How to Have Productive and Honest Dialogues at Parent-Teacher Conferences
By Jenny Woo, PhD
My very first parent-teacher conference as a new parent was disheartening. I remember holding back my tears and walking out of the room feeling judged and diminished. I had a hard time shaking off these feelings for weeks.
Here’s the irony: my son was fine—he was not in trouble and was on track academically and socially. Yet, it was the way that teacher had talked to me: the tone of voice, the dominating stare, and the anticipatory pause. I felt inferior and reduced in her presence. Second irony: this was only a preschool conference!
This formidable experience took place before I became an educator myself. Having played a role on both ends, I believe conferences are a time of anticipation and strain for both parents and teachers. In a single day, teachers meet with 15-20+ parents/caregivers for 10-20 minutes with no downtime. Back-to-back meetings are tiresome. When one session runs late, the train derails. The prep work leading up to the conference can leave teachers feeling frazzled and drained.
The parent-teacher conference is an evaluation of everyone’s progress and expectations. It’s a time for parents and teachers to sync up on a student’s progress at school. Inevitably, it’s also a time when parents and teachers size up each other to understand why the student is saying what they are and behaving the way they do—and in some cases, whether the stuff the student told about a teacher (or a parent) is true. If parent-teacher conferences are an evaluation, no wonder all parties come to the table feeling raw and vulnerable.
To mask discomfort, parents and teachers often rely on ritualistic pleasantries and surface-level recaps of the progress report. As a result, parents may leave the meeting empty-handed and mildly dissatisfied. Or worse, an unexpected comment could leave parents feeling blindsided and paranoid.
How do we have productive and honest dialogues at our next parent-teacher conference? Below I propose goals, questions, and strategies to make the most of your conference.
Focus on Progress.
Many times, we walk into a conference curious about how many kids in our child’s class got a particular grade. Or we’re compelled to ask the teacher how other students did compared to your child. This may stem from our need to gauge where our child stands and, for competitive parents, a need to feel validated. When we do this, we place unnecessary pressure on ourselves and our children, deviating from what we really should be focusing on: progress.
Instead, we can ask:
“Is my child performing at grade level?”
“In which areas has my child shown (or not shown) progress since you’ve known him/her?”
“How do you measure progress?”
“What might be holding my child back from progressing?” (i.e. knowledge, skill, confidence, motivation, self-discipline, focus)
“What does progress look like for my child?”
These questions will help you quickly understand how your child is doing and pinpoint areas of growth, needs, and barriers. Equipped with this insight, you can work with your child to celebrate recent successes, set specific and visible goals, and direct efforts toward individual growth.
Understand Your Child’s Performance Across Domains.
Kids develop at different paces and excel differently across various domains. Howard Gardner proposes evaluating intelligence (competence) by modality, such as musical, interpersonal, visual-spatial, and bodily-kinesthetic.
In parent-teacher conferences, conversations often isolate academic performance, which is related to the verbal-linguistic and logical-mathematical domains. However, your child’s teacher may also be able to offer insights on domains such as your child’s interpersonal and intrapersonal skills.
We can ask:
“How does my child do in social situations with peers?”
“How does my student contribute to the class atmosphere?”
“In what subject does my child struggle/excel?”
“In what kinds of activities has my child performed particularly well?”
“Does my child get easily frustrated? Can you give me an example of the context?”
Understanding your child’s academic, social, emotional, and behavioral tendencies will help everyone better understand how to relate to and motivate your child. Understanding which domain(s) your child excels in will also help you to address areas of weaknesses creatively with a strength-based approach. For example, if your child is highly musical, then he/she can practice language skills through singing and songwriting. Remember: our goal is to spark and preserve the joy of learning in our children.
Build Lasting Partnerships.
The truth hurts sometimes. Even the slightest blemish could feel like judgment and criticism on our part. Therefore, it’s even more important to remember that everyone in the meeting wants what’s best for your child.
If your child has complained or said negative things about their teacher to you, you could be walking into the conference with a biased outlook. If you are shocked by the grades on your child’s report card, you might be walking into the room feeling defensive, perhaps even combative.
A child can behave differently at school than at home. The conference serves as an excellent opportunity to establish home-school partnership to define and align language, expectations, and norms surrounding the child.
We often expect the teacher to do most of the talking and sharing. However, to sync up, you must be willing to share situations and developments at home that could impact your child’s engagement at school.
Viewing the conference as an opportunity to reciprocate coaching can give your child the best support in and out of school. This is not the time to point fingers or erect barriers. By speaking the truth, you give the teacher the permission to do so, as well. This mutual understanding creates a safe place for honest and objective dialogues.
Remember, the purpose of these meetings is to create:
- Open dialogue between the parent and teacher.
- Honest conversation about student’s progress and performance.
- Collaboration and involvement in student’s education.
Click here for a printable list of “Progress-Performance-Partnership” questions to ask during your next Parent-Teacher Conference.
For strategies to strengthen your partnership with your child’s teacher, check out 52 Essential Relationships. To support your child in commonly struggled social situations at school, check out 52 Essential Social Skills for K-3rd grades, Social Situations for 3-6th grades, and Social Dilemmas for 6-8th grades.
Gardner, H. E. (2008). Multiple intelligences: New horizons in theory and practice. Basic books.
Dr. Jenny Woo is a Harvard-trained educator, TEDx speaker, and founder/CEO of Mind Brain Parenting. Jenny is the creator of a series of award-winning emotional intelligence games: 52 Essential Conversations, 52 Essential Relationships, 52 Essential Critical Thinking Skills, and 52 Essential Coping Skills. Her games have won the 2018 Parents’ Choice Awards, 2021 National Parenting Product Awards. Based in Irvine, CA, Jenny is a mother to three elementary-age children.