Parent-teacher conferences can be just as nerve-wracking for parents as they are for kids. Sometimes more so! You’re squished into that little chair, sitting across from the teacher who, for some reason, seems to have an adult-sized chair and consequently towers over you as if you are the child being discussed, rather than his parent. Even without the optical illusion, comments about what your child is struggling with can often feel like a judgement on you. Add to that the teacher’s sometimes confusing run-down of the curriculum and it would be easy to leave the meeting feeling bewildered.
In reality, regardless of who gets which chair, you and the teacher are partners. A parent-teacher conference should be a conversation, rather than a lecture, but that means you have to arrive prepared. Begin by listening carefully to what the teacher says. Then, if she mentions something concerning or confusing, try asking these questions. Listening to the answers will help you leave the conference confident that you know exactly where your child stands.
1. Is this typical?
The point of this question is not to try to compare your child to the specific other children in his class, but rather to understand if his behavior and academic performance are age-appropriate. For example, the teacher might tell you that your 3rd grader is struggling to add detail and description to his writing. That doesn’t sound good — detail and description are important. They are important, but struggling with them is also incredibly common and not particularly concerning. This is probably the first time your child has been introduced to descriptive writing in any sort of formal way and his thinking is only just beginning to move away from the consistently concrete. So, in this instance, what the teacher is saying is that your child is well within the bounds of normal but that it’s something to focus on with him. If he’s struggling with something that it turns out he should have mastered by now, you’ll discover that too by asking this question and you’ll be able to work with the teacher to get him the support he needs. The teacher has probably had many years’ worth of 3rd graders (not to mention course work in graduate school) to study and determine what is typical. She may have forgotten that you, as the parent, don’t really have anything to compare your child to and that hearing that he’s struggling immediately makes you think there’s a problem. So ask.
2. What can I do to support him at home?
Your child’s education is a partnership between you and the teacher. If the teacher mentions something that your child needs to work on, it’s a good idea to ask what you can do to help him improve. Knowing what he’s struggling with is helpful but, unless you’re a teacher yourself, it may not be readily apparent to you what can be done about it. The teacher will, hopefully, be focusing on this area with your child at school, but if he’s going to succeed, it will help immensely if you are able to productively support him as well. Asking this question lets the teacher know that you want to be an active participant in your child’s learning and that you recognize her authority as someone who knows how to support him. Feel free to offer your own suggestions for how to support him, but listen to the teacher’s response in case she has valid reservations about your approach.
3. What are you doing to support him in the classroom?
This may sound slightly confrontational (and it might be confrontational if you’re concerned that nothing is being done) but it doesn’t have to be. Knowing how the teacher is approaching your child’s education can help you better understand how to support him at home and will flesh out the information the teacher gave you about what you can do to help. But it also gives you an opportunity to offer the teacher some insight into your child’s personality and learning style. If, for example, the teacher explains that she will be making your child a deck of flashcards to help him memorize the spellings of common words, and you know, from experience, that flashcards don’t work with your kid, you can tell her that. And you can let her know some other methods that have been productive in the past. Trusting the teacher and her methods is important, but so is feeling confident in your knowledge of your own child. This partnership only works if the teacher believes you are an authority on your own child, and you believe the teacher is an authority on teaching.
4. How is he doing socially?
This may not seem important and, depending on the teacher and the type of school your child attends, the teacher may not think to mention it but, trust me, it’s important. Part of going to school is learning how to be an adult. Becoming a successful adult, for most people, includes being able to interact socially with others. So, while this may or may not be a part of the curriculum, it’s important to know if your child is struggling to make friends or displaying social behaviors that seem odd or concerning. Not to mention the fact that, if your kid is miserable socially, he’s probably not doing so well academically. We, as adults, find it hard to focus on our work when something is bothering us, and kids have even fewer coping mechanisms than us. Asking this question may also bring up something concerning about how your kid is treating others which, while hard to hear, is also good information to have.
5. Where do you expect him to be by the next parent-teacher conference?
The most successful progress meetings end with goals for the future and conferences are no exception. You and your child’s teacher have spent the last half hour (or fifteen minutes, or five, depending on the school) discussing where your child currently is. It makes sense to have a clear sense of where he should be the next time you formally meet with the teacher. She may volunteer this information on her own, but if she doesn’t, ask. Try to determine some clear and measurable goals so that you can track your child’s progress. For example, the teacher may say that, by the next conference, she would like to see your child’s facility with his multiplication facts improve. But, as the parent, you may not know how much mastery is expected of someone your child’s age. Questioning the teacher a bit further will allow the teacher to express that your child should, for example, be able to answer one digit by one digit multiplication problems up to 12 times 12 within three seconds of being asked. That is something you can keep track of and support your child with between now and the next conference. (Be sure to ask the teacher about social goals, as well, if she mentioned something concerning in that area.)
Take a deep breath, settle into that tiny chair, and get to work. You’ve got this!