"The teacher really knows my child!" This simple statement is one of the greatest compliments a parent can bestow on an early childhood school or center. It reflects hard work and understanding on the teacher's part and a school policy that values working closely with families.
A wide variety of approaches to conferencing with parents can be seen in early childhood centers and schools:
- An "intake" conference or home visit before school begins, followed by additional conferences later in the year;
- A formal conference midyear, and one at year's end;
- An informal exchange of information throughout the year, ending with a formal conference in May or June.
The times that conferences are offered also vary, from before- or after-school meetings to entire days set aside for conferencing purposes. As long as you, the director, are committed to the process, almost any design can work.
Midyear conferences are an ideal time for both teacher and parent to reflect on children's progress. This is the perfect moment to look back at how the year began, consider a child's adjustment and progress, and set goals as you look ahead. Now that your teachers know their children through experience, midyear is also a good time to gain additional insight from parents about life outside of school, to highlight children's strengths, and to raise questions or concerns.
The Power of Observation
Guide your teachers in thinking about observation as a nonjudgmental, objective tool in understanding the children in their charge. Encourage them to review their recorded observations before each conference.
Preparing for the Conference
Looking at sequential observations collected over time will allow your teachers to get a fuller picture of each child's functioning and also to identify gaps: I have no observations of Jasmine outdoors! I know she likes the sandbox, but I'll try to keep a closer eye on her today in the playground. There are many systems for keeping cumulative records, such as a card file, or sticky notes dated and collected in a notebook under each child's name.
Saving children's work
It can be difficult not to send a painting, piece of woodworking, or collage home with a child on the day or day after he has completed it. Children want to take their work home with them-and parents want to see it! But keeping work samples in school is the way to begin thinking about building portfolios.
In the midyear conference, work samples, along with observations, will give parents a strong message about their child's growth as well as the teacher's professional under- standing of it. Teachers can use a child's work to underscore many important points:
- A photograph of a block building demonstrates skill in planning, balancing, and developing spatial awareness.
- A drawing shows the emergence of small-motor control necessary for emergent writing. The beginnings of representation also demonstrate a child's ability to symbolize-a crucial understanding for early literacy development.
Efforts at writing indicate children's awareness of the meaning of print.
Deciding on the participants
Whenever possible, strongly encourage both parents to attend (if the child lives in a two-parent family).
If at all possible, encourage both teacher and assistant teacher to be present. This calls for extra preparation on their part and requires clarity about the lead teacher's role in guiding discussion.
In cases where a referral for support services is planned, the director and/or consultant may wish to be present-as long as the parents already know that the child's special. needs are on the agenda. be aware that "overloading" a conference with school personnel can backfire, particu- larly if it's a surprise to the parents.
Guiding the Discussion
Establish the tone
It can never be said too often: Begin with the positive and never forget that the teacher is the parents' partner in fostering a child's development. Help your teachers to think of conferences as supportive conversations.
Review areas of functioning
Encourage teachers to make a general outline of each child's areas of functioning, enriched by examples, to share with parents. Prepare them to discuss activities and materials that engage the child and enhance the child's social relationships.
Practice ways to discuss issues
Emphasize the importance of honesty and simplicity in presenting an area of concern. Nothing turns a parent off more quickly than implications of "bad" behavior, or a tone that sounds condescending. The teacher's goal is to enlist parental help in uncovering the source of behavior that is disruptive or worrisome-to become partners in a search for meaning.
Alert your teachers to the possibility of parents asking, "Where does my child stand in relation to the other children in her class?" This is a good moment to talk about the validity of developmental differences and to reinforce the fact that all children have specific strengths and vulnerabilities.
Caution teachers to avoid responding to comments about the behavior of another child in the class or listening to opinions about another child's family.
If your school is one that requires a written end-of-year report, the conclusion of midyear conferences is a great time for teachers to document each child's progress. And it's a wonderful time for the director to plan a potluck breakfast or supper. Congratulate the teachers on their hard work and professionalism!