In my second year of teaching third grade, I was simultaneously stressed out about my first parent teacher conference day, and also so excited to meet with my own child’s pre-k teacher for the first time.
I knew from talking with other teachers that a back-to-back meeting day could be an overwhelming time crunch. Parents could sometimes really blindside teachers with unusual requests that made it difficult to stay on schedule.
As soon as my last conference ended, I walked down the hall to meet with my daughter’s teacher. I felt disappointed by how little time we had for meaningful conversation. It wasn’t her fault; it was just the nature of the beast.
Parent teacher conferences can be a frustrating experience for both parents and teachers. Once you know what to expect and how to prepare, it can be much better!
The Basics of the Parent Teacher Conference
This section is all about the basics of what to expect at your first parent teacher conference.
Parent teacher conferences are routinely scheduled back-to-back, twice per school year. They are not intended to troubleshoot problems. Rather, the conference serves as a quick check-in with all families.
In my school district, students are given two half days, in which conferences begin promptly at noon and go as late as the teacher is willing. Parents are given a choice of two different days.
Guardians are usually given a 20-30 minute time block. Some of that time is eaten up by administrative tasks. The next part of the meeting addresses student performance data. Finally, the conclusion of the meeting is reserved for questions.
Occasionally, one meeting will run long because a parent arrived late, which could cut into your own appointment. If at all possible, aim for an earlier appointment. If you are stuck at the end of the day, the teacher could be running far behind due to other parents being late. She is also going to be running on fumes.
Here are two different models of a parent teacher conference. It’s more traditional to have just the parent and teacher participate in the conference. However, more districts are opting for student-led conferences every year. If yours is a student-led conference, the teacher will definitely let you know.
Parent and Teacher
In a classic parent teacher conference, there will usually be just 2 or 3 participants, depending on how many parents/guardians attend. It is possible that your child might play or complete homework nearby, but I would email the teacher beforehand if you need your child to be with you. Some teachers prefer to have honest conversations outside the presence of the child.
Student-led conferences are intended to give students more ownership of their learning and goal setting. It gives kids a chance to check in with both themselves and their parents. Here’s a video example of a kindergartener leading her own conference with the support of a teacher. Cute, huh?
One obvious downside is that it can be difficult to speak frankly with the teacher about your kiddo’s progress with your little one right there. If it’s important to have an honest conversation with your teacher about many of the things listed below, you’ll want to schedule a follow up meeting without your child.
Location for the Parent Teacher Conference
The conference will either be virtual or in the classroom. Classroom conferences allow teachers to quickly pull sample work and have data readily at hand. Most meetings feels more comfortable in person.
Video parent teacher conferences are usually done via a Google meeting or whatever technology your family has been using for distance learning. These meetings can be just as successful and even more convenient for some families. However, anyone who has experienced “Zoom fatigue” during Covid might bristle at the idea of this tradition continuing.
Paperwork and Administrative Tasks
The first part of the meeting is sometimes taken up with a bit of administrative work. Some schools struggle to keep updated records, due to frequent address and phone number changes in more transient populations. Administrators will often ask teachers to confirm email address, physical address, cell phone numbers, or even spot check the nurse’s records.
Also, whatever campus-wide policies are not being consistently executed will sometimes be reviewed. For example, if the whole campus is struggling with getting folders signed each night, or dress code violations, teachers will review those policies with every family.
When meetings are already short, these tasks can hijack the opportunity to have meaningful conversation at the end of the meeting. However, realize that your teacher doesn’t have much control over whether or not to allocate time to administrative tasks.
Data is the King of the Parent Teacher Conference
Your teacher will likely have some data to present at the meeting. In larger school districts, this might come from a benchmark score, a nationwide standardized program like iStation or Dreambox, or perhaps a reading level.
The teacher will likely use this data at the parent teacher conference to help you predict the likelihood of your child passing any state issued standardized test (if applicable), or whether your child is on track to finish the year on grade level.
Alternatively, smaller school districts, or those with higher teacher autonomy, may allow the teacher to present more subjective work samples. Work samples simply allow the teacher or student to speak about how they’re progressing toward mastery of different objectives.
How Your Child’s Teacher Uses Data
These data points and work samples are used to place your child into instructional small groups. All teachers are expected to group students for more targeted teaching.
In reading, kids are grouped according to reading level or sometimes mastery of different objectives. For example, students might be grouped together because they are all on reading levels between L and N. Alternatively, they may be grouped together because they’re all struggling with the concept of main idea.
In math, students are usually grouped according to skill sets that are missing, or because they’re ready to move onto an advanced concept. The highest achievers might be grouped together to perform advanced math operations. There might be a group of students who are not understanding fractions. Teaching in smaller groups allows teachers to fill in gaps that are preventing kids from moving forward with instruction.
If your child’s grade level is departmentalized, you will be meeting with the homeroom teacher. If the homeroom teacher teaches your child science, it’s very possible she may not have the answer to all your grouping questions.
Questions to Ask During the Data Discussion
When your teacher is finished presenting data, you may still have questions. Here are some sample questions you might ask.
Is my child on grade level?
(If Applicable) Do you think my child will be ready for the state standardized test, if they continue on this track?
What sort of small group learning opportunities are available to my child?
