Family-Teacher Conferences: What You Need to Know

 //  Nov 3, 2016

Family-Teacher Conferences: What You Need to Know

Family-teacher conferences provide a wonderful opportunity for families and teachers to come together as equal partners to share insight and information. Successful conferences offer a platform for shared dialogue and meaningful exchange. However, this doesn’t happen automatically. Conducting a quality conference takes thoughtful preparation and planning—before, during and after the meeting. 

But first: did you notice I didn’t say parent-teacher conference? The definition of a "traditional" family has changed dramatically. It is important to remember a student's biological parent may not be the person who attends the conference. It could be a grandparent, aunt, big brother or foster parent, and they should be invited and welcomed to participate like any biological parent. Maybe it is time for a name change?

What does an effective family conference look like?

The first step in planning effectively for this conversation is to identify the essential elements of a successful conference. This may seem obvious, but teachers do not receive training during pre-service on the components of a successful conference or how to conduct one.

These are the five elements I believe essential to conducting a quality conference: 

  1. Treat the family as an equal partner: Be mindful of proximity and seating. Sitting next to a parent communicates partnership and a relationship between equals, whereas sitting at a desk or table can create a barrier to partnership and communicate an unequal distribution of power. 

  2. Have a two-way conversation: Ask open-ended questions, share the air, and be an active listener. 

  3. Express love and positivity for the student: What families want to know more than anything else is that you know their child, love having them in class and see their potential for greatness. 

  4. Provide individualized tips and tools connected to learning: Provide families with strategies they can do at home to support student’s learning and development. 

  5. Articulate concrete next steps and plan for follow-up: As the conference winds down, collaborate with the family on a particular goal. Agree on strategies, timeframe, and when to check in on progress.

How can we help families prepare?

Preparing families for a successful conference is equally important. We want families to understand why their voice is important in the conversation, and how to be an active and equal partner.

One of my favorite strategies is to conduct conference clinics before the fall and spring conferences. During the clinic, families learn about their role and responsibilities, observe examples of successful conversations, and role-play and receive feedback on different conference topics.  

Role-playing the conference conversation is an excellent way for families to practice raising issues of concern. These conversations are often hard to initiate. Practicing the conversation among peers is safe, and empowers the family to engage in this discussion during the actual conference.

It is also a good idea to give families a list of sample questions to ask during a conference. This helps them prepare and prioritize discussion topics in advance, and reinforces the importance of their active engagement during the conversation.

Here are my favorite questions to share with families prior to the conference to spark conversation and two-way dialogue. 

  1. What are my child’s strengths and weaknesses?

  2. What is my child’s learning style?

  3. How do you assess my child’s progress?

  4. How can I monitor progress? What are the “red flags” I should watch for?

  5. How does my child compare to other students in the class?

  6. What are the grade level learning targets? 

  7. What can I do at home to support my child to achieve the learning targets? 

  8. How does my child interact with other students in the class

  9. How do I choose the right books for my child? 

  10. What types of literature interest him/her?

What to do on conference day

Now that we've covered what to do before the conference, what should happen during the conference?

  • Most importantly, ensure the school environment is welcoming for families. Consider assigning greeters at the door and hanging signage to help families navigate the building.

  • If some families need translators, prepare and schedule them in advance, and take advantage of families' presence at school.

  • Use the conference as a time for families to network. There is often a lot of “wait” time during conferences. Make this “wait” time intentional. It can be an opportunity for families to learn something new, meet someone new or share a tip or strategy with another family! 

Stay connected, stay flexible, stay positive

It is important families and teachers stay connected after the conference. Send a thank-you note to the families who attended, reinforcing the tips and strategies discussed. For families unable to attend, call or send a note to say how much you missed seeing them and provide options for rescheduling.

Even with the best intentions, sometimes the conference does not go as planned. Take a deep breath, keep an open mind, and remember teachers and families play for the same team, and students are most successful when we work together. 

Happy conferencing!


Photo via SOMANEDU