A teacher, student, and parent engaged in a parent-teacher conference
Family Engagement

5 Strategies for a Successful Parent-Teacher Conference

Parent-teacher conferences don’t have to be such a headache. Educators weigh in on how to solve common problems.

October 5, 2018

For many teachers, parent conferences are often accompanied by a sense of dread. There are the parents who push back on any critique, the ones who don’t understand how to help, and the ones who never show. The meetings aren’t that much easier for parents, who rush to squeeze them in on a workday or feel the teacher isn’t understanding their child.

But parent-teacher meetings can be productive. We’ve gathered five common concerns—from both teachers’ and parents’ perspectives—and identified strategies to improve attendance, communication, and student outcomes.

Problem: It’s difficult to get parents to show up.

Solution: There’s possibly nothing more frustrating than parents who don’t come to a conference or meeting at all.

According to a 2008 study from the U.S. Department of Education and the National Center for Education Statistics, more than one in five parents reported that they didn’t regularly attend parent-teacher conferences.

In many cases, both parents work and it’s challenging to schedule times that work for them, as most conferences are held in the afternoon, says Charles Saylors, former president of the National Parent Teacher Association (PTA), as reported by NPR. Saylors encourages scheduling morning and evening conferences when parents are out of work—or even visiting students’ homes, if possible.

Guidance from George Hall Elementary in Mobile, Alabama, may help. Experiencing low attendance at larger family events, the school started looking more closely at families’ needs and restrictions. Since many George Hall families work shifts, the school began hosting events near the start or end of shift times. The school held events from 4 to 6 p.m., so there was still enough light out for families to walk home afterward.

But sometimes parents simply forget. A range of education tech tools, like Remind and ClassDojo, now enable teachers to keep parents abreast of school and classroom happenings, which can provide the nudge parents need to remember. Many schools have found that quick text messages work just as well, and a number of services will translate texts into different languages.

Problem: Discussions of a student’s performance leave a parent confused.

Solution: Quickly handing over a report card or assessments in a conference can leave parents uncertain of their child’s performance—or how to help.

A practice used by Maureen Holt, a reading specialist at Humboldt Elementary School in Dewey-Humboldt, Arizona, may alleviate this issue.

Holt has found it helpful to share student data with parents regularly, not just at a conference or meeting. Every three weeks, she sends home data folders containing printouts about specific skills students are tested on, graphs showing how each student performed, and descriptions explaining the assessment data and any confusing terminology used to explain it.

Holt also hosts a data night at the beginning of the year at which she explains the folders to parents, and she schedules one-on-one parent meetings as needed or when requested throughout the year.

Problem: Parents have a hard time hearing negative feedback about their child.

Solution: The joke that parents think their kids are perfect does have some truth.

To handle tricky situations when you have to give negative feedback at conferences, an approach suggested by Joe Hirsch, a leadership coach and former curriculum developer, might help.

Hirsch recommends avoiding the “feedback sandwich” and instead following a framework of context, observations, emotions, value, and input. First, name the context—the time and place—where the problem occurs, like during small-group interactions. Next, share specific and objective observations about what happened. Then describe how the student’s actions impact others emotionally and why that matters. Lastly, ask parents for input on how the issue can be resolved productively, so you approach the problem as partners.

Terri Eichholz, an elementary teacher of over 25 years, also suggests being proactive and getting ahead of the feedback. “Don’t wait for problems to arise. Make it a point to communicate frequently and positively so that you have already developed a relationship before you hit bumps in the road,” she says.

When parents are not native English speakers, there’s a greater chance that feedback given during a conference may be misinterpreted or misunderstood. The video tool Spotlight, which translates report cards from English into other languages, helped Oakland Unified School District in California break down this barrier. Each video uses a parent’s home language to explain report card terminology, highlight areas in which a student needs to improve and grow, and provide recommendations for how parents can help their child at home.

Problem: Students aren’t getting the feedback on how they can improve.

Solution: There’s no a guarantee that parents are actually sharing what they learn at a conference with their child.

To help students take ownership of their learning and keep lines of communication open between school and home, Wildwood IB World Magnet School, a K–8 public school in Chicago, has student-led conferences twice a year. Students present a portfolio of work to their parents and teacher, and respond to reflection prompts like, “I have been successful at...” and “I still need help with....” The week before the conference, students spend 10 to 15 minutes a day learning about what makes a good student-led conference and practicing their presentations.

And in student-led conferences at the middle school at University Park Campus School, a 7–12 public school in Worcester, Massachusetts, students share their strengths and weaknesses, set academic and behavior goals, and ask for support where needed. They use guided templates for creating the agenda, reflecting on how the meeting went, and making any needed changes by the follow-up meeting a few weeks later. In 11th grade, the student-led meetings are college and career focused. Students discuss their career interests and hopes for college, then create an action plan so they’re ready to apply.

"School is not here to happen to students,” says Dan St. Louis, University Park’s principal. “They are an active participant.”

Problem: Parents don’t know how to help their kids improve.

Solution: Helping parents support their kids can be as simple as giving parents a handout—or it can mean an overhaul of the traditional parent-teacher conference.

While working as the director of community education in Creighton Elementary School District in Phoenix, Maria Paredes developed Academic Parent-Teacher Teams (APTT), a new take on parent-teacher conferences that is now used by schools all over the country.

In this model, all parents are brought together in a large group setting three times a year to discuss the entire class’s academic data with the teacher. The goal is to get parents out of isolation and connect them to other parents who might be able to provide advice or the support they need to help their child. Parents also meet individually with the teacher to look over their child’s performance, and then help create a 60-day academic plan for their child with specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely (SMART) goals for the student. The plan and the results are reviewed by parents, students, and the teacher during the year, with modifications made as necessary.

But sometimes a conference is just not enough time.

At Design 39 Campus, a K–8 public school in San Diego, conferences and quick exchanges with teachers proved insufficient for parents to feel confident to support their children’s academic growth at home. In response, the school established parent workshops in which teachers invite parents into the classroom during the school day. Students share their work with their parents for the first half hour, and then teachers give a 30-minute presentation just for parents that builds on the work students are doing in school. Afterward, teachers provide related resources—games, websites, readings—that families can take home to use with their children.

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