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Communication is Key: Tips for Successful Parent Conferences
By Susan A. Miller, Ed.D.

 Mrs. Anderson, the Center Director, answers a new parent's question about the school’s weekly lunch menu. The new parent, Mrs. Alvarez, completes the information in her son’s enrollment packet. Then, while they walk down the hall together to meet the teacher, the parent, child, and director continue to chat about the school.  Although you may not think of this intake session as a “parent conference,” it really is a first conference.  The parents are introduced to the philosophy and goals of the center’s program while they inform the school personnel about their child’s interest and needs, as well as any expectations they may have.  This initial dialogue and the open sharing of supporting materials (for parents, this may include medical reports, for the teacher, a daily schedule, and for the director, a policy handbook) sets the tone for how successful the director, staff members, and parents will all be at communicating information and ideas throughout the year.

Trusting relationships are built  in the course of daily interactions, such as both arrival and dismissal times, during casual conferencing and on-going exchanges as parents, teachers, and the director informally talk about events in the child’s life: "He mastered pumping the swing,” “Grandma is coming to visit,” and things they all share in common, such as how well a local event was attended. These warm greetings and friendly discussions help to pave the way for positive communication in future, more "official" conferences, such as scheduled, teacher/parent conferences at mid-year and the end-of-the-year, or at informal conferences held on an “as needed” basis.

 There are several key factors involved in achieving successful Teacher/Parent conferences.  These include:
• Preconference planning
• Parent attendance
• Extending the invitation
• Arranging the environment
• Body language
• Listening,
• Verbal and written communication
• Summary and follow-up
and finally,
• Record keeping.

Preconference Planning
To keep communication flowing smoothly at the beginning of the school year (or whenever parents enroll their children), the teacher needs to let the parents know how they can contact her as questions arise or when they wish to share information.  She should provide her email address or phone number for times when a face-to-face conference is not possible.  It is important that both parents and teachers establish times that are most convenient to contact each other.

Also early on in the year, staff members need to start gathering materials and information to share at conference time.  Teachers should make observations that show how the children interact with materials and activities, develop their physical and cognitive skills, and promote their social skills with others.  They may wish to use checklists to indicate the children’s stages of development or write down anecdotal records to share with the parents specific examples of the children’s growth.

Along with observations at the mid-year and end-of-the-year conferences, a portfolio of saved work is extremely helpful to enable parents to actually see their child’s growth.  They can also gain a sense of the teacher’s understanding of their child’s development as she discusses the collected work samples. At regular intervals, materials should be selected by the teacher, with the help of the child who may like to tell about and pick out some of his favorite things to include in his file, such as writing samples that demonstrate his increased fine motor control, photos that show how he builds cooperatively with others, or drawings that offer proof of his keen imagination.

As teachers get closer to the mid-year conference time, they should carefully plan their agenda to help make everyone feel relaxed and comfortable.  A basic outline might look like this: Introductions and a warm greeting, a brief statement of the conference’s purpose, specific information to share about the child’s progress or concerns, an opportunity for parent input, a summary of the conference and finally, some suggestions for enhancing the child’s development.

If teachers are inexperienced facilitating parent conferences or feel uneasy about their roles, the director can provide assistance in a number of ways.  She can arrange for a workshop where staff members have opportunities to role play and practice answering some typical parent questions, such as, “Does my child behave at school?”  The director can also arrange for a consultant to help teachers learn effective ways to use various assessment tools, like sharing portfolios or setting up documentation panels to serve as a springboard for discussions.

Who Should Attend?
 Both parents should be invited.  However, if the parents are separated, the teacher must check with the custodial parent to make comfortable arrangements.  He or she may be willing to record the conference for the other parent.

If class coverage is available, or the conference is not held during school hours, the assistant teacher’s comments would be a welcome addition to the conference.
Be sure to let the parents know ahead of time if their child’s support service teacher will be attending, so they don’t feel overwhelmed by a number of teachers.  They may want to have specific questions prepared for this special consultant.

Some teachers and families like to encourage a three-way conference with children attending.  This allows them to share what they like to do in school and involves them in any problem solving methods.  Otherwise, the school may need to provide a child care service away from the conference areas.

If it appears that a situation might be tense or policy issues are involved, communication might be less awkward if the director sits in. In case the parents do not speak English, arrangements need to be made ahead of time for an interpreter to be present. If possible, the center should provide one, or an older sibling may be available to help ensure a two-way conversation.

The Invitation
If the conference is not held at a convenient time for parents, they simply will not come.  The teacher or director may wish to send out a survey to see what times work best for the parents – before or after school, during a conference day off, in the evening with babysitting provided, etc.  Or, the center may decide to offer a mixed-time schedule on a parent sign-up sheet.

The teacher should plan for at least 20 minutes for each family in order to have an opportunity to interact during the conference.  The date and time need to be confirmed in writing, along with any special needs the family may have (transportation, interpreter).  An enthusiastic written reminder sent home just before the conference day is always a good idea.

Arranging the Environment
 While parents are waiting for their conference to begin, make sure the bulletin boards in the waiting area communicate the exciting things that the children have been doing (such as samples of creative paper folding, pictures of them gardening, etc).  Colorful thematic webs let parents see the exciting curriculum development in their child’s classroom.  Have helpful pamphlets available (“Reading with Your Child”) to peruse and take home, as well as posters with messages about the center’s upcoming events (family pot-luck-supper, field trip to the farm).

