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Tips for Successful Parent-Teacher Conferences

EducationWorld is pleased to feature this informative article from contributing teacher Rick Garrett, who teaches second grade in the Spanish Immersion program at Ralph Gates Elementary School in Lake Forest, California.

Every teacher knows the feeling of dread when the parents of a challenging student are due for their parent/teacher conference. Whether the student has behavioral issues or is having serious academic problems, the teacher must have the finesse of a diplomat to tactfully but clearly communicate the situation to the parents. 

Every teacher also knows that sinking feeling when the conference has not gone as hoped.  Unfortunately, guidance on conducting a successful parent/teacher conference is rarely provided in teacher preparation courses. There are several strategies, however, that can help make conferences successful.

First, keep your eyes on the goal. Remember, the purpose of the parent/teacher conference is to clearly communicate the student’s progress in school, and in the case of a student who is having difficulty, to enlist the parents’ cooperation in the effort to remediate any problems. 

Preparation for a good parent/teacher conference is a must and starts on the first day of school. Get to know your students the first week of the year. Note any obvious difficulties a child may be having, either academic or behavioral. In your beginning-of-the-year letter, class Web page, or back-to-school presentation, clearly spell out your policies and procedures and make sure all parents know what to expect in regards to homework, tests, grades, etc. 

If a child is already having great difficulty from the start of the school year, call the parents in as soon as possible to alert them to the child’s struggles and what interventions can be put into place to avoid failing grades on the first report card. Stay in close contact with these parents so that the “bomb” of any negative news is not dropped on them unexpectedly in the first conference. In this way, the conference will be just another meeting in an ongoing series of updates.

Keep accurate records and documentation of each child’s progress. It’s never good to be vague and subjective in a conference, especially when there is difficult information to share with parents. If you’ve already been in close contact with the parents of any child experiencing difficulty, there should be no surprises on the report card.

As conference day approaches, be sure to have everything you need prepared well ahead of time. If the report card is presented to parents at the conference, have it completed well in advance and double and triple check for any errors. Have class work, tests, completed and graded projects, etc. at hand to support the grades. Make sure the grades on the report card clearly reflect the assessments.

Before the conference, rehearse some of the anticipated questions you may need to address or explanations you might have to give. Take one last glance over the report card just before the parents come in. Then put on a smile, warmly greet them and start the conference with a positive comment.

It’s always best at the first possible opportunity to try to discern the personality traits of the parents and monitor the dynamics of the conference accordingly. Some parents may have a different frame of reference than what you expect. Even if you send every test, quiz and graded project home for the parents to see, they may still rejoice at the 10 percent of the questions their child got correct and be oblivious to the 90 percent she wasn’t able to answer. Don’t be surprised when they are shocked to see an F on the report card.

Monitor the language you use and try to keep it as positive as possible. Phrases such as “He has been working towards passing the fifth timed test for some time now,” are much more positive than “He has a lot of trouble adding and subtracting.” Instead of saying, “I want her to study more for her spelling tests,” try saying, “She needs to study more for her spelling tests.” This puts the responsibility back on the students and/or their parents.

How many times have we mentally kicked ourselves after the fact for not having the exact response to a pointed or accusatory statement made by someone else? Some examples of this during parent/teacher conferences include:

“Well, he never had this trouble last year!”  A possible response: “Last year was a different curriculum, a different environment, a different set of classmates, and a different teacher. This year the curriculum is more challenging.” Here is where it’s a good idea to confer with last year’s teacher or check the student’s cumulative file before the conference. If these investigations reveal that a child is still having the same difficulties as last year, this may be tactfully pointed out to the parent.

“He says he’s bored.”  (Possibly meaning either the class or the teacher is boring, or in the parents’ opinion, the child is too intellectually advanced for the class.) You might mention that you maintain a challenging pace and workload for the students, so there is not much time for a student to be bored. If you have witnessed the child truly struggling to master a concept, share this with the parents to balance their view that the work in your class is not challenging enough. If you have seen from the beginning of the year that the child is academically advanced, hopefully you have provided him with enrichment activities not available to the other students and can share this fact as well.

“Your tests are too hard.”  A possible response is, “Almost all the tests come from the assessment materials provided by the publishers, who have created them to assess what the students have learned. In the rare case I feel a publisher’s test isn’t aligned with what was taught in class, I will modify it so it reflects a fair and accurate picture of what the children were to have learned.”

“Well, she can do the work at home.”  The teacher will never really know if this is accurate, or under what circumstances the student can do the work at home. A possible response is, “Now he just needs to transfer that ability to being able to do it in the classroom.” Another possible response is, “I’m glad he’s mastered that skill in a one-on-one setting. The classroom environment is a little different, in that he needs to do it in a small-group setting and eventually independently in a whole-class situation within a reasonable amount of time.” 

On the other hand, honestly confess any oversights on your part that you need to correct. Nothing will put you in the good graces of parents like letting them know that you’re human, too. If faced with a miscalculated grade or other oversight, beg their pardon and assure them it will be promptly rectified.

During the conference of a child who is experiencing difficulties, explain to the parent what additional interventions you can put into place at school and suggest other techniques they might implement at home. Jot down the interventions you commit to in front of the parents, so they see you are serious about helping their child succeed. The focus of the conference should always be, “How can we, as a team, better help your child be successful?” To reinforce this team approach, always seat yourself on the same side of the table as the parents. Sitting across the table from them could set up an authoritative position that might suggest the parents are still students themselves.

It’s an unfortunate fact that the worst conferences can turn into ongoing nightmares.  These are the conferences where the parent comes with both barrels loaded, ready to do battle. To defuse the situation, try some of the following techniques:

  • First, let the parent vent. Quietly, patiently and respectfully listen, making mental notes of how you need to respond when the explosion is over.
  • Second, make sure you keep your cool. Respond firmly but politely. Raising your voice will be like throwing gasoline on a fire. Practice active listening. Use statements like, “I hear that you’re upset about that. Let me clarify what happened.”
  • Third, don’t hesitate to enlist help from your principal if it gets ugly. If you anticipate there will be problems with any conference, it’s always a good idea to tip your principal off to that possibility before it happens, and maybe ask him or her to sit in on the conference.

If you have done your homework and are prepared for the conference, you will automatically exude the confidence you need to confront any situation. Remember, 90 percent of your conferences will be pleasant meetings that will reinforce a team approach that supports your students’ ongoing success.  

Rick Garrett, M.Ed., M.A. has been teaching the lower elementary grades for 30 years in different parts of the United States and South America. He attended UCLA, where he earned a degree in Curriculum and the Study of Schooling.   


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