George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Parent-teacher conferences are one of the few opportunities for families to converse with teachers about their children's progress and needs. Lines of people wait their turn for these 15- to 20-minute interactions. One result is a conversation that establishes a relationship and delivers essential information about a student's progress.

Teachers usually carry the burden of making the conference productive, yet if families were included more through communications and collaborative meeting planning, the experience could become more mutually fruitful. To this end, I'll introduce each of my points with voices from families suggesting collaborative communication about their needs.

Build a Team: Make Frequent Contacts Before Each Conference

I hoped teachers would inform me between conferences if anything was amiss or pleasing about my children's progress, socially or academically, so that there would be no big surprises during the conferences.
I value a teacher who communicates expectations using a website, blog, or email. In today's busy world, it is nice to have the information at your fingertips when you need it.

Parent-teacher conferences tend to be the first time that discussions happen about the student. Transform those short, focused sessions into a meaningful dialogue by sending updates several times before the event. Start simple with two to three contacts before the conference. Consider doing more based on individual student needs. Providing these timely diagnostic updates will help families have meatier discussions with their students:

1. Lead with areas of progress and/or exhibited strengths.

Families need to know how their child is demonstrating positive growth. Highlighting strengths becomes a foundation for motivation to tackle any challenges. Some parents rarely hear about successes by their child.

2. Share needs and next steps.

Parents should be informed about any learning challenges that their children face. Also share the next steps that you will take. People listen better to challenges and obstacles when a professional provides solutions. Certainly, families can and should assist, but they aren't the trained experts. Understanding the teacher's next steps reassures them that their child's progress is in good hands.

3. Suggest at least one parent support.

Parent support depends on parents' skills and understanding. This is hard to identify early in the year when the relationship is new. Start with general suggestions such as: "Provide a space where your child can complete homework undisturbed." Ultimately, the teacher, like a doctor, is the expert who must bear the load for designing and implementing remedies.

Offer the opportunity for a follow-up conversation at the parents' request. This invitation sends a message: "We are a Team."

Empower Parents/Families to Be Equal Partners

I'd like the teacher to start by telling me something my kid did right. Then I'd like her/him to ask, "What questions do you have?"
I want evidence that the teacher has put together a thoughtful plan for meeting the needs of my child, and it is one that he/she can articulate and provide evidence for how it is being implemented.

Frequent contacts result in a stronger parent-teacher relationship and a foundation for transforming the traditional conference into a collaboration about meeting student needs. With such a relationship established, the following steps can help parents and teachers prepare collectively for a productive face-to-face meeting.

1. Establish a collaborative focus.

Meeting time tends to be limited because of the need to schedule so many families. Establishing the meeting's purpose helps to frame the conversation. Share a structure so that parents know what to expect. For example:

  • Have the student attend the meeting.
  • Celebrate learning strengths.
  • Parents and teacher explore needs and questions for learning improvements and enrichments.
  • 3-2-1: Agree on next steps for the teacher (3), parent/family (2), and student (1). As the professional, the teacher can provide nuanced supports. Doing more can motivate the families to take action.

Invite families' input and questions about possible changes. When parents share questions, the teacher has time to prepare responses and customize the meeting. Families will likely agree with the teacher's established purpose -- it's extending the invitation that matters.

2. Brief and debrief.

Invite parents to discuss student progress and needs with their child before and after the conference.

I want communication that supports the discussions I can have with my child.

A conversation between parent and child can uncover needs and perspectives of which the teacher may be unaware. Parents come to the meeting ready to share affirmations, successes, and concerns that are informed by such a conversation. One challenge for this to be successful is that many parents would benefit from a planning guide. This list of steps can be as simple as identifying two likes and concerns that the student has about the class, or it can follow a more formal structure such as the following:

  1. Invite families to discuss the child's perceptions about his or her work. Consider having students share their classroom reflections on selected assignments with their families. This could eventually lead to student-led conferences.

  2. Bring to the conference a list two or three strengths and one or two concerns regarding the child's learning experiences.

