You’ve made it through back-to-school shopping, those first weeks of homework, and waking up to an alarm clock. Your child knows the routines for getting ready in the morning and doing homework at night. You’ve even mostly figured out how to get dinner on the table before your kids fall asleep. So now it’s time for the parent-teacher conference! Schools often hold conferences at the end of the marking periods or after the first few months of school. That means teachers have some data to report and parents have some questions in mind.
The conference is a great opportunity to find out more about your child’s school day. But what should you be trying to find out?
Ask about expectations for homework at the parent-teacher conference
Depending on the teacher, school policies, age of the students, and subject of the class, homework expectations can vary widely. Many districts have a policy about how many minutes per night of homework students should have at each grade level. While I am very cautious about recommending homework to students because research shows that it may not benefit younger children, every teacher has their own philosophy.
Find out from the teacher how much time homework should take your child every night. Also discuss with the teacher a the plan for nights when the homework is taking your child much longer than the expected time. If your child is a struggling reader, for example, even the math work might take extra time as they struggle to decode the word problems.
Talk to the teacher about a plan for prioritizing the homework. Be honest about the amount of support you are providing at home to help your child get the homework done. If you are finding that you and the child are spending an exceptionally long time working together to try to complete the homework or if you find that your child is totally relying on you to reteach something they have learned in school, there may be a mismatch between the homework they are getting and their independent skill level.
One possible solution is to agree on a time limit for homework. If your child works more slowly than his peers in math, for example, agree that he will complete as many as he can in 15 minutes, if the rest of the class is expected to take 15 minutes to complete it. If handwriting is an issue, talk to the teacher about weather your child can type his spelling list for practice, or whether he could write the target words one or two times in if the class writes them three times. this can be tricky are at the upper grade levels, when some teachers grade homework assignments. but it is important that you and the teacher share expectations for homework and can work together as a team to help your child be successful.
Benchmarks for reading and math
Ask your child’s teacher what benchmarks or informal assessments they are using to learn about your child’s skills in reading, writing, and math. These are most often determined by the school district. Ask how many words per minute your child should be reading at this point in the year and how many she is reading. Find out how long the average written composition is for students in your child’s grade so that you can figure out whether her writing meets the standards. This is an important conversation because it means you won’t be surprised when report cards come to find that your child is not meeting expectations for the grade level.
If your child is not meeting benchmarks, ask what is being done to help them
Often schools use an approach called response to intervention, which identifies students who have not met learning targets at a certain point in the year. These students are given targeted additional support in their area of need. The way the support is given varies a lot from grade to grade and school to school but it often includes small group instruction where targeted concept is pre-taught or re-taught to help children who have not yet mastered it. Although the data may not be directly shared with parents, because response to intervention is a dynamic process in which students are moving in and out of intervention groups as they reach their goals, your teacher should be able to tell you generally when and how students are moved in and out of groups and how those decisions are made.
You may also ask about what staff members are participating in the response to intervention groups. It helps to know who the teachers are that your child is meeting with. You might be surprised or confused to hear them mention an unfamiliar name because often staff from across disciplines including paraprofessionals, teachers at other grade levels, and specialists like special education teachers and speech and language pathologists participate in response to intervention and take groups of students with the same specific skill needs.
Best way to communicate about questions or problems
Teachers often cover this on back-to-school curriculum nights at the beginning of the year, but if you don’t have a plan for the best way to get in touch with your child’s teacher, make sure you ask at the conference. Is it best for you to email your concerns? Do they prefer to have a phone message left for them at school? By the same token, be sure to let them know the best way to reach you. Do you prefer to be called on your cell phone or at your work number? Does the email address you gave at the beginning of the year still reach you during the day? It’s important to have a plan for communication to ensure that issues don’t linger and questions can be answered promptly so that your child and teacher and get on with the business of teaching and learning at school!
What systems are in place for behavior in the classroom
You may have a child who makes it all the way through the school year without ever mentioning the behavior management system in the classroom. Or you may know the system inside and out by the end of September. It helps to find out from the teacher what the individual and group behavior expectations are for your child’s class and what systems are in place to address those. Does your teacher use a token economy system, like tickets the children can trade in for prizes? Does the class earn a collective reward when they get enough marbles in their jar? Are behavior corrections public like names written on the board or a classroom behavior chart? Or are corrections and reminders individual and personal? Does your child’s classroom use consequences like removal of recess time?
You know your child best and you may be able to suggest approaches to reminders or consequences that will be effective and efficient at helping your child be on her best behavior throughout the school day.
