10 Questions to Ask - or Avoid - at Your Next Parent-Teacher Conference

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Asking questions is the first step to better parent-teacher communication. Credit: Getty Images

Sweaty palms, cotton mouth, the fear of raising your hand ... if teachers and classroom settings made you nervous as a kid, the thought of your next parent-teacher conference might still cause anxiety. Take a deep breath. Knowing what to ask -- and which questions to avoid -- can help calm your fears.

In one of her more memorable fourth grade parent-teacher conferences, Lily Eskelsen, an elementary school teacher from Utah and vice president of the National Education Association, says a mother gave information and then asked questions.

Eskelsen says the mother explained that her child was a struggling reader, but an excellent artist.

"The mother asked 'Is there a way to use his strength in art to help in reading?' " Eskelsen tells ParentDish in a phone interview. "She saw the whole child: He needs extra help here, but how are we going to use that strength over here?"

From that meeting, Eskelsen and the parent devised a strategy for an upcoming unit on health to use the child's drawing talent to help him learn.

But other parents can feel a bit anxious before meeting with their child's teacher. Weston Clemmons, a father of three from Wilmington, N.C., remembers disliking his first parent-teacher conferences.

"There always seems to be a tattle-tale feeling," he tells ParentDish in a phone interview. "Like the teacher is saying, 'I'm going to come in and tell you all the things your kid is doing wrong'."

With his oldest child now in college, Clemmons has since mastered the art of the parent-teacher conference. But he found that he appreciates the student-led conferences he has had at Friends School of Wilmington, a Quaker school his children have attended.

At other schools his children went to, Clemmons says he felt the teachers often seem to be going through the motions and just bring up negatives. In the Quaker classroom, the teacher helps the students prepare information about what they have been doing in school for the conference. The student then presents the information at the conference with the parents and the teacher, creating a three-way dialogue.

"It causes the student to articulate what the student is doing in school," Clemmons says. "While the teacher can contribute in the conference, the student has to prep. It seems to complete the loop of responsibility for the student."

So, what sort of strategy should you employ as you go into your own conferences? Of course, there is the universal question all parents want to ask: "How is my kid doing in this class?" But, to make the parent-teacher meeting and school year a success, the Virginia Education Association says parents should go beyond the basics and view the meeting as the continuation of on-going communications and parental partnership with the teacher.

Here are some ground rules to get you started.

Don't be late.
Respect the teacher by arriving on time and try not to go over your allotted time. If there is a problem -- you can't leave work or have other commitments -- don't be afraid to communicate with the teacher that you need to reschedule.

Prep time. Speak to your child and learn the teacher's homework and classroom policies. Plan on talking a bit about your child's interests outside of school. The national PTA group says parent-teacher conferences are in place to boost your child's education and help your child do better at school, even if you think your child is dong fine. So, remember to keep your cool and leave the "Blame Game" outside the classroom.

Ask, ask, ask. Here are 10 questions to ask and get you thinking of more. Remember, this isn't a test:

  1. 1. What are my child's strengths and weaknesses? What are some examples of each strength or weakness?
  2. 2. Does my child speak or ask questions during the class and in any of the classroom activities?
  3. 3. For the most part, does my child seem happy and to be adjusting well to school?
  4. 4. Is my child getting along with others? Are there any classroom relationships or situations which I need to be made aware of?
  5. 5. Have you noticed any changes in behavior that I should be concerned with? Is my child complaining of having trouble seeing the board or does my child seem sleepy?
  6. 6. Does my child work up to his/her potential?
  7. 7. How does my child approach test taking?
  8. 8. What are some of the upcoming subjects the students will be studying, and how might we support these units from home?
  9. 9. Does my child understand the expectations of this classroom? Is my child turning homework in on time?
  10. 10. Is there an action plan we can develop to keep improving my child's progression?

What to avoid.
Questions to think twice about before asking are those that widen any division among the teacher, child and parent. In truth, the conference should be helpful in establishing a rapport and communicating with the teacher, as well as creating an action plan to help your child succeed.

As parents, Eskelsen says, we should feel comfortable questioning the teacher, but it also needs to be understood that "kids will constantly play the adults off one another."

If a child tells you something outrageous -- her teacher assigned her a report on a 250-page book that's due in less than 24 hours, for example -- don't wait until the meeting to ask the teacher about it. The parent should communicate at the time of the incident and follow up at the parent-teacher conference with a question of the student managing the teacher's expectations and the class workload.

"If I hear something outrageous, I'm not going to believe it until I talk to the parent," Eskelsen says. "If the parent hears something outrageous she should talk to me. The parents and teacher are the team for the kids to win."

Related: Missed Parent-Teacher Conferences Could Mean Jail Time for Parents


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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.