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WHAT TO EXPECT FROM PARENT/TEACHER CONFERENCES
By Sue-Ann Malinconico

Now that the school year is well underway, parents will, undoubtedly, be faced with that first parent/teacher conference. Whether your child is in pre-school or in 9th grade, it can still be unnerving to have someone else tell you what your kid is like.

As a teacher, I have hosted numerous parent conferences and have easily and gently informed concerned mothers and fathers of the academic progress of their children. However, now that I am a mom and I have to sit on the other side of the desk, these parent/teacher conferences have quite a new meaning!

When my husband and I met our son's preschool teacher, we had a long list of questions. Our goal was to exit the conference with a bigger picture of what his day was like. We had learned at Open House about the daily routine of his class and how the curriculum would be approached, but we needed to see how Nicholas was behaving both socially and academically. We wanted to know how he was being challenged from drop-off till pick-up. Fortunately, for us, our questions were answered before we even had to ask them. Here are some of the questions we planned to ask, some of which you may want to consider asking your child's teacher: 

  1. How are discipline problems addressed in the classroom? One reason that your child does not like school this year could be that the teacher is overly strict and your child is uncomfortable and cannot be himself. If you think that this is the case, try to arrange a meeting with the teacher with your child present. This will allow the teacher to explain her classroom expectations and will allow you to better understand your child's discomfort. Ideally, this will result in a compromise you can all live with.
  2. How does our child interact with his peers in the classroom? The answer to this question often shocks the parents. No matter the response, as social issues are directly related to classroom behavior, you need to ask the question.
  3. Are there any distractions in the classroom? If there is another loud class next door or children are being taught another lesson in a corner of the room, they may be preventing your child from learning. You know your child better than anyone and should tell his teacher what is likely to distract him. Although she may not be able to avoid distractions altogether, she might be able to minimize some.
  4. What are our child's strengths in your opinion? It is always nice to hear wonderful things about your child - after all their grandparents can only say so much and you may be surprised at the qualities teachers observe in your offspring that you cannot!
  5. What does our child need to work on? Basically, this is a diplomatic way of asking what are his weaknesses. The teacher can also suggest approaches to working on skills at home. For instance, when I suggested that one of my students needs to get more organized, the mother admitted that she needed to get more organized at home, too. When she bought divided notebooks for herself and her kids, they all learned how to categorize, label and organize things together. Likewise, when our son's teacher told us that Nicholas needs to learn how to pick up his toys, I immediately blurted, "Oh, he gets that from his father!" But after we all laughed, I realized that I had not been emphatic enough about that at home. Now, it is part of our daily routine--thanks to his teacher.
  6. What are your homework expectations? If you and your child understand the teacher's expectations, your child is more likely to meet them and develop good study habits early on.
  7. How can we help out at home? Every teacher loves to see a support system. Your child's teacher works very hard to bring out the best in your kid. You should do the same at home.

During the conference, remember to share information about your child with his teacher. Let her know what activities your child participates in regularly, so that she can have a clearer picture of your child. This information will help the teacher to know if these activities are cutting into homework time and, just as important, to allow her to try to incorporate her students favorite activities into her lesson plans. Be aware of the time you are allotted for the teacher conference. If you run short on time during your conference ask the teacher if you can continue your conference on another day, or via telephone or email. 

Do not be afraid to communicate with your child's teacher throughout the school year-don't limit contact to conference times only. Certainly, inform her of any big changes or stresses going on at home. While making the transition from a crib to 'a big boy bed' or becoming a Girl Scout may not seem crucial to others, it may help the teacher understand where your child is developmentally. I'll never forget when one of my top students stopped doing homework. I couldn't figure out why until his mother e-mailed me and explained that her husband's employer had unexpectedly transferred him to Europe for an unknown period of time. My student and his dad were 'homework buddies' and the child was just devastated. That piece of information was tremendously helpful to me.
Also, if you have not already done so before the conference, offer to help out at school. Tell the teacher when you are available for field trips, class projects and fund-raisers. We are all busy, but constructive learning requires a team effort of teachers and parents. After you leave the conference, you should have a better idea of what your child's day is like, whether your child is comfortable in this teacher's classroom and most importantly, what you and your child need to do at home-together. 

About the Author:
Sue-Ann Malinconico is a public school teacher in Connecticut. 

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