 Arrange for a quiet, private spot (to ensure confidentiality) to meet and talk.  Offer the parents a beverage so they can feel relaxed – this can be a very stressful time for parents, especially if it is their first conference and they are nervous about speaking to the teacher.  To help prevent communication barriers, use an oval or round table to sit around, rather than sit across from one another.  Make sure the table is large enough to display and comfortably share the child’s portfolio materials as the teacher and parents sit side by side.

Body Language
A teacher needs to be aware that her body language is a powerful silent communicator.  To use her body in a positive way, she needs to keep good eye contact with the parents and show openness by not crossing her arms.  During the conference, she should smile when parents speak and acknowledge their comments with a nod, and covey  seriousness when appropriate.

The Importance of Listening
A conference is a two-way experience.  The teacher needs to listen carefully and be receptive to the ideas, information and concerns shared by the parents.  The teacher should give parents her full attention and try not to interrupt.  The teacher needs to let the parents know she cares about what they are saying.  For instance, she might say, “What you have shared helps me to understand why Jon has a hard time falling asleep at naptime.”

If the parents seem upset, the teacher may wish to reschedule the conference for another time with the director’s assistant.  Effective communication only occurs if the parents and teacher are willing to listen to each other’s comments and thoughts.

Verbal and Written Communication
To stimulate conversation, the conference should begin on a positive note with the teacher sharing something special about the child from her anecdotal records.  For example, she might explain, “Reba jumped up and down at the easel on Monday when she created her favorite color, pink, as she painted over the red paint with her white brush.  She enthusiastically shared her discovery with her friends.”
 
And, it would be very meaningful to be able to share with her parents Reba’s painting labeled “pink” which had been placed in her portfolio.  Such a visually descriptive material helps to reassure the parents that their child is really learning about things, like colors, in school.  It also lets the parents know through the conversation about the assignment that the teacher values their child's unique contributions.

The teacher may decide to share information about the child’s interests, learning styles and developmental progress through a tour of the room to discuss the student’s participation in a variety of displayed projects or by reviewing her skill development noted on a checklist.

To involve the parents immediately, the teacher should begin with open-ended questions, like, “What activities does Brian like to do with his hands?”  Because parents may have many of their own questions, the teacher should be a flexible as possible to encourage their communication. She should try to provide as much uninterrupted time as possible (cell phone off, duties with children covered by her assistant), so they can concentrate on their conversation and the sharing of ideas.

The teacher must take care not to be condescending when she speaks as this will immediately turn parents off.  Using a pleasant, professional tone of voice is helpful.  It is important to remember that having a discussion with parents is meaningful, but lecturing them is not.

Statements need to be phrased in thoughtful and respectful ways so that parents and teachers can discuss how to solve problems together.  For example, a teacher might ask, “What do you think we might do to help Jocelyn stop pinching?”  After a non-threatening discussion with the parents, she might say, “Here are some suggestions of things we are trying here at school.”  To continue conversing after the conference, the teacher needs to emphasize collaborating to help the child meet the goals set up for her.

During a dialogue, a parent may become angry or upset.  The teacher needs to be patient when she responds.  Instead of speaking in generalities, such as, “Tommy is overly assertive with his friends,” she needs to try to be specific.  She might use a description from an observation, such as, “Yesterday, Tommy grabbed all of the play dough from another child and kept it.”  She then needs to build on previous positive daily conversations to brainstorm several ideas with the parents.  She might begin by asking, “What do you think is causing this behavior?”  The teacher’s language should be simple, clear and non-judgmental.

Summary and Follow Up
 The teacher needs to use the last few minutes to bring closure to the conference.  She should ask if the parents have any final questions.  Then, the teacher can summarize their discussions about the child’s development and any suggestions they will try to help with mutual concerns.  Together, they can establish an easy means of keeping in touch (phone, e-mail, at arrival) after a specific time to talk about the progress made or any necessary adjustments.  The teacher should be sure to thank the parents and any other participants who helped to create a successful conference.

Record Keeping
In order to keep communication open and be respectful during the conference, the teacher may wait to take notes until the conference is over.  It is important not to record confidential information that should not be shared with others.  The teacher needs to briefly write down highlights of the meeting and describe the concerns discussed and the suggestions for handling the situation.  She should list the things she and the parents agreed they would do and check the dates when items are completed.

Conclusion
Ongoing, open communication throughout the year is certainly the key to successful parent-teacher conferences.  It is significant to remember that parents will respond warmly and sincerely to a supportive, non-judgmental teacher who not only listens to their concerns, but is positive about his or her daily input into their child’s growth and development.

- - -

Tips: Be Sensitive to Parents’ Conferencing Needs
• Provide documents in the parents’ language
• Offer translation services for non-English speaking parents
• Furnish child care, if necessary
• Suggest resources to help families – booklets, phone numbers, etc.
• Greet and speak to families in a culturally appropriate manner
• Be aware of additional stresses for families caring for a child with special needs
• Learn and use the correct names within families (remarried members, older father – not a grandfather)
• Avoid talking down to parents
• Alert parents to problems ahead of time instead of surprising them at the conference
• Be respectful of parents’ choices if they make a decision that may be opposed to your suggestions
• Try to be nonjudgmental, as criticism may be perceived as personal
• Use clear language rather than educational jargon