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Response: The Student's Role in Parent-Teacher Conferences

(This is the second post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are effective ways to handle parent/teacher conferences?


Part One highlighted responses from Luz Santana, Leticia Skae, Mandi White, Tara Dale, Sanée Bell, PJ Caposey, and Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Luz, Leticia, and Tara on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today's post includes commentaries from Jenny Edwards, Dr. Beth Gotcher, Sherri Wilson, Katy Ridnouer, Ryan Huels, Tara Brown, and Sarah Thomas.

Response From Jenny Edwards

Jenny Edwards, Ph.D., is the author of Inviting students to learn: 100 tips for talking effectively with your students (ASCD, 2010) and Time to teach: How do I get organized and work smarter? (ASCD, 2014). She taught at the elementary and middle school levels and is currently teaching doctoral students at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, Calif. She can be reached at [email protected] and @jedwards814:

Early in my teaching career, my principal suggested that we invite students to attend the parent/teacher conferences. I have done that ever since! They are the stars of the show and they are the ones who are able to make changes, if needed.

First, we can invite students to select papers to show their parents. We can have them keep a portfolio and add papers each week so that they will be ready for the conference.

Before the conference, we can make an appointment with each student to rehearse what he/she is going to share with the parent. We can ask them what they would like to convey to their parents. We might also invite them to make an outline of what they would like to say.

The day of the conferences, we can create an inviting waiting area outside the classroom for parents and children. We could bring flowers for a table and we could put magazines on it that would appeal to both parents and students. We could provide snacks unless the PTA of the school provides snacks somewhere else in the building.

Next, we can create a pleasant space in the classroom for the conferences. According to Grinder (2007), communication flows more easily when we are sitting at a 45 to 90 degree angle from others rather than face-to-face. We would want to avoid sitting across a table from the parent. We might have chairs in a circle with a table on the side where we could put the student's portfolio and other materials. We want to communicate that we are aligned, side by side, and in this together.

First, the student can share how he/she likes school and talk about things in general. Then the student can get more specific, going through the papers in the portfolio.

In everything we say, we want to convey our belief in a growth mindset (Dweck, 2006), which means that the student can learn and grow. Carol Dweck talked about the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. In a fixed mindset, students believe they are either smart or not smart and they cannot do anything to change it. In a growth mindset, students believe they have unlimited potential and can learn anything they decide to learn.   

Finally, we can visualize success for the student in the near future and in the long term. We can say things such as, "By studying hard, you will be learning everything you need to know to do well" (Edwards, 2010). "As you are doing your homework each night, you will be learning important skills that will enable you to pass the test." "Because you are committed to learning, you will be accomplishing things that are important to you."

References

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success: How we can learn to fulfill our potential. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

Edwards, J. (2010). Inviting students to learn: 100 tips for talking effectively with your students. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Grinder, M. (with Yenik, M.) (2007). The elusive obvious: The science of non-verbal communication. Battle Ground, WA: Michael Grinder & Associates.

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Response From Dr. Beth Gotcher

Dr. Beth Gotcher has taught in Maryville city schools in Tennessee for 11 years. She is currently a kindergarten teacher at John Sevier Elementary. Beth is in her second year as a Tennessee Teacher Fellow:

Parent/teacher conferences can cause anxiety on the part of the parent, teacher, or even both. However, these conferences are a chance to build or further relationships between the school and the home. Below are five strategies to incorporate to lead to positive conference experiences. This does not mean that every parent conference will be perfect, but more often than not, these approaches will allow educators to leave a conference feeling progress has been made.

*Start positive: The way a conference begins sets the tone for the entire conference. Begin each conference by saying something positive about the student. This will also help parents see that you know and care about their child.  

*Let parents talk: Once you've conveyed positive attributes about their child, give parents an opportunity to talk. Either ask parents, "Share with me your concerns" or "What would you like for me to know about your child."  The first statement works if there are certain issues you are hoping to address with the conference, while the second fits if the conference is more of a beginning of year parent/teacher conference. Both approaches are effective in breaking the ice and allowing parents to feel their voice is an important part of the conference. 

*Be clear and and considerate: Explain to parents in clear, understandable terms the concerns you are having with their child. The latest educational terms may not make sense to all parents. The last thing you want to do in a parent conference is come across as you are speaking down to parents. In addition, regardless of what is happening with the student in your classroom, to parents first and foremost that is their child. You may have genuine and valid concerns about a student but you must carefully consider the words you use to present this information. Putting a parent on the defense will not result in a productive parent conference. 

*End with realistic goals: Prior to meeting with parents, consider and plan goals and future steps for the student. Take time to consider what is appropriate and realistic for the student. Present the goals to the parents and ask if they agree with the next steps. This is also a chance to involve parents and make them feel they are a part of the discussion.  

*Follow up: Stay in communication with parents. Send a follow-up email to parents thanking them for taking the time to meet and then restate the discussed goals from the conference. Then in a week or two, follow up on the progress of goals established at the conference. Parents are more likely to stay committed to the course of action if they see you are equally committed and following up. If necessary schedule future conferences to continue the conversation. 

