communication

Make the Most of Your Parent-Teacher Conferences: For Parents AND for Teachers

little cute boy in glasses with young real teacher, classroom studying

For Parents:

Before

Consider your compliments, questions and concerns – It is nice to be able to greet your child’s teacher with something pleasant. Conferences are also a time to share your concerns about your child, the class or the school, and to ask any questions that you have. It’s best to be prepared. Take a few days to think about this, and jot yourself a few notes.

By the time your child is in grade school, ask if they have any compliments, questions or concerns – I started asking my children this before conferences when they were in preschool. Their inputs became helpful around third grade.

Know the time limits and be on time – Know that this is a full day for your child’s teacher. At many schools, conferences are scheduled back to back. Be on time. If it becomes apparent that you need more time, ask to schedule a follow up phone call or conference.

Go prepared – It’s good to have a pencil and paper with you (or notes on your phone IF you can really narrow your focus to notes). If you are a note taker, feel free to take notes throughout the conference. Even if you aren’t, you might need to jot down a book title or important dates.

During

Follow the teacher’s structure – Hopefully the teacher will let you know an outline of the time available. Please respect that outline.

Listen with an open mind – This is a time for your child’s teacher to share about your child’s strengths and any concerns in the classroom. This is also a time for the teacher to make recommendations for school and home about how to work on and improve any areas of concern. This may be difficult to hear. It is important to keep an open mind and really listen.

Ask yourself, does that sound like my child – Hopefully, your teacher is pausing to ask you at least occasionally if this sounds like your child. It can be helpful to know going in that many children behave differently at home than they do at school. It is normal. It’s still good to consider where there is overlap.

Participate in discussion of any recommendations – When there are concerns, teachers should be making recommendations of things that may be helpful to do at home and in the classroom to best address the issue. It is helpful if parents add ideas, note what has or hasn’t worked before, and make suggestions for classroom (know that these may or may not be taken for a range of reasons).

Even when there is a disagreement, err on the side of support – You may entirely disagree with particular feedback you are getting. It is fine to say that you disagree. Also remember the point above, your child may be functioning differently at school than at home. It can be helpful to still take note and commit to further observation or investigation. When there is debate, you might ask if another teacher or guidance counselor could also observe and weigh in. You might ask the teacher to provide the related recommendations and continue to track progress so you have more time to consider. Err on the side of finding beneficial ways to learn more and move forward together.

Consider any suggested screenings or evaluations – Again, keep an open mind. Screenings or evaluations often provide beneficial answers, and may connect children to valuable services. Here are helpful ways to think about early evaluations and intervention.

If you aren’t taking notes on your phone, turn your phone OFF – This is your child. This is your child’s teacher sharing time and valuable information.

After

Follow through on recommendations – If there are areas of concern, it is so helpful to follow through with recommendations. If they are beneficial, your child is ahead. If they don’t work, at least you can rule out the approach.

Schedule screenings or evaluations – Some evaluations take just a few days to schedule. Others can take several months. Good to make phone calls within a day or two.

Note follow up questions and concerns – As you work on recommendations or observe your child, it can be helpful to take notes on progress and jot any questions that come up.

If needed, schedule a follow up phone call or conference – It is fine to request to touch base with teachers moving forward.

For Teachers:

Before

Encourage parents to be prepared – When you announce conference times, it is nice to give parents a bit of guidance. This might be encouraging them to think about their questions and concerns, or letting them know the outline of your time at conferences (below).

Prepare yourself – Plan in depth for each conference. Consider individual strengths and any concerns for each child. Review your recommendations, and talk out loud through any potentially difficult conversations you are aware of.

Bring props – This might be a few photos of a recent class activity, or the products of a class project. It can be nice to have something to show as part of your greeting.

Bring things to send home – This might include the weekly or monthly plans, a lunch calendar or any of the student’s recent art. It might be best to save this as a transition to mark the end of the conference.

Bring examples of any strengths or concerns that you can – If you are going to make a point about the child’s drawing or writing, bring a sample.

Set start and end times (with at least 5 minutes between) – However long your conferences are set for, clearly share the start and end time with parents.

