Dreading Parent-Teacher Conferences? Try This New Approach
By Anna Stewart
Soon we will be carving pumpkins, raking leaves, pulling scarves out of the back of the closet…and bracing ourselves for parent-teacher conferences.
Some parents go to conferences expecting glowing reports, but many of us dread them. Maybe it’s because, like me, you’ve had a prior bad experience. I remember going to my first parent-teacher conference when my oldest child was in kindergarten and having the teacher run through a long list of complaints about my son. He didn’t sit still at circle time, didn’t want to write, interrupted her and on and on. The message I got was, “You’re not raising a good son.” I was so shocked and hurt, I couldn’t respond. I felt powerless.
The best to time bring up issues is prior to an official parent-teacher conference. By reducing the risk that either side will be caught by surprise at a conference, you’ll also reduce your anxiety about attending them.
It’s not easy to face these conferences when you know that your loving, giving child has labels like stubborn, unfocused, disruptive and annoying, and he just isn’t built for the demands of most classrooms. But as parents, we know that negative labels are not the entirety of who our child is, and that our child needs some understanding and support in order to succeed at school.
Since that first difficult conference, I’ve learned to use the three P’s of Praise, Prevent and Plan to create a productive parent-teacher conference. It helps to lessen your anxiety and increase your confidence so the meeting with the teacher does what it’s supposed to do: effectively address your child’s needs.
Everyone responds well to positive feedback, especially when what they often hear is criticism. This holds true for teachers as well as children. Finding something to authentically praise about your child’s teacher will create a pathway between you and the teacher for seeing good, and sets the stage for creating a respectful relationship. It’s also modeling what you want the teacher to do with your child: find the good and praise it.
The most effective way to praise anyone is to include an exclamation (for example, thank you or great job) and a description of the actual behavior. Be sure to praise the skill or work demonstrated by the teacher, rather than vague “talents” or “gifts.” Instead of saying, “Wow, you are so talented with those kids,” (which doesn’t reflect what the teacher actually did) try, “Wow, wonderful work, Mr. Jones. I noticed that you kept calm, and the students really responded to you.” If you are struggling to find something to praise, go smaller. Maybe the teacher has organized the classroom in a calming way or ties the curriculum to current events. It may feel awkward at first, so practice using authentic praise with your child, your partner, the bus driver and others. It’s the first step to building a connection and a relationship.
Finding a connection with your child’s teacher through the use of authentic praise will help you feel more confident when bringing up concerns to them. The best time to bring up issues is prior to an official parent-teacher conference. Why? Because it prevents surprises. By reducing the risk that either side will be caught by surprise at a conference, you’ll also reduce your anxiety about attending them. Being in touch beforehand can also prevent either party from dumping their frustrations on the other while at the conference.
At the beginning of the school year, find out from the teacher the best way to communicate so there are no misunderstandings. (Pick–up time is not a good time to talk; there are too many listening ears.) Email is pretty much the standard at all grade levels, though there are teachers who prefer phone calls.
Contact the teacher two weeks before the scheduled conference to share your concerns and to mention the topics you want the teacher to discuss with you. Even if you can’t identify any concerns yet, reach out to them! This communication is your opportunity to reinforce the respectful, positive tone you want for your relationship. Be sure to include some effective praise. Keep the email (or call) brief and to the point. Here is a sample email; feel free to use it.
Sample Email to Teacher
I want to thank you for the experience, expertise and compassion you bring to your classroom. My child, [Name], is getting a great education here at [Name of School]. I noticed that you had the classroom well-organized and labeled when we attended Back-to-School night. I could see that you put a lot of effort into creating an inviting and well-prepared classroom.
Parent-teacher conferences are coming up, and I (or, my partner and I, etc.) wanted to reach out to bring up a few concerns that I/we have about my/our child. I know that you will have a lot to share with me/us in our short meeting, and I’d/we’d like to be sure there are no surprises for anyone.
As you know, my child has (AD/HD, anxiety, ODD, depression…) and that it impacts his/her ability to (stay on task, deal with transitions, complete assignments, keep their hands to themselves, talk to their neighbor, not blurt out in class…). Homework is a significant struggle every night. I can see my child is starting to dislike school and wants to give up on all school work. Homework takes two to three times longer than what you told us it should at Back-to-School night. It is interfering with sleep, dinner and down-time. I would like to discuss some options for making it more manageable.
Can you tell me what you are seeing in the classroom? What is your biggest concern?
I would also love to hear about what is going well, and see some examples of his/her work.
I want [Child’s Name] to feel supported by all of us, and to know that we are all working together.
Thank you for your time, thoughtfulness and teaching!
The final step in making conferences constructive is to plan ahead. Organize and prioritize your concerns, and be prepared with your own data to bring to parent-teacher conferences. For example, a common complaint is the challenge of getting homework done. It can take hours, include tears, and is frustrating for parents and students. If the stress of homework is negatively affecting your child, then keep a homework log and share it with the teacher. Log more than just the time; include the work, whether the child knew how to do it, the breakdowns experienced, the breaks taken, and everything else. Don’t surprise the teacher with the log at your conference. Do include a summary of it when you email the teacher prior to the conference. Conferences should never be the first time either teacher or parents hear about a concern.
Or, if you know the teacher is already frustrated with your child, be prepared to discuss why, what you do at home and suggestions for school. Gather your information, including reports from private therapists or doctors. And be sure to ask your child. One way to get details is to sit with your child and have a piece of paper with a line down the middle. On the left, list what is working and on the right, list what isn’t working. Go through the entire day, from arriving at school to heading home. Explain to your child that how he or she is experiencing school is important for you and the teacher to know in order to make it better. Many children will not feel comfortable saying negative things about a teacher. You can promise not to show the paper to the teacher, and instead summarize the feedback.
Parents can do the same exercise, writing down what is and isn’t working. Compare it to your child’s sheet. From there, pick one or two things you consider priorities, and that is what you share with the teacher. You should also have some specific examples of things to praise (such as how much your child enjoys the nice comments on her papers and tests when she does well).
While parent-teacher conferences can be hard to face, it can help to realize that the teacher may be just as nervous as you are when it comes to having uncomfortable conversations. By opening the door with praise, planning and prevention, you start on common ground, making it easier to focus on the reason you are there—to help your child find success at school.