Family Engagement

Engaging With Families Through Parent-Teacher Conferences

These strategies for before, during, and after conferences help teachers create genuine partnerships with families.

February 20, 2024
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In many of our schools, parent-teacher conferences are a missed opportunity for building stronger relationships, trust, and communication between educators and families. Rarely do teachers make the intentional effort to ask questions and treat families as experts on their children. This serves to perpetuate the dynamic of educator as expert and parent as passive recipient of information and tends to compound the ways that families often don’t feel heard.

I lead the Family Partnerships department in my school district. At a Families and Educators Together team gathering at Lincoln Elementary School, we asked families about their experiences with parent-teacher conferences. They shared that they had felt rushed and dominated by teacher talk. The parents also wished, as one father put it, that teachers would take the time to “ask about what our life is like at home and what we know about our child.” Here is how we adjusted our conference strategy to help meet the needs of our families. 

Rethinking Conferences

Before conferences. I have three recommendations to plan for conferences. First, reach out to families beforehand to ask what would make the time most useful or meaningful to them. Second, provide families with suggested questions that they can ask, such as the BVSD parent planning guide I created, which supports greater two-way communication. Third, share a summary of academic data with families in advance of conferences, along with some benchmarks or explanations to help them better understand the data.

During conferences. Always lead with strengths and a smile, and use this as an opportunity to build relationships. Start with positive statements and open-ended questions. As John O’Donohue says, questions can be like “lanterns,” illuminating new possibilities for partnership and collaboration. Ensure that family members or students talk at least one-third of the time and truly listen. Provide info on the student’s academic progress in succinct, easy-to-understand language that provides context to the numerical data. Share concrete suggestions around how the family can support their child’s success at home. And finally, end with a thank-you and a summary of how the conference has helped you better understand the student. 

We also want to make sure that conferences are equitable for all families regardless of their preferred language. One strategy is to increase conference time for families that utilize an interpreter. This shift makes conferences more equitable for families that speak a language other than English and provides staff with more time to hear from families.

When I lead professional development on how to enhance conferences, I also share with staff examples of the types of questions that they can ask families to learn more deeply about their students, as well as potential questions for them to anticipate or address. To promote more-effective cross-cultural communication, I encourage them to do the following: 

  • Begin the conversation on a personal level rather than starting with a formal progress report on what you know about their child.
  • Explain the goals and expectations of your classroom so that family members can ask questions for clarification.
  • Solicit input from parents (i.e., “Your knowledge about your child is always going to be so much deeper and more thorough than what I know. I depend on you to tell me whatever you think is important for me to be the best teacher of your child.”).
  • If an interpreter is present, maintain eye contact with the family members and not the interpreter. 
  • Create a sense of common purpose and unity through the use of the pronoun we rather than you and me.

After conferences. I encourage educators to follow three steps after conferences. First, it is ideal to give families time to provide feedback on the conference itself, by asking questions such as What was most helpful during our conversation?” or “How can I best support your child in the future?” Second, it is beneficial to ask them the best way for you to communicate with them moving forward. Finally, it can be beneficial for teachers to make a quick follow-up call with select families to share strides their children have made or next steps. 

the benefits of rethinking conferences

Parents notice the difference. When we asked the parents at Lincoln Elementary about their experience with the second round of conferences, parents told us, “We could talk more, we had more time to ask questions, and there was greater clarity between the two of us about my child’s academic progress, behavior, and homework.”

Our educators noticed the differences too, in both how the conferences felt and the outcomes. As one kindergarten teacher shared with me, “Our team adjusted our conferences after our professional learning on Monday, and we saw some wonderful outcomes on night one!”

Embracing a more relational approach to conferences makes it a more connective and energizing, and less frenzied and exhausting, experience for us as educators. When we prioritize building trusted relationships, the benefits ripple out to everyone at home and at school.

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