Send reminders – Everyone is so busy these days, good to send several reminders.

Bring extra paper and pencils – It’s nice to have these on hand to offer parents if they’d like to take notes.

Bring tissues – Someone may cry.

During

Stay on schedule – If you find you need more time, it’s best to schedule a follow up phone call or conference.

Take a few notes throughout the conference time – For the teacher, taking a few notes helps to keep the conversation on track.

Slow down – This is important information for parents. You are sharing about how their child is doing in school, and possibly sharing new concerns. It is helpful to slow down particularly when speaking about concerns and recommendations.

Speak plainly – It’s best to avoid any educational jargon.

Let parents know the order of the conference – Once you’ve greeted parents, it can be helpful to let them know the order of the conference. For my conferences, this would be first sharing strengths, then discussing any concerns and recommendations, then opening the time to answering parents questions. Parents may be able to better relax and listen once they know there is time built in for questions.

Within strengths – Plan to share two or three strengths. One can be a personality trait. Aim for the next one or two to be new skills or growing abilities. Be sure to have an anecdote or work sample to support each point.

Within concerns – You may not have concerns for all of your conferences. For the ones that do, limit to two or three concerns. Again, be sure to have an anecdote or work sample to support each point. Take care to word your concerns in hearable language, meaning they’re stated in a positive way. Rather than starting with, “John is being so aggressive when he is angry,” you might say, “we are working on having John use gentle hands even when he is angry.” You can go on to talk about the aggressive behavior. Be sure that for every concern you have, you have at least four recommendations readily available for how to work on the area of concern. This should include at least two ways to address this at school and two ways at home.

Ask if they share the same view – It can be helpful for strengths and concerns to at least occasionally ask if parents have seen this at home or if it sounds familiar. This brings the parent into the conversation, so it’s not a one-sided listing.

Recommendations – The reason for having at least four recommendations available is, during the conference some of your recommendations may be knocked out. Parents may let you know that something’s already been done, or why it likely won’t work. You might still try it, or you might decide to take it off the list. The point is that recommendations are a work in progress. It is good to ask parents what they think about the recommendations, and if they have any ideas to add for school or home. Recommendations might include having a related screening or evaluation.

Avoid all diagnostic language – When listing concerns and recommendations, avoid making, or guessing, at any diagnosis. Rather than giving a label to your concern, focus on fully describing the concern, any related behaviors you are seeing and any impact on the child. Avoid saying you “suspect a language delay,” rather explain your concerns about the language you are hearing and gives examples. Any impact might include the child’s own frustration in communicating, or missing out on play because the others often don’t understand his speech if this is what you are seeing. It is fine to talk about developmental expectations if you have a good reference point.

If you are recommending a screening or evaluation, helpful to provide parents a list of providers – If you are suggesting a Speech/Language evaluation, it’s helpful to give parents a list of area providers. Given the list, parents are more likely to make the contact.

Within questions – Be open to all questions. If you can’t provide an answer, note the question and make a plan to contact parents once you have an answer.

End on a positive – Plan ahead to end on a positive note. It’s all the better if this can be in addition to the previously listed strengths.

After 

Note if there are disagreements, upsets, unanswered questions, a need to schedule a follow-up conference or anything else that seems important – This is best done immediately after the conference. Take notes when your memory is fresh. Write this in objective language.

Follow through on recommendations – Move forward with fully implementing recommendations.

Note follow up questions or concerns – As you work on recommendations or observe the child, it can be helpful to take notes on progress and jot down any questions that come up.

If needed, schedule a follow up phone call or conference – If there were any recommendations made, it’s good to schedule a time to follow up. This will help everyone be accountable, and let’s you discuss any changes or additional recommendations that need to be made.

 

Stress: Parents Provide the Emotional Landscape

Mother and Daughter

Children may experience stress around life transitions such as moving to a new house or having a new sibling. They experience stress sometimes when parents are stressed, and when they are having their own difficulties such as someone being mean to them at school.

Parents provide the emotional landscape in which children process these stressors. This means that parents’ words, tone and actions around the change or the stressor shape how the child experiences it.

