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Teaching moments: How to make Parent-Teacher conferences better

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 24 2012 8:52 p.m. MDT

The perception gap itself might be the most important take-away, but it isn't really news. Parents and teachers already know about the ominous aura that hangs over some parent teacher conferences.

Frederickson said she always feels jittery about meeting with her children's kindergarten teacher for the first time.

"It's the child's first exposure to a classroom without you there," she said. "They are expected to perform and act and socialize in a certain way, so I always go in with a little bit of anxiety. I hope things are going well, but I always have some reservations that maybe there is going to have to be some kind of intervention."

Staying positive

Endo establishes an upbeat note for conferences by inviting students to be present, showing samples of their best work, and by staying in close touch with parents throughout the school year. Those are strategies recommended to teachers by a panel of experts assembled for a webinar sponsored by McGraw-Hill Education.

It's important to set a good tone for parent-teacher conferences by preceding them with positive communication, said Lisa Michelle Dabbs, an educational consultant who was formerly an elementary school principal and adjunct professor for Concordia University.

The first communication between parents and teachers shouldn't be about a problem at school, Dabb said. She advised teachers to focus on strengths at parent-teacher conferences, but to offer one or two opportunities for improvement, too. Share personal observations about the child, ask questions, take notes and listen, she said — good advice on either side of the teacher's desk.

Support, please

As a parent of children with learning challenges, Frederickson knows what it's like to go to a conference ready to do battle for her child. She has seen parents of special needs children accompanied by attorneys at parent-teacher conferences. However, she finds that bringing an open mind and positive demeanor is more useful. She tries not to let her emotions trump reason.

"If you can be honest about your kids' strengths and weaknesses, that's valuable on both sides," she said. "No kid is going to be perfect at everything. I've always gone in with appreciation of the time teachers are dedicating to my kids, and the extra things they are doing. If there are issues, teachers are then much more willing to work with you. It's so counterproductive to go on the attack, and put teachers on the defense."

Frederickson's willingness to partner effectively with teachers bodes well for her children's success. New research from North Carolina State University, Brigham Young University and the University of California, Irvine finds that parental involvement is a more significant factor in a child's academic performance than the qualities of the schools they attend.

"Our study shows that parents need to be aware of how important they are, and invest time in their children – checking homework, attending school events and letting kids know school is important," says Dr. Toby Parcel, a professor of sociology at N.C. State and co-author of a paper on the work. "That's where the payoff is."

Some parents expect teachers to be entirely accountable for their children's education, Endo said. She tries to help them understand how important they are to their child's success at school. Setting goals for improvement is a key part of Endo's conferences, and she wants parents to buy in to the goals along with their children.

Kids present, or not?

Opinions diverge regarding whether children should be present at parent-teacher conferences. Frederickson prefers to leave her children home when she meets with teachers.

"I've never felt like I could be as up-front and honest about my concerns if my kid is sitting right there," she said. "I would like to be frank, and I would like the teacher to be as frank with me as possible."

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