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Response From Sherri Wilson

Sherri Wilson is the director of consultative services for the FACE team at Scholastic. Prior to Joining Scholastic, she was the senior manager of family and community engagement at the National PTA. She also served as the director of the Alabama Parent Information and Resource Center for over 15 years:

There are several key strategies that can help you have an effective, even pleasant, parent-teacher conference! The first (and most important) step is to prepare. Parents and families are often unsure of what their child is learning or what teachers' expectations are. Parents also often don't know what they should do to support their children's learning. (Most know they should be doing something, but they don't necessarily have a plan.)

The first thing to remember is that teachers shouldn't rely on families to ask questions about what they can do to support learning from home; they don't know what they don't know! Instead, prepare information for them about how their child is doing, where there are opportunities for growth, and examples of concrete, actionable strategies that families can use at home.  

When the conference begins, be sure to start with something positive about the student. Remember, you are talking to families about the person they love the most in the world, and if you start with the positives, it makes it much easier to have difficult conversations later. In fact, the foundation of family/school partnerships rests on trusting, respectful relationships. I recommend teachers arrive ready to share a minimum of five positive comments for every one area where there is room for improvement.

Remember that the conference should be a two-way conversation. Use it as an opportunity to learn what concerns or questions families have. Before they leave, be sure to find out from families what method of communication they prefer. Flexibility is key, especially when it comes to tailoring your communication style to best suit the needs of the families in your classroom; it's unlikely that one single communication style will work for every family. You'll be more successful in reaching families if you learn from them how they like to be contacted.

Finally, when the conference ends, finish up with more positive comments about their child. Families will leave knowing you care about their child and feeling like a part of the team.

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Response From Katy Ridnouer

Katy Ridnouer, M.Ed., is the author of Everyday Engagement: Making Students and Parents Your Partners in Learning (ASCD 2011). She is a consultant with Leaders Building Leaders, a firm dedicated to being the difference maker for school leaders everywhere:

Experience is life's best teacher, especially in parent-teacher conferences. Many parents experience their child's school environment in only four places: 1. Drop-off. 2. Pick-up. 3. Parent-teacher conferences. 4. Moving on/graduation ceremonies. For bus riders, the interaction is limited to the last two. Since parent-teacher conferences oftentimes end after 5th grade, empowering parents during the K-5 years is critical to student success so that parents have the skills to advocate for their children for the remaining middle and high school years. Teachers can build this skill by immersing parents in their child's school experience to teach parents how to understand and effectively respond to their child's current level of performance.

Teach them the Questions to Ask

Parents know their children, but they don't always know how to help. Guide them, by sharing your vision of their children. Show them their child's work along with the model for that assignment. Ask them, "What do you see?" Often you'll get one of three responses. 1. Everything my child does is perfect. 2. My child is the best student in the class. 3. He is doing better than he did last time, but I think he could improve. Follow that up with another question. For parent 1, ask "What is the difference between the model and your child's work?" For parent 2, ask "What would make your child's work better than the model?" For parent 3, ask "How has he improved from the last project, and where would you like to see him improve next?" The parents' answers not only give you a focal point for each child, they also give each parent a partnership path with you.

Teach Parents Their Academic Role at Home

After a review of work samples, pull out the gradebook and point out the average for each section. Make a simple recommendation for improvement. This way, the parent is more likely to do it and to not feel judged by you. Even if a child is failing, give the parent one clear task. "He's failing his spelling test each week. The words on the spelling test come from our readings. If he can spell them, he can read them. If you practice spelling these words with him for 10 or 15 minutes each night, you are helping him with his spelling and at the same time, you are helping him to become a proficient reader.

Be Deliberate and Deliberate

A parent-teacher conference also involves teachers deliberating in both senses of the word. First, deliberate on what you will focus on for each child and create a plan and recommendation for each student. This will show parents that you care. Second, be willing to deliberate with all parents. You've known each child in the context of your classroom for nine weeks, but these parents have known their own children all of their lives. You both have a lot to learn from one another. Be present and create that experience where they not only feel heard but they also feel understood.

Share the Light

All parents need to know that you see the light in their child. When they see their child's light reflected in your eyes as you tell stories and your growth plans for their child, parents carry that light with them and feel confident that you will take good care of their most precious asset. That impacts how seriously they abide by processes and procedures and how they support your work at home, both of which can make a big difference in turning a struggling student into a successful one.

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Response From Ryan Huels

Ryan Huels is the assistant principal of Oregon Elementary School in Oregon, Ill. He spent five years as a 1st grade classroom teacher prior to entering administration:

The most effective way to handle parent/teacher conferences is to transition to a student-led conference in which students get to demonstrate their knowledge to their families. Not only is this a more engaging experience for students and their families, the family is able to see firsthand how well their child is doing as opposed to looking over a few work samples or being lectured by school staff.

The most effective classrooms I have seen set up various activities around the room that students and their families complete that will give them an understanding on their abilities in math, writing, and reading. Student/family engagement surveys can be completed to allow families to discuss what is going well and what they would like to improve upon prior to a brief 5-10 minute follow-up conversation with the classroom teacher. The classroom teacher's role in this is to facilitate the activities and be there to answer any questions that come up.  