I have been the school psychologist sitting across from parents who are receiving an initial diagnosis of a learning disability for their child on a number of occasions. Some parents respond with, “this is so horrible. I can’t believe this is happening to our child. He will get teased and will be so unhappy being pulled out of class.” Other parents respond with, “aren’t we lucky we caught this. It will be so helpful for him to have the extra support he needs to be on a better path.” Clearly the second child will be provided information about this change in a more positive way. He may take the change easier by the tone and words his parents use to convey it.

The idea is to get yourself together and think about the words you choose carefully. When you can, plan your language and presentation to be supportive and reassuring.

It’s also helpful to think about the age of your child, and give information in a way they can easily understand. Plan for just a clear sentence or two for young children. Be prepared for their questions and concerns.

Parents, Please Assume Positive Intent from Teachers

Child with teacher drawing in playroom

It’s the start of a new school year. This may be your first year of preschool, or your third year at an elementary school. Wherever your child is in their school career, there is always the possibility of your child having difficulty in the classroom or with the program. When this happens, it is often the teacher bringing the issue to the parents’ attention. Unfortunately many parents first response is to kill the messenger. This is an unproductive way to start. It’s better for parents to take a deep breath and realize the teacher is almost always also working with the child’s best interest at heart. The teacher may be wrong, there may be great disagreements about how to move forward, but they are likely coming from a good place. Believe me, I preach this to teachers as well. Parents almost always are working with good intent.

When I taught preschool full-time, we had a three-and-a-half year old that was exhausted and fell asleep the minute he laid down at naptime everyday. By state guidelines, he was not to be given any activity for the first 30 minutes to keep him awake, and was then allowed, if he fell asleep, to sleep the full two hour rest period. This made the parents unhappy because on days he slept the full two hours, he was wide awake at home until 11:00 p.m. despite the consistent 9:00 p.m. tuck-in time. On weekends, he didn’t nap, made it through the day and fell asleep easily at 9:00pm. The teachers weren’t trying to make life harder for this family, they were following the state guidelines. The parents weren’t trying to ruin the teacher’s or their child’s day, they wanted a bit of sanity in the evenings at home. Sure, it’s a difficult situation, and one that didn’t work itself out until the child was in an older classroom with shorter nap requirements, but teachers assuming parents want to exhaust the child and parents assuming teachers are just being rigid wouldn’t help the matter.

When there is a disagreement with teachers or the school, it is also good practice for parents to use their most positive language when speaking about this in front of their children. If they are at all aware of the situation (and they are), it is best for parents to say things like, “we are working this out with your teacher. She is being helpful,” or, “we’ll make a good plan with the school. These things take time,” rather than throwing the teacher or school under the bus. However it works out, your child will likely be with the teacher in some way moving forward, and you want them to keep a positive attitude with that teacher in particular and about school in general in the long run.

Benefits of Eating as a Family

Here are a few reasons to make eating as a family a priority:

  • Children learn valuable life skills – There is benefit in children learning how to prepare and cook food, as well as how to clean the table. This sounds crazy, but I have fond memories of washing and drying dishes after meals at my grandparents’ house. Maybe these are fond memories because we had a dishwasher at home.
  • It’s a chance to reconnect socially – Eating together regularly gives families an opportunity to check in with each other, share their day and laugh together. As a basic, this is time to teach children how to carry conversations and how to ask and answer questions.
  • Build and share family traditions – While this may be a small piece, it’s a chance to pass along blessings and prayers. In some families, this can be a time to share recipes.
  • You can model healthy eating habits – Parents tend to provide children a wider range of foods when families sit and eat together. Modeling healthy eating habits is a nice, low key way to encourage them to eat.
  • You can teach and practice manners – Table manners are a learned skill that’s best taught over time with lots of repetition. Try to make this fun with related storybooks and games.
  • It’s related to better long term childhood outcomes – Children who regularly eat at least five meals a week with their families show higher academic scores, lower rates of later behavior problems and lower rates of obesity.

To learn more about these ideas and ways to avoid picky eating habits and mealtime battles join me for my workshop on Managing Mealtimes & Picky Eaters, September 5 from 7:00-9:00 p.m. For more information and to register, please visit http://www.eventbrite.com/org/283710166?s=1328924.

