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Handle with Care

The difficult Parent-Teacher Conference

  • Grades: Early Childhood, PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

It's unavoidable.  Amidst all your parent conferences that are enjoyable and flow with ease, once in a while a really tough one comes along that tests your preparedness, your professionalism, and, at times even your patience.  The conference may be called by you or requested by parents that realize their child is having difficulty.  You may find it necessary to discuss grade retention, disruptive behavior, poor study habits, possible special class placement, referral, testing, or medical attention.  You may also find yourself faced with unexpected parental concerns or even complaints.  What follows are suggestions to help you and parents work together to formulate the best plan for the child.
 
Before the Conference
Document the difficulties.

  • Keep a log of the child's unusual or disruptive behavior.
  • Keep track of the child's grades and missing assignments.
  • Keep a record of all communications with parents.
  • Keep notes and records concerning the child's behavior in other classrooms.

Communicate your concerns early.
Let parents know of potential concerns as they arise.  Balance this with the positive attributes you are observing.  You may need to save difficult conversations for the conference, but don't shock them with news they are totally unprepared for.  Ongoing communication leads to a better conference.
 
Solicit others' support.
For the most difficult circumstances, enlist the assistance of school counselors, principals, district personnel, and other professionals who are available to consult with you.  Asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but an indication of your professionalism.
 
Test out tactics.
Try out possible solutions in class and investigate other possible interventions before the conference.  Document your efforts and inform the parents.
 
At the Conference
Welcome with warmth.
The parents, or the child's previous teacher can let you know if anyone needs special accommodations for the conference, such as an interpreter for the deaf or a translator.  In the primary grades, provide adult-sized chairs for your guests.  Greet the parents with a smile and a handshake.  Engage in some brief small talk to make them feel at ease.  Begin and end the conference by sharing something positive about the child.
 
Put it in writing.
The simple strategy of taking notes on key points made by all parties keeps conferences on track.  State the problem and possible solutions in writing, then record exactly what each person commits to do next.  This will help to eliminate the "I think he said..." confusion after the conference.  Give everyone involved a copy of the conference record.
 
Weigh your words.
Keep in mind your remarks can easily be interpreted as a criticism of parenting skills or cultural practices.  Give each parent the kindness, respect, and consideration you would expect from your own child's teacher.
 
Allow for anger.
This can be one of the most difficult parts of the conference.  Remember that these parents have lived with the child you are discussing since birth, and you are probably not the first teacher to bring up difficult issues.  Allow them to vent their anger and frustration.  If the parents requested the conference, they may have a lot of pent-up emotion they have been waiting to express.
 
Seek parents' suggestions.
If parents are particularly upset, ask them how they feel the situation would best be resolved.  Ask what has worked in the past and what they would be most comfortable trying now.
 
Have responses early.

  • Try to have solutions in mind, whether they be additional testing, referrals, seeking medical advice, possible placement in counseling or special classes, tutoring, or changes in your own classroom practices.
  • Try to offer concrete suggestions that the parents can use at home.  Put these in writing, if possible.
  • Try to find the student's greatest strength and build on that.  You do need to address behavioral or academic difficulties, but many times these can be approached through art, music, sports, chess, or whatever the child's interests are.  You can use these interests in partnership with the parents as a path to motivate future behavior and success.

Partner with your principal.
For your most difficult meetings, have an administrator present.  You don't want to assemble an army of school staff or overwhelm the parents, but having an objective second opinion can help to keep the meeting productive.  If you know the parents are extremely upset, ask your principal, assistant principal, school counselor, or a respected veteran teacher to attend the conference.  Fully inform your partner about the situation ahead of time.  You don't want the person to be in the dark about a potentially volatile situation.
 
After the Conference
Don't forget the follow-up.
Even if you think the conference has solved the problem or that it will be dealt with by a different program, department, or professional, schedule a follow-up conference.  This will give you an opportunity to confirm that all parties involved in the conference actually followed through on their commitments.  It's also a chance to demonstrate your sincerity and concern for the child and to offer further help.  The parents will thank you and remember your support.
 
Keep communicating.
For the most serious problems, talk to parents or write them a note once a week.  Include good news on a regular basis.  By maintaining open lines of communication, you will take the best step in avoiding difficult conferences in the future.

  • Subjects:
    Child Development and Behavior, Parent-Teacher Conferences, Teacher Tips and Strategies, Working with Families and the Community
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