Unfortunately, parents often leave parent-teacher conferences feeling bombarded with jargon and statistics and understanding nothing. This serves no purpose. Successful parent-teacher conferences need to be practical and should give parents a positive message that the school and home need to work together to promote the child’s greatest chance of meeting her potential. To make conferences “positive” for parents, Dr. Roger Pierangelo and I (as Executive Directors of the National Association of Special Education Teachers; NASET) have developed practical suggestions for making conferences “positive” for teachers and parents. Our suggestions include:
Keep in mind that the purpose of the initial telephone call to the parents is to schedule an appointment, not to discuss their child’s achievement or behavior, even if they request only a "quick" summary. If they make such a request, gently say that your information is better explained and understood in person. If you sense further anxiety, reassure them that you will meet as soon as possible. Discussing such issues in person allows you to ask questions and assess their non-verbal cues. Such information may help you to better focus on whatever concerns or confuses them. Moreover, face-to-face contact offers greater opportunity to makes the conference friendlier, instructive, and supportive.
Make meeting with parents as comfortable as possible by making the environment receptive. If possible, hold meetings in a pleasant setting. Whenever possible, use a round table, or any table instead of your desk, and offer refreshments to ease possible tensions.
First focus discussions of the child on his strengths, no matter how few. If possible, report positive classroom comments and any other information that might create a supportive tone for later discussions of problems.
Remember that like all of us, parents have fallible memories. Thus, you might need to refresh the parent's memory about what their child’s IEP has identified as needs (e.g., mastery of three memory strategies).
Provide parents with a typed, well-organized outline of their child’s classroom test scores, grades, and group achievement test results. Taking such information home may help parents more accurately explain the peaks and valleys of their child’s progress to others, such as their spouses or professionals who work with their child.
Discuss test results in simple, concrete terms. Clearly define statistical terms that you must use (e.g., percentiles, stanines, standard scores, grade equivalents) and provide examples that parents can readily relate to. Consider typing the definitions of these terms and examples on the prepared outline with the child’s test scores. This will help parents explain the information to others and will refresh their memory of your discussion.
Offer parents a pad and pen so they can take notes during the meeting. Further, tell them that they should feel free to call you with additional questions or concerns.
Put aside sufficient time for conferences that may be difficult. If disagreements arise, you don’t want to run out of time. You want to resolve issues. If parents feel rushed, they may feel resentful.
Be practical and specific when suggesting how parents can help at home. When making recommendations, give parents printed sheets with specific, explicit, steps-by-step directions that don’t need interpretation. Avoid vague terms, such as “positive reinforcement.” Don’t expect parents to be teachers, especially in areas in which their child struggles. Tentatively offer them materials to help them better understand their child and better understand what they can do to increase the likelihood of success (e.g., Would you borrow a DVD on helping children with ADHD at home?”).
Holding effective parent-teacher conferences is a critical part of being a respected educator. By using conferences to gain the trust and confidence of parents, you’re likely to get far more support from parents than if parents view your conferences as insipid, superficial, or uninformative. As a teacher, learning how to run parent conferences is time well spent.
For more information on the topic, here are two articles you might want to read:
Seligman , M. (April, 2000). Conducting effective conferences with parents of children with disabilities. Focus on Exceptional Children, http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3813.
etools4Education (2005). Parent teacher conference. http://www.online-distance-learning-education.com/article_info.php/articles_id/30.
Dr. George A. Giuliani is the Executive Director of the National Association of Special Education Teachers (NASET) and is a full-time Associate Professor and Director of the Special Education Program at Hofstra University's Graduate School in the Department of Counseling, Research, Special Education, and Rehabilitation. In addition to holding a Juris Doctor from the City University of New York School of Law, he is a New York State licensed psychologist and certified school psychologist. He has an extensive private practice focusing on children with special needs.