In this article excerpted from 130 FAQs and Practical Answers From Scholastic's Teacher Helpline by Ruth Manna, elementary school teacher Ruth Manna offers tips and discusses her approach to structuring successful parent conferences.
Organize in advance: I prepare a conference form, which I create myself. On the form, I leave space to record results of all assessments including DIBELS Test of Reading Fluency, spelling test of top 100 high frequency words, math readiness test, math chapter tests, and timed tests of addition and subtraction facts. I also include the student’s reading group and reading level, a record of absences and late arrivals, a short blurb about social and emotional growth, and a few lines for additional notes. I complete this form for each student and make a copy for the parents to take home. This is especially helpful when only one parent attends the conference. I speak to them using the form as reference, which helps me focus on facts. As a rule, I don’t take notes during a parent conference because I’ve found it makes parents anxious.
On conference day: I have number lines, 100 charts, alphabets, and book lists available for parents to take home to assist with homework. I also have on-hand student work samples, texts, and folders to refer to as needed. I put chairs in the hall so parents will have a place to sit while they wait. There are fresh bulletin boards to entertain them, as well as a three-ring binder full of class stories.
Informal meeting spot: I meet with parents at a round table, rather than across a desk because it sets a friendly, open tone. I’m sensitive to the possibility parents may feel nervous about meeting with me to discuss their child’s progress. I shake hands with parents as I greet them and maintain eye contact with parents throughout the conference. The more I smile and present a relaxed demeanor, the more parents relax.
First ask, then tell: I begin a conference with small talk about their child. Every child has relative strengths, and I bring up the strengths first. Then I ask parents if they have any questions. Parents may come to a conference with an agenda, so I address their questions and concerns proactively. Even when parents don’t have questions, I let them know they can ask questions any time during our meeting. One of my goals is to make sure their questions are answered.
Share the facts: After a few minutes, as parents feel relaxed and comfortable, I discuss assessment results in the context of goals students typically achieve. I tell parents that students grow a lot in one academic year and make significant academic progress, as I refer to the facts. Focusing on facts keeps me on-message and prevents talking about my impressions. Tell the truth: It’s important to tell parents the truth, directly and diplomatically. Parents know I’m honest. I speak slowly, clearly, and directly, and I try to be diplomatic, too. Parents of younger students may have difficulty hearing what their child’s teacher is saying. This may be the first time they have heard the truth, so my goal is to convey little bits of truth in ways parents can receive them. This can be tricky, especially when a student has a disability or pronounced area of weakness. Parents may ask for help with parenting, medical, or emotional/behavioral issues. When parents bring up topics beyond teaching and learning, I explain I’m not an expert in that area, but I’d be happy to refer them to someone else. It’s important to know names of specialists and resources in your particular school and district in case parents need additional help.
Summarize: At the end of the conference, I summarize our meeting in two or three sentences. Parents may need to hear a message more than once, so a summary is useful.
Follow-up: If a parent makes a request, I write it down immediately following the conference. I follow up and get back to parents in a timely manner. Prompt follow-up builds credibility and goodwill with parents. If anything remotely controversial was said, I report this to appropriate school personnel the following day.