I’m not sure about you, but I have Spring Parent-Teacher Conferences this week. With the upcoming conferences, I’m thinking ahead to some difficult conversations I will have to have on behavior or academic challenges my students are facing and I am reflecting on all that I have learned from difficult parent-teacher conferences in the past.
1. Always start parent-teacher conferences with the positives
The start of any relationship and any difficult parent-teacher conference should be positive. I always start the year with a positive phone call home within the first week to let parents know how their children are adjusting. This starts our relationship on the right foot. I try and continue these positive phone calls or notes home whenever possible. Parents want to know that you care about their child and that you see all their wonderful qualities – especially if you have difficult topics to discuss. So, with every difficult parent-teacher conference, I try and start with a positive moment or statement about their child.
2. Don’t wait for parent-teacher conferences
I know the timing of this blog post is around spring parent-teacher conferences, but if you have a behavior or academic concern about a child, don’t wait for parent-teacher conferences! Parents shouldn’t be blindsided by anything when you sit down for the parent-teacher conference. You can always schedule a phone call or meeting before or after school with parents to discuss the concerns you have. I recommend not putting these concerns in writing (in emails) but to discuss them orally (in-person or on the phone) instead. Concerns in writing could easily be misinterpreted (tone can be so hard to hear in writing) and, unfortunately, can easily be used against you or the school if a lawyer becomes involved. It’s better for everyone involved to have these difficult conversations in person (or on the phone) when they are needed, as opposed to waiting for the next scheduled conference.
For example, if I have serious concerns about a child’s literacy progress, I will have already called parents to let them know that I will be sending home some materials for their child to practice or I will have already had a meeting to show parents any assessment results and to discuss a plan of action (see below). By the time we get to parent-teacher conferences, I can lay out any evidence I have, any progress (or lack thereof), and new next steps.
3. Speak Objectively and have examples ready
When having difficult parent-teacher conferences about behavior, or any difficult parent-teacher conference, always speak objectively and have examples ready. When we are experiencing challenging behavior, it can easily affect our own emotions. It is crucial when speaking with parents that we say exactly what occurred, without judgement, and to have examples ready. For example, instead of saying, “Your child is bossy,” you could say, “I’ve noticed your child sometimes has difficulty working or playing with others. For example, last week when he was working with this table on a math project, he shouted ‘your idea is stupid’ when a classmate suggested using markers instead of crayons”.
Learn from my mistakes… so many times in the past I have spoken objectively about an issue, but I forgot to prepare some examples. 9 times out of 10 the parents asked for an example. When giving an example, try to explain what happened before, what the issue was, and what happened after (what was your response). This is good data to write down whenever issues arise with students. I love to use my parent-teacher conference forms to plan out what I will say.
4. Ask questions
Parents are our partners, and they are the child’s first teacher. Treat them as such. After sharing a concern and an example or two from the classroom at the parent-teacher conference, ask them if they see this concern at home. Some may say yes, and some may say no. If they say no, it could be because the classroom environment is very different than their home environment. It also could be because they don’t want to see the concern. If they say yes, ask them follow-up questions. Ask them what works for them when this behavior happens or what they do at home to support their child. Their answers could provide very informative – they could give you ideas and insight into your students, or they could give you insight into the family dynamics. It also helps parents to feel more like partners in handling this concern.
5. Have a (flexible) plan ready
After laying out the concern/problem to parents, they will want to know what can be done about it. Have a plan ready to go at the parent-teacher conference, but be sure to ask parents for their opinion, “how do you feel about these steps?” You can also prepare a few ideas and have parents decide on one or two to try first. They want to feel a part of the solution, and it will definitely help them be more positive partners.
6. List ideas to help at home
Having a plan for next steps at school is great, but parents will want to know how they can help. Have some ideas (or even better, a handout!) for how they can help at home. For example, if it’s a behavior concern, encourage parents to reward their child if they get a positive report for the week or to try the deep breathing strategy you are working on in class. If it is an academic concern, give parents activities to try at home. I have bags behind my teacher table ready to give out with literacy and math activities (PS my math units and literacy intervention units have some easy games to handout to parents with directions included!).
7. Plan a follow-up parent-teacher conference
After all this, let parents know when they can next expect to hear from you. They don’t want to hear a big concern about their child and to then be ghosted. Because we are an RTI school, we do everything in 6-week cycles. So, I usually tell the parents that we will follow-up again in 6-8 weeks to assess the child’s progress. Or, if it is a behavior concern, I tend to offer a follow-up email at the end of the week to let them know how our new plan is working.
Difficult parent-teacher conferences don’t have to be difficult anymore with these 7 steps! For more support with parent-teacher conferences, check out this blog post and my Total Conference Prep product!