How to Make the Most of Parent-Teacher Conferences

Whether teaching is occurring in a virtual or in-classroom setting, parent-teacher conferences can help establish common educational goals for adolescents. Sometimes, parents and teachers have very different standards or metrics for success, explains Marynn Dause, M.A.Ed., Ed.D. candidate and National Board-Certified Teacher.

“I did have parents who insisted that their child rewrite his entire assignment until he got it perfect,” said Dause, an experienced high school and middle school teacher who co-wrote 10 Keys to Student Empowerment: Unlocking the Hero in Each Student. “I told them, ‘No.’ They were multiplying his homework time by four and five hours.” 

Learning about teacher expectations encouraged the parents to adjust their own personal requirements, which provided the student with more time to work on other assignments and participate in other activities. It also gave Dause an opportunity to establish a rapport with the family.

Every parent-teacher conference, including virtual parent-teacher conferences, is an opportunity to have productive discourse about how to help a child realize their full potential. But making the most of those meetings may require thinking in advance about what information will provide the most accurate assessment of a student’s academic performance and what steps teachers and parents can take to better support the child. Teach.com asked experts in the field of education to share tips for parents and teachers alike on how to make the most of conferences.

Parents’ Guide to Parent-Teacher Conferences

To ensure better outcomes in the interest of child development, preparation is key for parent-teacher conferences and any parent-teacher meeting. These encounters are often brief, so it benefits the adult stakeholders to make efficient use of time and address concerns, clarify any confusion and walk away with specific answers. To achieve that, here are some useful tips:

Parents’ Parent-Teacher Conference To-Do List: 

  • Plan ahead. Determine what you need to know.
  • Make a list of questions. Review them and prioritize them. 
  • Identify goals. Find out what the teacher expects from your child and why. 
  • Listen to the teacher. Focus on responses and be ready to follow up.
  • Seek at-home strategies. Request tips on how to improve learning at home.
  • Plan regular updates. Set a schedule for regular feedback on your child’s progress.
  • Get answers. Review your original list of questions before you leave.

Luz Santana, co-director of The Right Question Institute, works with educators to build better partnerships with families. On an episode of “Notes from the Backpack: A PTA Podcast,” she pointed out that many parents avoid conferences with teachers because they don’t know what question to ask.

“The right question is the question that you want to ask depending on what you want to know,” Santana said. Simple questions such as, “How is my child doing?” require follow-ups to reveal detailed information, she added.

There are no strict guidelines for questions to ask at parent-teacher conferences, but here are suggestions that can help facilitate the conversation:

For Parents: Questions to Ask at Parent-Teacher Conferences

Expectations

  • What is my child expected to learn from your class?
  • How are grades determined?
  • How do you measure progress?
  • When can I expect progress reports?

Performance

  • What is my child doing well in your class?
  • What does my child struggle with in class?
  • What are the problems that my child has in those areas?
  • What can I do to support your instruction?

Social/Behavioral

  • How would you describe my child’s demeanor in class?
  • How does my child get along with classmates?
  • How much does my child participate in class?
  • Are there any opportunities to improve their behavior?

For Parents of Children With Special Needs

  • Do you have any questions about my child’s special needs?
  • Do you think my child has a sense of their strengths and challenges?
  • Has my child’s special needs affected how others treat them?
  • Does my child need extra accommodations during class?

For Parents Using English as a Second Language:

  • Does my child understand reading and writing assignments?
  • Does my child need an ESL tutor? Where can they receive help?
  • Has my child’s language barrier affected how others treat them?
  • How can my child improve reading and writing skills outside of school?

Explanations are important, so parents should make sure that they ask enough open-ended questions to elicit detailed responses. Closed-ended questions can be useful in framing the next question that should deliver more information, Santana said. For example, if parents ask whether their child turns their homework in on time and the teacher says “No,” parents can follow up with more questions: “How do you assign homework so that I can review daily or weekly and ensure my child is completing their assignments?” or “Is there a pattern to the type of homework that is not being completed?”

If parents find themselves feeling uncomfortable about parent-teacher conferences, Santana suggests they find other ways to communicate with their child’s teacher. For example: Schedule a phone call, use an intermediary at the school if they are more comfortable doing so and use technology to communicate virtually or by electronic exchanges.

“If the parent gets the question somehow to the teacher, it is a way of holding him or her accountable,” she said.

Teachers’ Guide to Parent-Teacher Conferences

When meeting with parents, especially for the first time, teachers should enter the conversation without any preconceived notions, said Candra Morris, M.S. Ed., and author of Why Every Child Needs a Village for Academic Success. They should “always assume positive intentions—that parents want the best for their child just as you want to see their child to succeed,” Morris said.

Preparation is just as important for teachers as it is for parents during these meetings.