What are my child’s academic strengths and weaknesses? Note* if this meeting is in September or early October, your teacher may not yet have an answer to this question. She is still getting to know her students. It takes time.
How often will I receive updated data?
A Special Note About SpEd Testing Questions
You might want to ask the following question, if your child seems to be really struggling with academic work or social skills:
Do you see any indication that my child should be evaluated by a pediatrician or the Special Education department?
You might be surprised to see this question, assuming that teachers would let parents know. The law requires schools to consider SpEd testing if parents ask for it. However, bureaucracy rules the day, and sometimes kids who probably need SpEd testing aren’t evaluated on the timeline that would most benefit the child.
Sometimes teachers have their suspicions that a child needs SpEd testing, but it’s such a delicate topic to raise with parents. Many veteran teachers have attempted to broach the topic with families and had it backfire. They’ll be hesitant to speak up again.
If you have any concern that your child might have a learning disability, put the request in writing without delay. That will force teachers to slow down and really pause to think about your specific child. Administrators will likely agree to test your child, and they must do so within 60 days.
The Softer Side of the Parent Teacher Conference
Data is rarely what parents most want to discuss at the parent teacher conference. After all, our children are so much more than a data point on a graph. We want to know if our child’s teacher sees them as a REAL person.
We also want some insight into our child’s school day. If our children spend 1/3 of their day with a teacher, are they happy and growing? Are they making friends? These are the things parents that really concern parents.
Parents often like to tell each other, “No one knows your child better than you.” And while that’s true, your child’s teacher knows better than you how they compare to an average.
For example, you might know that your child struggles to control their anger, and have some insight about the cause. However, your child’s teacher has a better sense for whether those expressions of anger fall in the range of normal. Don’t be afraid to ask for her insight.
Questions to Ask About Your Child’s School Experience
Is my child consistently kind to other kids?
Is my child respectful to you at all times?
Does my child seem happy at school?
Does he or she listen and follow instructions well?
Can my child focus during the school day? (If your child struggles with focus in the classroom, check out this post).
What are your observations about my child’s emotional maturity and ability to handle stressful situations?
If applicable, usually for older elementary school students: Does my child avoid drama and other distractions?
Sharing Helpful Information with the Teacher
Some conversations are just better in person. Parents often assume that things happening at home aren’t impacting their child at school. However, not all children compartmentalize their lives well. Some tidbits of information from the homefront might be really helpful to the teacher.
However, time is really limited at a parent teacher conference. You may need to find a separate meeting time to talk together about your child’s home life. It’s really not helpful to spend the entire teacher conference discussing the details of a family problem either. Focus on relaying the least amount of information that can still provide insight to a teacher.
What kind of information can be helpful for the teacher to know?
If the child is struggling at school with behavioral problems or having trouble mastering certain objectives, here are some things that are worth mentioning to the teacher:
A divorce, even one several years old. Sometimes, a third grader will still be struggling to read, and a parent finally mentions a difficult divorce (or loss of a parent) that happened in kinder or first grade. While the child may now be emotionally healthy, the missed learning during the divorce can have a lasting impact. This is felt most noticeably in early elementary.
Medical concerns, such as allergies, toileting problems, immune problems, ADHD diagnoses (or suspicions of attention disorders), etc. Even if your child’s campus is aware of severe allergies, it should be repeated to the teacher at every in-person opportunity.
Deaths in the family, including beloved grandparents
If you perceive your child to be especially sensitive to hurtful words or loud noises, mention it to your teacher
If you’re concerned about their physical, mental or emotional development
Things NOT to do at the Parent Teacher Conference
Do NOT be late. If you’re going to be late, even by 5 minutes, expect to leave right on time. It’s not fair to cut into the next parent’s time.
Do not overshare personal information. Relay as little home life information as possible while offering helpful insight.
Do not hijack the meeting with a list of complaints about things like snack time, recess, lunch, or frustrations with the administration. Right now, you’re there to learn more about your child’s progress in school.
Do not ask about other children. The teacher has a responsibility to protect ALL information about specific children. Do not ask her to violate this promise.
Do not bring too many people to the parent teacher conference. A spouse is perfectly appropriate, but it’s not helpful to have five people around the table.
Do not bring other siblings to the meeting, if possible. That’s not always realistic for single moms, and that’s totally okay. Just give the teacher a heads up, and bring entertainment for the other kids.
If you want to talk about grades, make sure to check your campus’s grading policy before the meeting. So many frustrations can be avoided if parents will just check the grading policy and respect a teacher who abides by it.
While too much homework in elementary school is definitely a problem, be sure to read this post before starting a conversation about it.
Following Up after the Parent Teacher Conference
There’s a strong possibility you’ll go home with more questions than answers. After all, your child’s teacher likely just presented you with some data, some of which can’t be digested well in the middle of a conversation. Perhaps you didn’t have a chance to ask all your questions, and they weren’t answered in the regular course of the conversation.
At the very least, you may want to fire off a couple of questions via email. In the email, give your child’s teacher several ways to contact you. She already has the information, but save her the trouble of digging through files or opening up a separate window on her laptop looking for your number.
If you’d prefer to meet in person or over the phone, provide her with several different days that you can be available either after school, before school, or during her conference time. Try to avoid asking her to pick up the phone after 4:30 pm out of respect for her personal life.