As educators, one of the most important life skills we teach students is independence. In middle school, we foster gradual responsibility. We also encourage students to take a more active role in their own learning and to develop the tools needed to self-advocate.
Providing students with the ability to have open discussions with their parents about their successes and struggles puts these skills into practice in a collaborative, supportive way.
The student-led conference model replaces the traditional parent-teacher conference. Students prepare for the conference, lead the discussion with their parents, and set goals for the remainder of the school year. Parents are notified that the conference will be student-led, with staff available to assist and answer questions.
Preparation for the Conference
Students complete a preparation document that links to the school or district mission statement and vision. Making this connection clear is a key to gaining student buy-in.
Preparation also underscores the importance of analysis and self-reflection at this point in the student’s educational journey.
The first section of the preparation document asks students to determine at least three specific academic items they wish to share with their parents. Some students prefer to share one achievement from each academic area.
The next part of the preparation asks students to reflect on areas of improvement. Most of the time, students know their struggles ahead of time. In our school, we also use goals from our building vision statement.
Students make connections to personal academic goals like:
- becoming a lifelong learner and pursuing my passions
- expanding my horizons for future endeavors (opportunities)
- meeting high expectations and pursuing individual excellence
- utilizing digital tools to complete tasks in a meaningful way
Students also identify social and emotional goals like:
- solving interpersonal problems and being resilient through setbacks
- self-advocating (asking for help when needed)
- promoting acceptance of others’ perspective, personalities, and abilities
- responding to the needs of others
- finding a healthy balance between school and extracurricular activities
- making responsible decisions
Practicing the Conference
Once students have prepared their written notes on the organizer, the next step is to prepare them for a successful face-to-face conference with their parents.
Most students need some modeling for their first experience with a student-led conference, so a teacher might share an example. Another option is to have a student who already has had experience with student-led conferences practice with the student.
Teachers can also model the conference for students, or they may select students to model the experience while the teacher directly guides the discussion. Typically, teaching presentation skills such as eye contact and voice volume, as well as discussion techniques like elaboration, helps students gain comfort and confidence with the experience.
Hosting The Conference
It’s helpful to have an agenda available—either printed or projected—to remind students of conference basics like:
- introducing their parents to their teacher
- incorporating the presentation skills they practiced
- setting reasonable goals, with a solid action plan for each one
- reviewing their report card before concluding the conference
Multiple conferences can occur simultaneously with the student-led model, so teachers can float in and out of conferences and maintain collaborative communication. If parents wish to speak with specific teachers about areas of concern, students can help their parents locate the teacher and take part in the discussion as well.
Parents can be invited to provide feedback about the conference experience before they leave or can tell teachers in each conference room how they feel about the experience.
Middle school students are at a perfect age developmentally not only to be part of discussions that address their needs and celebrate their accomplishments, but to conduct those discussions and set their own goals for the remainder of the school year.
The goals set by students can be reviewed again mid-year with teachers to ensure that students are on track to meet them. Teachers can offer additional assistance if students aren’t making adequate progress toward a goal. These conversations give students more practice with self-advocating and give teachers the opportunity to further discuss student goals set earlier in the school year.
Giving students the responsibility to communicate their struggles and successes with their parents fosters independent learners who can share their thoughts, feelings, needs, and accomplishments.