Parent-teacher conferences sometimes become a cause for concern for everyone involved-children, parents, and teachers. Children just beginning their school experience may be wary of the idea of parents and teachers talking about them behind closed doors. Parents may feel uncomfortable about going inside their child's classroom, sitting in small chairs, and listening to reports of their child's conduct and class work. Teachers, especially in their first years of teaching, may be uncertain about how to handle unhappy or critical parents. They may feel uneasy telling anxious parents about their children's problems. This Digest outlines ways to improve communication during parent- teacher conferences. Suggestions are offered to help parents participate more effectively in parent-teacher conferences dealing with children's behavior and learning.
Open and frequent communication between parents and teachers helps to ensure that the issues raised in parent-teacher conferences do not catch anyone by surprise. Both parents and teachers benefit from being well prepared in advance of the meeting so that the meeting is less emotionally charged and takes place in a trusting atmosphere. Assuring parents of confidentiality also helps maintain trust. It may be helpful for both teachers and parents to keep in mind that for many parents, it is a fundamental part of the parenting role to be their child's strongest advocate (Katz, 1995).
Conferences between parents and teachers may become a prime situation for cross-cultural communication or miscommunication (Quiroz et al., 1999). For example, if a teacher says that a child is outstanding in a subject, some Latino parents may interpret this comment to mean standing out-a characteristic considered undesirable by parents from a culture with a more collectivist viewpoint. Asking for clarification of terms and more specific information may help to improve understanding between parents and teachers. Some schools conduct student-led conferences to provide children with an opportunity to critically examine their work with their parents. However, for students experiencing difficulties, parents may wish to request a conference alone with the teacher.
SPECIFY THE BEHAVIOR. Ask the teacher to be specific about the type of misbehavior in which the child engages. Aggressive behavior may be a child's way of getting something from a peer rather than of intentionally bringing harm to another person. Inability to follow directions may be a result of a hearing or language problem rather than evidence of direct defiance of the teacher. It is helpful to consider many possibilities when pinpointing the behavior in question.
EXAMINE THE CONTEXT. Ask the teacher to help determine when, where, and why the misbehavior is occurring. Try to identify with the teacher any events that may have contributed to a specific incident of misconduct. Try to take into consideration anything that might be contributing to the situation: the influence of peers, time of day, family problems, illness or fatigue, or changes in schedule or after- school activities. Children may be more prone to misconduct when they are tired or irritable.
EXAMINE THE TEACHER'S EXPECTATIONS. Ask the teacher to be as specific as possible about what a child does that is different from what the teacher expects in a particular situation. Sometimes, if the teacher assumes that a child is being intentionally aggressive, the teacher's expectation of aggressive acts can become part of the problem and can lead to a "recursive cycle" (Katz, 1995) in which children come to fulfill the expectations set for them. Try to determine with the teacher if the child is capable of meeting the teacher's positive expectations.
MAKE A PLAN. Ask the teacher what can be done by both the teacher and the child to help solve the problem. It may be helpful to have the teacher call the parent if the problem happens again, in order to discuss possible solutions. Parents and teachers can look together at alternative short-term solutions. Often very young children may not understand what is expected of them in specific situations and may need added explanations and encouragement to meet a teacher's expectations. When young children understand the procedures to follow to complete a task, they may be better able to act without guidance. Knowing what to expect and what is expected of them increases children's ability to monitor their own behavior.
PLAN A FOLLOW-UP CONFERENCE. Children are more likely to be concerned about improving their behavior if they believe their parents care about how they behave. When a parent shows enough concern to try a plan of action and then meet again with the teacher to evaluate its effectiveness, the parent sends a strong message to the child that he or she is expected to behave at school. It is sometimes beneficial to include the child in the follow-up conference, too, so that the child can make suggestions. Knowing that parents and teachers care enough to meet repeatedly about a problem may be more motivating than any material reward a child is offered (Kohn, 1993).
1. What does my child do that surprises you? Very often this question can reveal to parents what expectations the teacher has for the child. Sometimes a child will behave quite differently at school than at home, so the parent may be surprised, as well.
2. What is my child reluctant to do? This question may reveal to the parents more about the child's interests and dislikes than they would ordinarily know. The question may encourage the teacher to talk to the parent about the child's academic and social preferences.
3. What is a goal you would like to see my child achieve? This question can serve as a springboard for parents and teachers to develop a plan to work together to help a child set and reach a specific outcome. Even well- behaved and high-achieving children may benefit from setting goals in areas that need improvement or in which they might excel.
4. What can I do at home to support what is being done at school? This question is always appreciated. Teachers may have suggestions for parents but may be afraid to offer unsolicited advice. The question helps create a team feeling.
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Katz, L. G. (1996). Building resilience: Helping your child cope with frustrations at school. INSTRUCTOR, 106(3), 95-96.
Kohn, A. (1993). PUNISHED BY REWARDS: THE TROUBLE WITH GOLD STARS, INCENTIVE PLANS, A'S, PRAISE, AND OTHER BRIBES. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
Nielsen, L. E., & Finkelstein, J. M. (1993). A new approach to parent conferences. TEACHING PRE K-8, 24(1), 90-92. EJ 469 327.
Quiroz, B., Greenfield, P., & Altchech, M. (1999). Bridging cultures with a parent-teacher conference. EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP, 56(7), 68-70.
Willis, S. (1995). When parents object to classroom practice. EDUCATION UPDATE, 37(1), 1-8.