Parent-teacher conferences

How to have a successful parent-teacher conference

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015 | Parent-teacher conferences, Parent-teacher relationships | No Comments

As soon as you click on this link, you’re probably wondering, “Who’s the audience?  Is this article for parents or teachers?”  The answer is both, because this is a relationship.

I see this relationship from a variety of angles— I am a mom (of a child with special needs, to boot!) and I was also a K-8 special education teacher and a professor in teacher education for many years.  Now, I am a Learning Disabilities Specialist at the college-level.

Yet, I still cringe at the thought of parent-teacher conferences at my daughter’s school.  I love my daughter’s teacher, so why?  Why on earth do I feel this way?

Maybe the answer isn’t so complicated.  A child is the most cherished person in the world to any parent.  For both teachers and parents, the parent-teacher conference is a deeply emotional and vulnerable experience.  As soon as we admit that, we can accept it.

Below you’ll see tips for both teachers and parents to help navigate the vulnerabilities with more grace and grit.  My hope is that by keeping the child’s best interests in mind, the conferences will go smoothly.

make the most of your parent teacher conference


Tips for teachers:

1.  You set the tone.  You determine the overall dynamic and flow, so my suggestion is that you make it as positive as possible.


 “Teaching, I was coming to understand, was a kind of romance… You… invited a relationship of sorts” (Rose, 1989, p. 102).  


Relationships give meaning to practice (Hicks, 2002, p. 151).

2.  Aesthetics can play a huge role in the comfort of some parents.  Fresh flowers, soft music, warm tea, and cookies can all go a long way in putting a person at ease.  Okay, I realize this sounds like a crazy date, but in a silly way, it is!



3.  Be specific.  Please don’t talk in generalizations.  For example, instead of saying, “Susie is such a pleasure to have in class,” say something specific such as, “Susie brings joy to my life in the ways she is always willing to lend a hand, or offer a hug when anyone appears stressed.”

4.  Always start with praise.  Brainstorm and write down lots of positive attributes about each child, and again, be specific!  Instead of saying, “Susie is really independent,” try to tease out how you know she is independent.  How does she show you that trait?  For example, “I love the way Susie gets right to work when she enters the classroom.  She is eager to begin a new activity.”

5.  Any parent wants to hear that you genuinely care for, or even love, his/her child.  Don’t be shy about expressing that, and again, be specific.  Instead of simply saying, “I adore Susie,” say “I love Susie because she is a ray of sunshine, always smiling and enthusiastic.  She is a bundle of energy, and her energy  invigorates me.”

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6.  Of course, no human being is perfect… not even this fictional Susie.  So, have a bulleted list of goals for parents to read, specific to each child.  Right after each bulleted goal, have a brief plan of how you propose to meet each goal.  Many parents are goal-oriented, and want their children to be working on things, anyway.  This approach makes parents much less defensive, because it’s not negative, yet still targets what the child needs to work on.

Here is an example:

Susie will be reading Level L books by the end of the school year.  In order to accomplish this goal, we will need to nail down her long vowel patterns.  We will have dedicated word work for fifteen minutes each day.  Each session will involve a brief review and mini-lesson, followed by a word game to tackle each long vowel pattern.  (Maybe have a basket nearby with a sample lesson.  People love visuals and hands-on examples.)  Parents also appreciate this “we” language because it shows that “we’re in this together” type of attitude.

7.  Inevitably, there are negative issues with children in your class, and those shouldn’t be ignored.  There are tips to address the issues with honesty and neutrality.  Describe the experience and immediately follow-up with a plan or two with how you plan to address it, or how you have already been addressing it.  For example, let’s say fictional Susie is bossy (for lack of better way of putting it) and it turns off a lot of her peers.  I might say, “Since Susie has such an independent streak, she sometimes acts in a very directive way with other students, which her friends find upsetting.  I have been suggesting that Susie write down her ideas in a journal, instead of overwhelming her friends with the ideas.  I will also work with Susie on ways to ask her friends questions about what they would like to do. I’m also working on partnering Susie with a younger student with whom she’ll become an academic buddy, providing her with a more productive avenue for her energy.”


Overlap tips between teachers and parents:


1.  One trap I see a lot of teachers and parents fall into is the “wish trap.”  This is when a teacher or parent says something like, “I wish Susie would just sit still and focus.  I know she is so smart, and we’re not seeing all of which she is capable because she just won’t sit still long enough to show us.”  This is the “wish trap” because it’s negative and not goal oriented.  Plus, we need to accept the children where they are, not where we wish they were.  Describe times Susie does sit still and listen well.  What’s happening during those times so you can replicate it?  If Susie has trouble focusing, what are strategies to help her sit still?  Maybe physical exercise before school, a different diet, sensory objects to hold, or perhaps behavior incentives?



2.  Both parents and teachers are sources of hope for the child.  Keep a tone of hopefulness throughout the conference.  The conference should not be a force of doom and gloom, examining everything wrong with the child.  I’ve worked with very troubled youth in my career, yet I’m always careful to remain realistic, yet positive in my conferences, pointing out strengths in each human being, and harnessing those strengths to address weaknesses.  Finally, I always have back-up plans for the students, offering suggestions until every person in the room feels hopeful moving forward.


Tips for parents:


1.  Listen.  The conference is your time to listen.  This isn’t about you.  This is about your child.  I know this sounds harsh, but… check your ego at the door.  We all have dreams for our children.  This conference is about meeting your child where he/she is right now, not where you hope she’ll be at age 40.


2.  That said, trust your instincts.  If something doesn’t feel right to you, please speak up, and offer suggestions.  Or, wait and let the information digest at home, and set up another time to discuss your ideas with the teacher once you’ve had time to think about the information.


3.  You are your child’s best advocate.  There are times I have respectfully disagreed with professionals at my daughter’s school.  It wasn’t a fight over who’s right; in the end we’re all just trying to do what’s best for the child.

That is precisely the conclusion, too.  Both parents and teachers have the best interests of the children in mind.  When parents trust that the teachers truly have the best interests of the children in mind, the relationship grows.


Hicks, D. (2002). Reading lives: Working-class children and literacy learning. New York: Teachers College Press.

Rose, M. (2005).  Lives on the boundary.  New York: Penguin.