An effective parent/teacher conference is focused on the student's individual progress and actively involves the family, both of which are accomplished through the use of student-led conferences. This has proven to be a more memorable and enjoyable experience for families who oftentimes may have a fear of traditional conferences as they can be intimidating or not as well attended as students get older due to disengagement. By actively involving students, this process will increase their excitement to demonstrate their mastery of content to their families and will lead to an increase in attendance.

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Response From Tara Brown

Tara Brown, known as "The Connection Coach," is president of Learner's Edge Consulting and an award-winning educator, author, and international speaker. Tara's 30­-year professional journey as a teacher and coach has taken her coast to coast - from rural Florida to urban schools in California to one of the largest high schools in Tennessee, and to 40 countries.  In 2005, in Nashville, Tenn., Tara played a key role in piloting a leadership-development program at Antioch High School targeting nontraditional leaders. Because of the success of this program, it expanded to all high schools in Davidson County and earned Tara the Pioneer Award and Teacher of the Year award in 2006. She holds a master's degree in administration and supervision and is a nationally certified personal trainer. Follow Tara on twitter @tarambrown:

Creating positive outcomes in parent-teacher conferences begins long before the need for a conference. It begins with the intention of an entire staff to reach out, engage, and connect with parents and help them begin to feel like a welcomed and needed part of the school community.

The more communication from day one regarding academic and personal growth and struggles, the more open a parent will be because a connection has been established, and emotional deposits have been put in the parent's account.

Many parents, especially those in poverty, didn't have good experiences in school and often feel intimidated by those working in the profession. Language and cultural barriers can often play a role in how parents feel about meeting with teachers or counselors. Sadly, many parents have never received anything from schools except negative calls, emails, or letters regarding their child.

It's understandable that parents often come into a meeting with their defenses high and their emotional "fists" up. Whether meeting with parents of high achievers, students with special needs, or somewhere in between, there are a few things educators can do to increase the chances of a highly productive parent-teacher conference.

  1. Create a welcoming, casual atmosphere.

Consider meeting in a room with soft lighting, live plants, comfortable chairs, and snacks. The five senses are powerful ways for the brain to assess our overall physical and emotional safety. Greeting parents with smiles, eye contact, and open body language in a room that is pleasing to the senses can have an immediate impact on defensiveness and emotional fear.  

  1.  Create a TEAM approach.

Acknowledge how important the parents are to their child's success and how grateful you are that they were able and willing to come to the meeting. For some parents, they would never consider not coming to a meeting. For others, it is extremely difficult to get to meetings because of challenges with travel, work, or child care. Helping them understand that they are a vital, valuable team member and their involvement is so important to their child's academic and personal growth can do wonders for building deeper connections, as well as decreasing anxiety and defensiveness.

  1. Come from a strengths-based approach.

Start and end the meeting with a positive statement about the child. Frame your comments with a positive emphasis instead of negative and be solutions-oriented. Have work samples that show quality work and academic gains, as well as areas of struggle. One strategy many teachers use is called GLOWS and GROWS. Simply make two columns on paper and list all the great things about the child, both personally and academically (Glows), and the areas of weakness or needs for improvement (Grows). This helps the teacher stay focused and also spotlights for the parents the strengths, as well as current weaknesses.

  1. Bring concise, accurate documentation

This will help the parent know exactly how involved the teacher has been from day one and the level of effort put in to help the child with struggles or challenges they are experiencing. Include: number of attempts to reach parents (phone/email/notes), number of actual conversations, as well as steps taken in the classroom to assist with the present situation.

  1. Help parents feel heard.

All humans want to feel seen, heard, and validated. Often parents will come angry as a hornet and simply need to vent frustration and feel as though they are being heard and understood. It can be difficult to sit calmly and actively listen, but accomplishing that can often lead to high emotion being diffused and a willingness by the parent to take in information.

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Response From Sarah Thomas

Sarah Thomas, Ph.D., is a regional technology coordinator in Prince George's County public schools in Maryland. She is also a Google Certified Innovator, Google Education Trainer, and the founder of the EduMatch movement, a project that empowers educators to make global connections across common areas of interest:

I love student-led conferences! One year, students created presentations for their parents, which included what they'd been working on, their strengths, their areas of challenge, their goals, and what support they needed from their parents and me in achieving these goals. If students came to the conferences, they would present to their parents, and if they were unable, the parent and I could look through it together.

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Thanks to Jenny, Beth, Sherri, Katy, Ryan, Tara, and Sarah for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It's titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader. And if you missed any of the highlights from the first seven years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. The list doesn't include ones from this current year, but you can find those by clicking on the "answers" category found in the sidebar.

This Year's Most Popular Q&A Posts

Race & Gender Challenges

Classroom Management Advice

Best Ways to Begin The School Year

Best Ways to End The School Year

Implementing the Common Core

Student Motivation & Social-Emotional Learning

Teaching Social Studies

Project-Based Learning

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Parent Engagement in Schools

Teaching English-Language Learners

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The Inclusive Classroom

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Best of Classroom Q&A

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributers to this column.

Look for Part Three in a few days.

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