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Make More of Parent-Teacher Conferences

James Paterson

Here are 10 new ways to make them pay off.

Research is showing parent engagement pays off, and it’s increasingly being encouraged by education policymakers as an essential benefit to schools and families.

And the most direct way to communicate with parents is the parent-teacher conference, so what are some ways to make them pay off? Here are 10 tips to improve parent-teacher conferences.

1) Start Early. Anne Henderson, a veteran expert on parent engagement who authored a key report consolidating all the research on the topic, recommends that counselors, teachers and other school representatives visit homes of their student before school starts – to talk about expectations and gain information about the student and their environment. Henderson, author of the book “Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family/School Partnerships,” says that while they may seem time-consuming and difficult to organize, home visits will pay off with improved relationships and a much better understanding of, and empathy for, the students before they start the school year. It is especially valuable with students in transition who are new to a school.

2) Get a Good Start. Hold a pre-meeting to discuss the topics that need to be covered and objectives and outcomes expected, and allow anyone participating to provide information about previous interactions with the family or other background. Develop an agenda and make someone responsible for sticking to it. Remind everyone that the goal is the help the student improve – not complain to parents or punish the student by criticizing them. These meetings should be designed to be a fresh start.

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3) Think About the Cast. Consider who should attend – and whether some people can report in writing. Everyone is busy in schools, and you want to use key people for meetings when they will be most effective and not wear them down with too many. Consider also that a large crowd can be intimidating to parents, particularly if they believe their student has misbehaved or is not performing well. Written reports from some people are fine. Also, there are times when it might be helpful to be creative about who is invited – a coach or building services staff member who knows the student well, perhaps, or a teacher who doesn’t teach the student but has observed them and interacted. Even consider people outside the school.

4) Plusses Too. Don’t hold meetings only when there is something negative to say, if possible, but sometimes if there is a concern or if you think a student would benefit from a special program or advanced work. And during any conference, even if it largely concerns a behavioral or academic problem, include positive information that the student can build on, says Joyce Epstein, director of the Johns Hopkins National Network of Partnership Schools.

5) Consider Tech. Allow parents to use Skype, even participate on speakerphone, if they can’t physically attend, says Russell Sabella, a counseling professor at Florida Gulf Coast University and a former president of the American School Counselors Association. Don’t hesitate to use simple-to-use new translation applications when necessary. In one case, a counselor had a thorough presentation about the student as an electronic document that could be revised as the team met with the parent, shared, and updated online. “Use technology when it solves a problem or makes the meeting more effective, but avoid or abandon it if it creates distance or doesn’t help you reach the goals you have for the student,” he says.

6) Keep on Track.  Have an agenda, with time for comments for everyone (including the student) and consideration of supporting documents. Ask a parent to bring what they might need or what you want them to contribute, including reports from outside sources or other schools, Sabella adds. Develop an agenda and stick to it. Use a timekeeper who isn’t inflexible, but keeps things on track.

7) Consider the Surroundings. A big table where teachers and administrators are lined up facing the student or parent might not create the right atmosphere, says Epstein. Some schools use a classroom and create a circle with desks. Experts have suggested it may be useful to separate the student and parents and make the student appear to be part of the school team presenting to the parents, and lessen the need for the parent to attend to the student.

8) Who is in Charge? Student-led conferences are becoming increasingly popular, where the student goes through a pre-planned presentation (and rehearsed) progression about what they have done, including examples of their work and a self-evaluation, according to Henderson. “We often forget to loop in the person we are most concerned about – the student,” she says. “In fact, even in elementary school they should really play a big role.” Also, perhaps avoid having an administrator facilitate because it may intimidate teachers or create the wrong message. And don’t let the one person with the most negative view of the student wrest control.

9) Put it in Writing. Allow time to develop a concrete plan for the student – with roles for everyone in attendance. To prove it is a team effort, teachers, administrators, parents, and the student should all have responsibility going forward. Make the assignments specific and discuss how they will help the student improve.

10) Follow Up. Epstein notes that one of the biggest problems with parent conferences often is that a lot is accomplished during the meeting and there is a lot of energy to meet goals immediately after, but teachers and parents get busy and students move back to comfortable old habits. Some applications in schools allow the plan to be posted and added to, including firm descriptions about small goals or expectations and a system for acknowledging success: For instance, a week without a referral, and then, perhaps, a month or quarter without disciplinary action. The team might agree to review a student’s grades in three weeks or at the end of a marking period and adjust the plan, remind the student of the goals or make note of the success. Quick teacher reports can be submitted to a counselor by email, consolidated, and distributed and shared with the student.

At the End. Often the best way to be certain that the work on goals is ongoing is to establish the date for another meeting before you close one, which puts the student on notice that they will have another encounter. Sometimes an incentive will be that no meeting will take place if goals are reached.