Suggestions for working with children at home
If there is an area where your child is not yet up to grade level, the parent-teacher conference is a great opportunity to ask the teacher for suggestions on how to practice at home. Does he recommend specific books or stories for building reading fluency? Are there math games that will help your child learn to recognize place value or memorize the multiplication tables? Is there a website that offers video reviews of the math skills your child doesn’t seem to remember? If you plan to give your child extra practice for their school work at home, resources from the teacher are a great place to start to keep your practice aligned with what’s going on in the classroom.
Recommendations for independent reading book
Some readers may have worked their way through every book in the house and most of the classroom library and be looking for more. Others may have trouble settling into a book or a series that interests them. The classroom teacher can tell you what your child has been reading in school and what other readers in the grade tend to like. That gives you good information for your next trip to the bookstore or library.
If your child is struggling, what’s next?
Talking about a child who is struggling with what is taught in class makes for a challenging conversation on both sides. As a parent, you feel worried that your child isn’t getting what he or she needs or you may feel frustrated that the school doesn’t seem to be solving a problem that you see at home. Maybe it’s not the first conference you have sat in where the teacher said your child is not meeting the grade-level benchmarks.
While it can be difficult, try to stay open to this new teacher’s plan. The vast majority of teachers are doing their best and using a range of creative tools to help your child be her best.
These conversations are easiest when the parents and teachers share the same concerns. For example, your son is avoiding reading at home and the teacher has data that shows he reads slower than his peers and has trouble with some of the phonics rules that were taught last year.
Ask the teacher what strategies she is using in the classroom to support him. She may talk about spending one to one time with him or having another adult in the school spend time with him regularly during the week to practice his reading. She may have him participating in targeted small group instruction, in which he and several classmates with the same needs are reading together. These approaches often fall under a system called response to intervention which is a method for supporting students that is based on classroom assessment data and providing targeted teaching in the area of weakness.
Ask how the teacher will know if his reading is getting better. Find out how often he is participating in groups, what specific program – if any – is being used, and how long the group will go on. For example, is her plan to reevaluate his skills after 8 or 12 weeks or will he participate in this small group all year long? While it is hard to rearrange and reformulate groups frequently, and kids often need the same practice for a large portion of the year, I hope you will hear that the teacher plans to reassess skills in a month or two and find out what the student should work on next.
What if you and the teacher don’t agree?
The conversation at the parent-teacher conference about next steps to support your child can be more challenging when you and the teacher are not seeing the same things. For example, you might be really concerned about a weakness in spelling while the teacher says your daughter’s skills are age-appropriate and that she’s getting better. It can be frustrating as a parent to hear a teacher dismiss your concerns. Try to remain open to what you’re hearing, but if something is an ongoing problem, don’t plan to give up. The teacher has the benefit of seeing many students over a period of years make progress through her class. She may have seen that students with your daughter’s needs often grow out of a skill weakness during her class. If the teacher does not jump on board with a concern you have, consider this conference the beginning of many conversations.
Try to leave the conversation with the thinking that you will both keep an eye on the problem you’re seeing and talk or meet again if you continue to have concerns about your child’s progress. Teachers understand that your role as a parent is to advocate for your child. Their role is to provide the learning environment and curriculum that allows your child to succeed and gives them the tools they need. You are on the same team, even if your perspective is different.
Another difficult conversation occurs when you hear your child’s teacher saying that there is a problem with your child’s learning and you were not aware of it. It is easy to feel blindsided and defensive the first time you hear that you’re sweet, smart, child is not making the progress expected in class. Again, think about the perspective your child’s teacher can offer you. She has seen many children over a long period of time. Your perspective is often limited to what you have seen your child or children do. She may be aware of challenges in school that you had not yet considered. If the area the teacher is worried about is something you know your child can do, think about why your child might not be showing their best skills in class. Think about how how to build your child’s confidence or help them demonstrate their strengths to the teacher.
On the other hand, your child might truly have a weakness in an academic area. Kids are great at focusing on the things they are confident in and avoiding things that they find difficult. It may be that you have not seen your child’s weakness because it’s in an area that he doesn’t engage in at home. The teacher may have seen problems in an area you have not observed.
A parent-teacher conference is a rare opportunity to get to know your child’s teacher and to spend a little time in the world of school where your child spends so much of her time. Also, think about how your child might be feeling about two of the important adults in his life sitting down without him. Most likely, he will want to hear that you and the teacher like and respect each other and that you are both proud of him and excited about the way he will grow this year. Hopefully, a parent-teacher conference with a positive conversation we’re both parties walk away with that feeling. If it doesn’t come easily, hopefully you can at least find some common ground with the teacher and come up with some positive elements to share with your child.