Dear Dr. Fournier:
My wife and I dread parent teacher conferences, and I don’t even know why. My daughter is a decent student, but we feel as though we are going before a firing squad each time we make the trek to our daughter’s school for the conferences.
You are not alone. When it comes to parent/teacher conferences, many parents hope for the best but prepare for the worst. I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t need to be this way, and it won’t be if you go in with an agenda that will aid in collaboration between you and your daughter’s teachers.
Understand that you are the CEO of your child’s education. Why do I say that you are the CEO? To reaffirm the oft forgotten idea that you should feel that you have the power when you go into a conference about your child. After all, who is in a position to know your child better, you or the teachers? This means that you control the topics discussed, and are also in a position to work with the teachers, guidance counselors, and principals to propose potential solutions, strategies and recommendations.
There are four types of educational conferences:
e General parent/teacher conferences that are part of a routine annual schedule where the parent(s) or guardian(s) of a child meets with his or her teacher(s)
e Conferences that are called by the teacher regarding the cognitive, behavioral, and/or emotional state of the child.
e Conferences that are called by the parent regarding the cognitive, behavioral, and/or emotional state of the child.
e The casual meeting, where a parent bumps into a teacher (e.g. at the supermarket).
Usually when I alert parents to the different circumstances surrounding parent teacher conferences, there is a moment of consideration, and then they are given no immediate further thought. I feel that this is a mistake; because they are important in understanding the role it is generally assumed that you will play in contrast with the role I will recommend you play.
Note that in all of these conferences with the exception of the casual meeting, my primary recommendation is that you go in prepared with an agenda.
WHAT TO DO
1. General conferences
Many schools hold general conferences on a routine schedule. Every year, semester, or quarter, parents are given an opportunity to meet and discuss their child with his or her teacher or teachers. Since all parents need an audience with their child’s teacher(s), there is typically a set amount of time that each teacher can spend with each parent or parents. Since this is the case, it is to be understood that sporadic discussion is not productive, and it is a waste of valuable time. This is best thought of as a discovering/exploratory process, and can be broken down into a three-part checklist: The good, the bad, and the ugly.
e The good: Discuss the positives that are present in your child’s learning.
e The bad: Discuss the things your child needs more progress in, but are moving in the right direction.
e The ugly: Discuss the “red flags,” – the things that have stagnated and/or are headed in the wrong direction.
Since time is short, leave emotional talk out of it, and do not allow the conversation to move the discussion in this direction beyond specifics. Speaking in generalities is counterproductive, and does little to address solutions for the problem. If a teacher says, “He’s not doing what he needs to do,” this is not helpful. The parent needs to find out what the individual issues are; the issues that can be solved.
2. Conferences called by the teacher(s).
A conference called by a teacher or school to address concerns about a specific student is the type of conference a parent typically dreads. When this is called for, a parent typically prepares for the worst, and goes to the meeting expecting to face a firing squad. Many meetings of this type end up being just that. This is precisely what parents should not allow! This is the point where the parent(s) must take charge, and become the CEO(s) of their child’s education.
When confronted with a conference of this kind, my advice to hurting parents is to go in with your agenda, and even hand it out if you need to. It is best if you can meet with each of your child’s teachers separately to avoid collective generalizations. The first question that should be asked is “What is my child doing right?” Once the teacher or administrators have picked their respective jaws from off of the floor, they may begin to fumble about for an answer. This is not due to any ineptitude from the teachers per se, but you have just turned the approach they had planned on taking on its head. The purpose of beginning this way is not to avoid the inevitable cognitive, emotional, and/or behavioral reasons that the meeting was called, but it is designed to switch the lens through which everyone is viewing the child from one of despair to one of hope.
Once you have compared notes and collaborated about what it is your child does well, you can then get to the problem areas and individual “issues” that the teacher has noticed, and can turn to the identified strengths for aid in overcoming them. This will allow for individual teaching strategies to emerge, or to at least isolate the “doable” issues for which recommendations can be proposed.
3. Conferences called by the parent(s).
A conference called by a parent is usually so that the parent can alert the teacher to a specific situation that is in need of:
This could be for a host of reasons, from bullying (physical/emotional issue) to a death in the family (emotional issue) to a parent noticing a trend in the child’s errors in math facts (cognitive issue). The larger point is that the parent is not cut off from participation with instructors to work together through collaboration to stay on top of their child’s mental, physical, and emotional well-being. Fortunately, this sort of communication can now be achieved with email, text messaging, and school websites. Take advantage of this.
4. Chance meetings
Chance meetings are the last category of conference. The reason I choose to include this in parent-teacher relationships at all is because sometimes in a chance encounter, things are said in casual conversation that for one reason or another alarm the parent. I mention this because as a parent myself, I am well aware how easy it can be to jump to wild conclusions. Take a deep breath, relax, and ask your child about the concern. If you find that it is indeed a problem that requires a follow up, then you should set up the conference covered above in number 3. If instead the perceived “problem” was just a manifestation of unfiltered dialogue, then that too will be confirmed.
Dan, hopefully you will find these recommendations helpful. I will freely admit that it can feel a little strange to go in with this approach, but once you see how it will put you in charge of the direction of the meeting, you will see its value. You will be energized, in control, and in position to make some real progress concerning your daughter’s educational strategies, not a helpless parent who faces a firing squad every semester.
CONTACT DR. FOURNIER