What we say, how we say it, and what we do make a difference!

With the school year underway, parent-teacher conferences are being scheduled across the land. As a parent, participating in parent-teacher conferences was an important way I supported my children as they progressed through school.

There is one conference I will never forget. My youngest daughter’s fourth grade teacher shared with us critical feedback during her fall conference. The message: my daughter was not working to her full potential. She was just doing what she needed to do to get by. Her teacher knew she could put forth more effort and perform at a higher level. It was not an easy message to hear as a parent sitting there in front of the teacher with my daughter. No doubt it was a challenging message for her to deliver to us as well. With hindsight, I am forever grateful for this conference as it was a turning point for my daughter. She did not aspire to “just do the bare minimum.” This conversation sparked a desire in her to do better and take more seriously her learning and education.

There was the prospect of this conference not going well. I do not recall ever being in a contentious conference as a parent. However, having worked in a school, I have experienced challenging conferences as an educator. A recent article by Lisa Westman in Education Week Teacher provides good advice for handling contentious parent-teacher conferences and prompted me to reach out to three of my Intellispark colleagues to learn what has worked well for them in approaching parent-teacher conferences to assure student success. As educators, it is the combination of what we have to say and our thoughtfulness about how we say it that determines how it will be received by parents and by students.

Don’t assume parents know all that you know

Engaging parents is about collaboration and understanding the academic support process and the student’s experience. We, educators, often believe that parents know the inner workings of school processes  that help students succeed. As educators, take time to explain to parents the RTI or MTSS process of discussing student needs through the parent-teacher meetings and the action steps taken to help the student. In explaining the process, it is important to discuss the experience the student will have through each of the components recommended. There will be some emotional reaction as students face challenges and might not feel successful initially. Parents should listen to what their children share and let the educator know so support can be adjusted accordingly. — Deborah Hardy, Ed.D., Senior Advisor

Empathy can promote collaboration

When I was a young department chair, I remember gearing up for parent conferences or special meetings in which I knew parents would be anxious and potentially defensive. I quickly came to appreciate what an intimidating setting such meetings can be both for students and for parents. Parents want the best for their children, yet they are often navigating uncharted waters, craving guidance and expertise. Opening a meeting with empathy and genuine concern for the child — even if there have been frustrating moments in class — is the quickest way to depressurize the situation, build trust and effect a productive, collaborative meeting. When children realize their parents and staff are aligned behind a realistic and clear plan for success and know that it will be implemented, they are more likely to rise to expectations. — Patricia Gagnon, Senior VP, Programs & Practice

Make it easy to know where to go and who can help

Think of two to three developmental counseling task that each grade level should accomplish over the year. Parents will come to meetings wanting concrete strategies. Have 2-3 in your back pocket and challenge parents to be a partner in this process. Create a simple and easy chart that describes the student services support process. We created a chart in the student’s voice that allowed them to view the exact sequence of events and where to seek assistance. We published it in the school newspaper and handed out during parent/teacher conferences so ALL students knew how to schedule a tutor, reach out to their teacher, or contact their counselor for additional support. Additionally, we published a map of the learning center with all support areas highlighted so that students knew the locations. Make a flyer, showing the process on the front and the map/location for those services on the back. — Matthew Liberatore, Senior Advisor


What would you add to assure that parent-teacher conferences provide for student success?

Our passion at Intellispark is to bring understanding and knowledge to all stakeholders, and not just within the walls of the school. We are building Intellispark Pulse to engage the school, parents and community in the success of every student. We look forward to exploring future topics that speak to ways to engage parents in the support and success of their student.

Mary Docken

Mary Docken

Mary Docken is vice president, outreach at Intellispark. Mary has extensive experience in education having served as director of admission at two colleges in the Midwest as well as director of college counseling at Mounds Park Academy in Saint Paul, MN. before joining Naviance in 2006 which was acquired by Hobsons in 2007.