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Tips for Parent Conferences About Struggling Students

By Brian Smith on April 17, 2015
  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8, 9–12

Through my years of teaching, I have had a lot of parent-teacher conferences. Unfortunately, sometimes you have to deliver news that isn’t the best. Students may be struggling with classroom behavior, academics, or both, and you need to address the problem at the conference. These issues can arise any time through the year, but in my experience, they tend to happen more often right after the school year has started, or at the beginning of the last grading period. At the end of the year, the conferences where these types of struggles are broached can include conversations about retention or summer school. These are very difficult things for a parent to hear.

I love working with parents and have forged wonderful relationships that have gone on long after the child has moved on to other teachers. What I describe here are the four different parent types that pop up most frequently in my classroom during those hard conversations. I hope my various strategies help you survive these uncomfortable conferences.

Parent Type: The Crier

The CryerWhen a parent begins tearing up, it can be very difficult to figure out where to go to next. Make sure that you have tissues handy, and give them time to take in the news that their child is struggling. Many times, when a parent cries, it is because they were already worrying about their child before the conference, and you are solidifying their fears. No parent wants their child to experience failure. Hearing someone else state your inner worries is extremely difficult to take in and process.

Best Ways to Handle The Crier

Only State the Facts
Teachers aren’t doctors, but for this parent often a solid answer is best since they already had the inkling that there was an issue. By sticking to the observable occurrences, you are giving the parents details that they can use to match what they have observed at home. Make sure to use phrases like, “It appears as if . . . ” or, “From my observations, it seems like . . . ”

Allow Silence
What I have learned is that parents can often hold back the tears until they begin talking. When the crying starts, it will often be accompanied by apologies such as, “I’m so embarrassed.” Allow the parent some silence. They will have something to say, and you don’t want to prevent them from sharing by trying to fill the silence that occurs when the tears start falling.

Parent Type: The Denier/Aggressor

The Denial/The AggressorThis parent type can often come across as aggressive, but what I have found is that they just aren't at a place where they can accept that their child is struggling. It is not unheard of for parents to go through the grieving process when they learn that their student is having a hard time. This denial may come wrapped in aggression, but viewing it through the lens of the grieving process can help you slowly help the parents with accepting their child's issues. This is when you will have the parent's complete support. If you have supported them all the way through acceptance, you will have their gratitude as well.

Best Ways to Handle The Denier/Aggressor

Take a Deep Breath
Remember that the parent's reaction is not a personal reaction to you, but rather a personal reaction to the news that their child is struggling. If a parent gets heated, take a deep breath before responding. Answer their questions and address their concerns, but don’t forget that you are talking about their child — so do it with care.

Do Your Homework
Before any conference where you will be discussing a struggling student, make sure that you are very clear about what the issues are before the conference starts. By practicing what you want to say ahead of time, you will be able to come up with different ways to state the same issue, rather than fumbling for words and possibly saying something that can damage this parent’s view of the school or you as a teacher.

Parent Type: The Excuser

The ExcuserThis parent type can be frustrating for teachers. When you bring up a specific issue to a parent, you are looking for a partner in trying to find a solution. Often, however, you get reasons for why the problem exists. We have to make sure that we are listening to the parents and viewing their reasons as barriers to success instead of excuses. By continuing the conference on the path of trying to create a partnership, you send the message to the parent that you are truly concerned for their child.

Best Ways to Handle The Excuser

Stay Focused
Remember that the main point of the conference is the student. When you get bombarded with excuses it’s easy to get sidetracked and want to begin to try to solve the problems that the parents bring up. Don’t skip over the issues that the parents are bringing up because you need to assume that they are valid, but offer suggestions and then move back to the student’s classroom struggles.

The Proof is in the Papers
It is easy to try to explain away problems that seem hypothetical. For many parents, showing them their child's work samples or data makes it real, and will get them focused on how to help their child be successful.

Parent Type: The Oblivious

The ObliviousAs the teacher, you are aware of the issues that you are seeing in the classroom and how hard it can be for a student when the same problem keeps coming up year after year instead of getting solved. Parents who fall into the oblivious category come into your conference with no concerns about their child and leave with no concerns for their child. When you gently mention an issue, this parent can often appear to process it as a positive. Many times these parents seem oblivious because they genuinely don’t understand the consequences. Your student may be an only child or the oldest child, so the parent doesn’t have any other children against whom they can judge their child's development.

Best Ways to Handle The Oblivious

Keeping good documentation to pass on to the student's future teachers can really be a great help as they pick up the student's education in following years. When a teacher knows the journey that you and the parent took, they don’t have to retread that path because that only delays the student’s success.

See the Positive
These parents see the greatness within their child and they often assume that others see it as well. This is not a bad thing at all! As teachers who spend 7 to 8 hours a day for 180 days a year with students, we should be experts at what makes each child unique. When you state a concern to this type of parent, begin the sentence with a related strength. This strategy allows the parent to realize that you see their child in a positive way, and may help them see that by sharing your concerns, you are trying to help the student reach their greatest potential.


For more personality types and how to deal with them, check out fellow blogger Christy Crawford's "Seven Parent Personality Types."

Find me, dad2ella, on Twitter and Pinterest.

I can’t wait to see you next week.

Comments (1)

Now this is funny! Great "parents" photos!

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