Collaboration = Student Progress

I appreciate that teachers take time away from their own families to treat my child as their own.

The African proverb, "It takes a village to raise a child," is true with the collaborative relationship of families and teachers. Working together means interacting on equal footing. The teacher is an expert of education. Families know their children far more deeply than the teacher. When parents and teachers are in sync regarding what learners need and the next steps, student progress is inevitable.

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Scott Buchholtz's picture

I too, like ken, like to have my students present. I work in a district that would rather me have the kids stay home or in the hall, but I feel it very important that they themselves see myself and their parents working as a team to benefit them. I attack each conference with a 3 part system going in.
Part A- Success and accomplishments- with three parts to this part.
(a) success's from my point of view
(b) success's from the perspective of the student
(c) success's from the perspective of the parent.
Part B- 2 or 3 "points to ponder"
(a) Here I'll ask the student first what they think they need to work on
(b) then I'll ask the parents for their imput
(c) then I'll follow up with my data and areas of concern
Part C- Plan of attack
In this section, I like to have all parties involved in this process; myself, parents and students. We'll discuss what needs to happen moving forward and schedule a follow up meeting if needed. I find by attacking each conference this way, everyone leaves feeling satisfied and with a plan in place, we can keep learning at a maximum.

Ken O'Connor's picture

Sounds great Scott, and I liked what you said about parent-teacher conferences if that is all a school or district will allow.

Scott Buchholtz's picture

My district just sends out "district recommendations" prior to the conferences. These are just that, recommendations, with the underlying notion of what is expected. I teach 1st grade and I'm only given 15 minutes per conference. My process does take all of that time. I do wish I had more time to give to the students to participate a bit more. On other occasions, and if warranted, I do schedule a different time after school to discuss issues further.

Claire Murray's picture
Claire Murray
Counselor and Teacher

This is a very valuable article on how both parents and teachers can get the most out of Parent-Teacher Conferences. These can be very valuable experiences that educate parents on how they can help their children and get their own questions answered, rather than something to "just get through". Thanks for writing it!!!

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Teena Edwards's picture

There is some very valuable information in this blog. I am very excited to have parents more involved in a collaborative parent-teacher conference. I really like the idea of having several contacts with each parents before conferences. It really gives the parents more insight on what is going on with their child. I also really like the idea of empowering parents; having them come to the conference with list of strengths and concerns. Thanks for sharing.

stewart12's picture

I agree this article does have valuable information. I am very glad that I have formed bonds with my parents. I use an app call class dojo to talk with my parents on a daily basis. This opens parental communications with all parents and teachers.

Basiyr Rodney's picture

At my daughter's school the 8th grade did their recent parent teacher conference like a mini student defense. Each family had 7 minutes to meet with their student and the team if teachers. The student presented her portfolio of work and explained different artifacts based on the class curriculum and goals. Both the parents and the teachers questioned the student about her artifacts, classroom experiences and engagement with the curriculum. It was truly awesome! I loved it.

Kteacherles's picture

We have 3 parent conferences a year. I always try to use 3-2-1 method. Tell them 3 things the student is doing well in, 2 things they can improve and 1 way the parents can support them at home.

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Harvey Hoyo's picture
Harvey Hoyo
Professor Emeritus - National University- California

Great ideas- in my mind- the "It Takes a Village" metaphor rings very true. For many parents that are uncomfortable communicating with teachers, it is also useful to use the school counselor to prepare a series of workshops focusing on the parents role in a parent-teacher conference. Many of our schools service communities where parents believe that the educators should have all the answers (they went to college- the parents did not). These parents often have trust in the schools and feel awkward in asking questions. The school counselor can serve as the bridge between this set of parents and the school.

Rachel M's picture

Thank you for sharing. I have parent teacher conferences coming up in a few weeks and I appreciate your post. Conferences are so integral to a child's education and it is such a shame that we only have them a few times a year for 20 minutes. I appreciate your framework of a conference. It is easy to get talking and lose track of time in a conference so having an outline before going in is helpful. Looking forward to trying some of your ideas this year.

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