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Parent with elementary child talking to teacher at school

Parent Engagement

Surviving the Difficult Parent-Teacher Conference

The parent-teacher conference can be a stressful time for both parents and teachers – even more so if your child possibly has a problem. This article offers strategies for getting the most out of the conference, and also includes stories from veteran teachers of successful (and not-so-successful) parent-teacher conferences.

Parent-teacher conferences were times of great anxiety for me as a child. I sat at home with damp palms, waiting for my mother to return with the bad tidings. I’m not sure why I had such a guilty conscience. I was a good student and never had behavior problems. But the conference brought together the most powerful adults in my life – my parents and my teacher – to talk about ME. The attention was unnerving.

As an adult, I approached my oldest child’s first parent-teacher conference with confidence, sure that my good parenting skills would be reflected in my first-born’s stellar performance in his preschool. I came prepared with a list of questions and a notepad and pen to jot down the teacher’s witty observations and wise recommendations.

My first clue that the conference was not going to be a glowing review of my child’s accomplishments was the teacher’s serious demeanor when I entered the room. I glanced quickly at the classroom aide, who looked away without smiling. With growing unease, I sank down onto the pint-sized, zebra-striped chair and waited, feeling my palms become damp.

“We think your son may have some issues,” the teacher finally said. She noted his lack of desire to sit in a circle with the other children. She said he would persist with a task even after the class had transitioned to another activity. He liked to whirl around the playground until he was so dizzy he fell down. And then, the final blow, she said he didn’t play well with others.

I was stunned. I could see her lips moving, but I couldn’t understand what she was saying. A long vista of special education classes stretched before my eyes. As the buzzing in my ears receded, I heard her say something about taking my cheerful, energetic child in for testing.

When the news isn’t good

Stop, listen, and ask

When first hearing about possible problems, parents should listen carefully and hear all of the information from the teacher and then ask questions such as these, suggested by the National Association of School Psychologists:

  • How long has this problem been observed?
  • When did the problem start and when does it happen, i.e.,on what sorts of assignments?
  • How different is the child’s performance from that of others in the class?
  • Are there similar or different problems in other subjects?
  • How is the child’s attention in class?
  • Is the child willing to participate in classroom activities and discussions?
  • What are the child’s strengths?

First of all, don’t panic. Remember that your child is far more than the sum of your parenting skills. “The biggest mistake is overreacting before listening to all the information,” says Dr. Andrea Canter, a nationally certified school psychologist who worked 30 years for the Minneapolis school district.

“It is natural for parents to become upset when first hearing about ‘problems’ in the classroom, but usually the first signs of trouble are just that – early warning signs that something needs attention. It does not usually mean that the child has a disability or will fail the grade or will never catch on.”

It could be that the problem is easily solved. Is homework coming home from school? Is the homework making it back to the teacher? The teacher might have some ideas on ways to help, and schools often have resources to help with mild problems such as a child who just may need to practice the basics before moving on.

“Probably the second biggest mistake is assuming the teacher is wrong,” says Canter. “No one wants to hear that their child is having difficulty so it is natural to seek another explanation – poor teaching or inaccurate evaluation of the student.”

While teachers may not have enough information to figure out why a student is having problems, they can usually make accurate comparisons with classroom standards and other students, and their concerns should be taken seriously. “Teachers do make mistakes sometimes,” says Canter, “but it is really important that teachers and parents see themselves as collaborators and not adversaries.”

A conference gone bad

Address the problem

Here are some ways to respond when the parent-teacher conference includes some unexpected news, as suggested by the National PTA:

  • Avoid angry or apologetic reactions. Instead, ask for examples.
  • Ask what is being done about the problem and what strategies seem to help at school.
  • Develop an action plan that may include steps that parents can take at home and steps the teacher will take at school.
  • Schedule a follow-up conference and decide on the best way to stay in touch (phone, e-mail, or letters sent to the home).

“I was in my eleventh year of teaching,” remembers Judy Rankin, first grade teacher at Candalaria Elementary in Salem, Oregon. “I had a little boy who was really behind the curve. He had no symbol or letter recognition. He was nowhere near ready to read. I had called his home several times to talk with his dad, who was not very open to hearing about a problem.”

When the parent-teacher conferences rolled around that fall, Rankin wasn’t prepared for the father’s angry reaction. “All of a sudden, my sixth sense told me to get up and move away. I felt that I was literally in physical danger. I was sweating and shaking, and all I could think was that he was closest to the door.”

Judy quickly changed tactics and started talking about student goals. “Sometimes it’s not worth pressing the point,” she says. “Parents can’t absorb too much at one time. Listen to your instincts and don’t be afraid to reschedule the meeting if the parent becomes upset.”

Judy’s colleague, third grade teacher Laura Fender, comes to difficult conferences armed with examples. “I bring copies of other children’s work – with the names blacked out, of course,” she says. “I want the parents to see how their child’s work compares with others in the class. I’ll have a sample from a high-performing student and one from the middle range, so the parent can see how their child’s work stacks up. It makes it very easy for them to see the difference.”

The cultural divide

Susan Driessen is an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher in the South Brunswick, New Jersey school district. She often joins the classroom teacher for a parent conference when there are concerns about a child’s performance. “Sometimes it’s just easier for me to be the one to speak up and be blunt because I am the third party, a step removed from the situation,” Driessen says. “The classroom teacher is usually more diplomatic because she doesn’t want to shock or scare the parents. She definitely doesn’t want to destroy their dream that their child will be the perfect student.”

South Brunswick is part of greater New York’s ethnic melting pot, with students from all over the world who speak myriad languages. Often a child enters the school system without knowing any English at all. “It used to be that foreign children were over-identified as having academic problems,” says Driessen. “But now I think it’s the opposite. Children aren’t being identified quickly because there is an assumption that the problem is the language barrier.”

Separating the impact of language differences from that of a learning disability can be tricky, even for professionals. “A lot of parents are in denial, which makes it even more difficult,” says Driessen. “In some cultures, having a child who can’t excel in school is a stigma that brings shame to the whole family.

“So we try to be sensitive to that, but we have to keep prodding for information, sometimes coming at it from a lot of different angles. We try to figure out why the child is struggling so we can find a way to help.”

Rearranging the dream

As for my own “special” child, I have had to adjust my vision to fit his reality – what I imagined is not who he is. I have educated myself on his learning styles and needs so I can work out strategies with his classroom teacher to help him reach his potential. I never expected to be so intricately involved with his schooling. But with the most important adults in his life – his parents and his teacher – working together, I know he can succeed.

Laurie Fry is a national education writer for Reading Rockets.
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