Teachers’ Parent-Teacher Conference To-Do List: 

  • Set the agenda. Send a list of discussion topics in advance to parents.
  • Be prepared. Do your homework and know everything you can about the child.
  • Be welcoming. Sit at a table with parents so that you are meeting as equals.
  • Maintain the three Ps . Be polite, positive and professional to set the meeting’s tone.
  • Identify what is expected. Work together to set common goals for the student.
  • Listen to the parents. Focus on responses and be ready to follow up. 
  • Plan regular updates. Schedule regular feedback on the student’s progress.
  • Set a time limit. Prevent getting stuck in an unproductive cycle of discussion.

Children are all different from one another, and for students with special needs, teachers would need to adjust processes accordingly. In those cases, Dause said that teachers should connect with parents early in the school year to discuss expectations, express a willingness to collaborate and ask for advice. She suggested using an empathetic approach to meeting parents of students with special needs and making sure to highlight important achievements throughout the year.

“I can’t stress enough how important it is to focus on the positive. Progress is progress,” said Morris. It may also be helpful to include other teachers or aides who are providing support for the student’s special needs under an individualized education program, or IEP.

For families who use English as a second language, communication can be challenging but not impossible. Morris suggests using the school system’s translator services and possibly scheduling meetings outside of the set conference dates and times to ensure everyone can attend.

“I think going the extra mile to make sure that they have the support that they need is really important,” Morris said.

If the school doesn’t have a translator, technology could be an acceptable alternative. Telephone translation services might be an option, but if that is not available, Dause said use apps for translation. As a last resort, she said that Google Translate can be used.

Parent-Teacher Conferences During a Crisis

In a pandemic, parent-teacher conferences may need to occur on video calls and over email or other messaging platforms. And, in some cases, the shift to these platforms can actually increase the amount of communication between parents and educators. One way to provide consistent updates without being constantly connected is for teachers to send communication on an established delivery day.

There are also multiple options for delivery. For example, some teachers might enjoy designing and formatting a weekly newsletter to parents. Ease-of-use is an important consideration, so a text tool specifically designed for teachers might work just as well. And when parents or guardians aren’t as familiar with technology, phone calls may be a better way to communicate, even if they have to take place less frequently.

“Whatever it is, pick something easy, that doesn’t cause suffering. Ideally, it should take you five minutes,” Dause said.

How to provide updates can also make a difference. Some suggestions from Dause and Morris for how to communicate updates on a student’s progress include:

  • Open with a positive note. Highlight what the student has accomplished and what they have to look forward to as the school year progresses.
  • Note a challenge as an opportunity to grow. Provide possible remedies to address challenges, such as make-up material or alternative lessons. 
  • Be flexible. Understand that both students and their parents are navigating a crisis and unanticipated challenges will arise. 
  • Involve the student in discussions. Particularly when students are having challenges, allowing the student to participate can give them agency in seeking a resolution. 
  • Provide an avenue for follow-up. Rather than just receiving feedback, parents should be able to respond and have discourse about their child’s education.

No matter what the conditions, regular communication between parents and teachers is important because there shouldn’t be any surprises between the adult stakeholders in a child’s education.

“Don’t let parent-teacher conferences be the only time that you communicate with your parent,” Morris said. “Reach out to the parent so that every touch point isn’t just focused on academics. Show that you’re actually fostering a positive relationship that supports the child all around.”

Additional Resources

Resources for Parents 

The Center for Family Engagement: hub from the National PTA offering useful videos, podcasts and research information.

Conversation Starters to Use With Your Child’s Teachers, Understood: tips for bringing up subjects such as school services, behavioral challenges and teaching methods.

Parents’ Guide to Student Success (PDF, 1.2 MB), National PTA: suggestions for talking points with teachers about children’s academic progress.

Parent-Teacher Conferences: Strategies for Principals, Teachers, and Parents (PDF, 578 KB), Global Family Research Project: guide to 5 R’s of conferences – reach out, raise up, reinforce, relate and reimagine.

PreK-12 Public Education Resources: Parent Resources, American Federation of Teachers: publications with information on transitioning to kindergarten, English and Spanish tip sheets and navigating the school system.

Strategies for Parents and Teachers Grappling With COVID-19 Stress, Carnegie Corporation of New York: central site with audio of discussion about coping with a pandemic, information on parenting cue cards, routine planner and a well-being index.

Resources for Teachers 

Best Messaging Apps and Websites for Students, Teachers and Parents, Common Sense Education: information on apps and websites for teachers to use make communication easier with parents and students about assignments and progress reports as well as conferences, field trips and volunteer opportunities. 

“Handling Parent-Teacher Conferences like A BOSS!,” Education to the Core: tricks of the trade for teachers.

“How to Coach Parents Who Are Teaching at Home,” Edutopia: tips for how to convey to parents how subject matter should be delivered and understood, including progression of the lessons. 

“How to Handle the Parent-Teacher Conference,” TeachHUB!: more discussion on preparation for meetings with parents.

“Parent-Teacher Conferences: Tips for Teachers,” KidsHealth: additional information on avoiding teacher jargon and developing a thick skin for meetings with parents.

“How to Solve Six Tough Parent Problems,” Scholastic: strategies for how to deal with parents with different issues including those who are overzealous, want to tell you how to teach or want to talk daily.

This article was updated February 2021.