Strategies for a Successful Parent-Teacher Conference

Here's what to expect -- and how to prep -- for your first meeting with your child's teacher.

parents talking to teacher

The first day of school is a time for making memories: new backpacks, pictures in front of the house, tales of new friends. Once back-to-school momentum builds, parent-teacher conference season arrives. This is your opportunity to talk, usually for about 10 to 15 minutes, two-on-one with your child's teacher, about how your child is learning-and behaving-when you're not around. Yes folks, it's time to get serious.

For parents of many kindergartners and first-graders, this is the first meeting of its kind. Concerned about what you'll learn? Not sure what to ask? Apprehension is normal. Melissa Skabich, mother of three in Cedar Grove, NJ, and author of the blog Fits 'N' Giggles, says, "I had no idea what to expect for my first parent-teacher conference. I wish I had talked to parents of kids who had had that teacher for more insight about what to ask, what to look out for, and how to make the most of the time in the conference."

Dr. Scott Mandel, author of The Parent-Teacher Partnership: How to Work Together for Student Achievement, explains that this is a meeting in your child's classroom to meet the teacher, form a trusting relationship, and hear what he or she has seen your child experience, socially and academically. It's incredibly important for parents and teachers to form a true alliance from the get-go. His first point: keep an open mind. If you've gotten the "scoop" on a teacher from other parents before you've had a chance to form your own opinion, be sure to still take the time to see if your personal philosophy and the teacher's are compatible.

There are several ways parents can contribute to making the conference a productive and informative meeting. Mandel shared a number of helpful strategies for you to keep in mind at your upcoming parent-teacher conference, and throughout the school year.

    1. Plan ahead.
      Mark your calendar. For families where the parents are separated or divorced, and if there are step-parents, try to ensure that everyone is included whenever possible (and if there's not too much tension). The goal is for all parties involved to be aware of what's happening in the classroom, even if they're participating via Skype or speaker phone.

    2. Come prepared.
      It's likely that the conference will flow smoothly and the teacher will jump right in and kick off a constructive discussion. Still, it can't hurt to have a few questions in your back pocket, in case he or she doesn't hit all of the points you're hoping will be addressed. Here are a few examples.

      • What do you see as my child's strengths and weaknesses?
      • What can we do at home to help maintain progress and success?
      • At what point will we hear from you if you sense a problem?
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    3. Start with a team-player approach.
      Approach challenges or issues the teacher raises with the attitude of "We have to address this problem as partners." This makes coming up with solutions considerably easier for everyone involved -- objectivity will be crucial for a successful school year.

    4. Keep the teacher informed.
      Teachers love-and appreciate-knowing what's going on with your child, both at the time of the conference and beyond. It's important to keep him or her up on any changes in your child's life, such as medications, family problems, if it's a dual-home family, or if a family member went into the hospital. Mandel points out, "Sometimes a child starts acting up in class, and the teacher thinks it's just a behavior problem, but doesn't realize that Grandpa had a heart attack this weekend."

    5. Express interest in being an involved parent.
      Whether you work fulltime or part-time, involvement is about making decisions and staying aware of what's happening within your child's education, not just about who's able to chaperone every field trip. Danielle Janson, mom of second-grade twins in Herndon, VA, says, "At my first conference, I wished I had asked more about the reading system and the level of books my children should be reading. There can be a big difference between the books they pick up in the library and the books they should really be reading."

    6. Don't get hung up on academics.
      According to Mandel, the most important lessons children learn in kindergarten and first grade are with regard to socialization, not academics. He points to Robert Fulghum's All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten to emphasize this point and says, "Every parent should get a copy of that when their children enter kindergarten -- because it's true."

    7. Respect the teacher's time.
      Don't plan on taking up too much time during the conference. You might have questions after the meeting ends, and even in the days that follow. Before you leave, ask the teacher, "How do you prefer that we contact you-after school, via email, with a phone call?" Keeping a list of your questions and concerns can help you organize your thoughts so you can approach the teacher effectively whenever necessary. If you have a specific concern after the conference, definitely let the teacher know. Say something like, "I have some questions about this issue. When would be a good time for you to contact me?"

    8. Maintain perspective.
      Teachers really do understand how you feel about your child. Megan Unger, a kindergarten teacher in Minneapolis, MN, says, "For seven hours a day, I am responsible for the most precious thing in these two people's life. I try to remember that, during conferences and always!"

      Still, Mandel mentions, "While the child may be the center of your universe, he or she is not the center of the classroom universe." Maintaining awareness about both ends of this spectrum can contribute greatly to establishing-and preserving-a healthy parent-teacher relationship. This partnership is the basis of the entire conference, and, ultimately, a long-term alliance. Success comes out of recognition that the teacher is an educational professional, and that your child is a complex entity who is different in different locations, from home to school.

      Your goal is to leave the conference feeling confident in your child's teacher and in the team effort that has just commenced in the interest of your child.

    9. Report new strategies
      . Now it's time to involve your nanny, babysitters, and any other after-school caregivers in what you've learned. Need a new homework plan? Create an after-school snack-and-study strategy and then an after-dinner review. Get all parents and caregivers on board so your child can have the most successful school year possible.

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