Encouraging Early Language

There are many ways to encourage early language:

  • Provide Running Commentary– Running commentary is talking about all the things your child is seeing, doing and feeling. Be sure to use lots of labels. This sounds like, “oh, you have a ball. You rolled the ball. That ball is rolling fast. I have it; I caught the ball.” At the grocery store, “mommy is putting the red apples in the bag. One, two, three apples are in the bag.”
  • Read and Sing Aloud Everyday– Read board books and picture books with your child. Label and talk about the pictures. Have children’s books available on every level of the house and with you in your diaper bag. Sing songs with your child often, particularly songs with movement.
  • Avoid Anticipating Their Needs – When the child points to their cup, rather than just giving it to them, you might hesitate for a few seconds asking what they need. If gestures and points are able to fully communicate, there may be little need for language. I wouldn’t wait to the point of frustration, but enough to encourage them to use words.
  • Use Echo Expansion – Echo expansion is reflecting their language intact and adding to it. If they say, “milk?” you say, “more milk?” If they say “more milk?” you say, “you would like more milk, please?” You are validating their language effort and modeling using more.

Two-Year-Old Running in Parking Lot

Hi Dr. Rene,
My two-year-old runs away from me in the parking lot. I have a four-month-old so when she does this it is especially challenging since I’m holding the carrier. I have been talking to her prior to leaving about what we need to do – hold hands, stay with mommy, etc. And lately, I have been giving her a reward when she stays with me and holds hands. This works most of the time but she still runs away now and then. Do you have any insight on why she does this? It makes me reluctant to take her places!

Sincerely,

Katie

Dear Katie,

At two years old, she likely does this because it’s fun or because it gets a big reaction. I would save the conversation about what she can do until just before you are getting out of the car. After you’ve gotten the carrier with the baby, and you are just about to let her out, I would say, “in the parking lot I need you to hold my hand the whole time.” Then I would give her a choice to help her buy in, something like, “do you want to jump or walk while you hold my hand,” or, “do you want to sing or whisper while you hold my hand?” If she is not yet able to make a choice, just give her these things as a challenge, “let’s whisper the whole time we hold hands, ready?”

If this doesn’t work, be prepared to follow through with a consequence related to keeping her safe. If she is pulling away or trying to run, “if you run, you will have to be in the stroller,” or, “you will have to wear the backpack (leash).” I am not a terribly big fan of the leashes, but I get it. If your young child is a runner, and my first one was, I get the leash in parking lots or crowded places. I think they are fine while the child is learning to stay with you or be a listener.

You might also practice a key word. In our house, we playe the Freeze Game. I took Alicen to Springfield Mall, an empty place on weekday afternoons, and said, “okay, today when you run off I am going to say, ‘Freeze!’ When you hear me say, ‘Freeze!’ your job is to stop your feet as fast as you can. Got it?” For the next while, you are playing the Freeze Game and teaching that ‘freeze’ is a magic word. Every time she listens, gush a little by saying something like, “look how fast you stopped. You are a listener!” You can then use the Freeze Game in parking lots and on bigger outings.

I hope this helps!

Sincerely,

Dr. Rene

Getting Three-Year-Olds to Answer

Dear Dr. Rene,
Everytime I ask my three-year-old what he did in preschool, he says, “nothing.” How can I get him engaged in a conversation about this?
Sincerely,
Hope, Mother of One

Dear Hope,
This is a common complaint. You might use the class weekly or monthly plans to ask more specific questions like, “I see you made collages today, was that fun?” or, “what did you do at movement class today?” If the teacher sends daily reports, use that as your jump off. You might ask more specific questions like, “who did you sit with at snack?” or “who was the line leader?” You might ask funny questions like, “what was the worst thing about preschool today?” or, “did you go to the bathroom by yourself or with friends today?” You might also ask future plans, “what do you think you’ll do at school tomorrow?” If he has a favorite thing like the car mat, you might start there, “did you get to drive cars on the mat today?” It may be that he just needs a break from being social after a day at school, so you might wait until after snack or a bit of playtime before you ask.
Sincerely,
Dr. Rene
http://www.askdrrene.com/

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