of communication open, so do not begin with complaints.

Spend the beginning of the conference listening. Let the teacher direct the conversation. The information he shares may answer some of your questions.

Expect to hear about your child's problem areas and be prepared to ask how you can help her.

Explore your child's in-school behavior and temperament, and how that differs from your child at home

Ask your most important questions first, just in case time runs out before you and the teacher have a chance to discuss them all.

End the conference by summing up decisions you've made together.

Ask for additional meeting time whenever you need it, and take the initiative to ensure that a direct line of communication between you and the teacher remains open at all times should critical issues present themselves.

Take notes to share direct quotes with your spouse

Be prepared to follow up non-defensively on criticisms or concerns by asking more detailed questions

Teacher: "I am concerned about the aggression your son shows towards other kids."

Parent: "It would be so helpful for me to know more specifics about this...What specific types of behavior? Toward any particular child? At any particular activities or times of the day? How do you handle this? What specific things should we focus on at home?"

Feel free to write down suggestions and follow-up actions

~After the conference

Begin the action plan you and the teacher worked out together.

Share the teacher's suggestions and comments with your child. Discuss with your child simple steps to make improvements.

To see if the action plan is working, watch your child's behavior and check your child's classwork and homework.

Stay in touch with the teacher to discuss your child's progress. Meeting with your child's teachers should help build strong parent-teacher partnerships.

~If your child's teacher requests a conference at another time during the school year:

Talk to your child before the conference. Find out what he thinks is his best subject, and what subject he likes the least. Find out why. Ask your children if there is anything happening at school that he would like to share with you.

If you are a working parent who can't arrange to meet during regular hours, make this clear to the teacher and try to set up a time to meet that is good for both of you.

Stay calm and try hard to work together with your child's teacher to help your child do well. Arguing, or blaming each other for problems your child is having, helps no one.

Ask the teacher for ideas to help your child do even better in school.

Make sure your child doesn't worry about the meeting. Help him understand that you and his teacher are meeting in order to help them.

Stacy DeBroff is President and founder of Mom Central, Inc., a company devoted to providing pragmatic tips and advice to strengthen busy families and enhance the home environment. She is the author of several best-selling books on household and family organization including The Mom Book: 4,278 Tips for Moms; Sign Me Up! The Parent’s Complete Guide to Sports, Activities, and Extracurriculars; and Mom Central: The Ultimate Family Organizer. For more information, visit www.momcentral.com


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