Back-to-school time is here. It’s time to start thinking about how to make the most of parent-teacher conferences.

Although being able to collaborate and develop relationships with parents is important, conference night can sometimes leave both parties feeling unsatisfied due to the rushed nature and limited time frame of the event.

Search Institute’s extensive work with families has given us some insights into how to help teachers to build relationships with parents and caregivers. We also have some tips for ensuring the discussion on conference night is productive and intentional.

Staying Connected Virtually

Not everyone loves the term “learning loss,” but we’ve heard it often since the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted everything about education—and life. Many people and their families lost out on essential social and emotional learning opportunities because of the need to keep people safe from the virus. Or because we honestly didn’t know what was safe.

We’re all glad that most classes are back in person after the many waves of the pandemic. But we also had to learn ways to stay connected using technology. And some of these communications tactics proved very helpful. 

We developed a series of virtual check-ins that are useful for leaders and practitioners who work with young people and their parents and guardians. These check-ins provide prompts on the following topics:

  1. Introduction to the developmental relationships framework, the five elements that have been proven to help young people learn, grow, and thrive. The other check-ins are presented in the order in which they appear in Search Institute’s developmental relationships framework.
  2. Express care 
  3. Challenge growth
  4. Provide support
  5. Share power
  6. Expand possibilities  

These check-ins don’t take the place of parent-teacher conferences, but they do provide insight into these important relationships, and they can continue to be employed as a supplement to in-person meetings.

When conference time rolls around, how can we use a positive youth development framework to have productive conversations with young people and their parents and guardians?

Tips for Teachers

We have some tips for educators who hope to make the most out of conferences:

  1. Think of this (short but important) meeting as a relationship-creating opportunity. Use intentionality. Start off by sharing a bit about yourself, ask about the parents. Share a few wonderful observations about their child. Build a connection. This will set a positive tone for the meeting and create the kind of conversation that will yield benefits throughout the year.
  2. Be the expert, but listen to parental concerns. Parents expect you to be adept at teaching, but they want to feel that you value their input too. Not focusing only on the child’s weaknesses, but also their strengths, can help parents feel like you know and care about their child.
  3. Don’t start with the negative. Don’t begin the conversation with “I have no concerns”—that starts the exchange in deficit mode. Instead, start with a simple, plain-language description of the three things you hope the students learn by being in your class.
  4. Emphasize your goals. Giving a syllabus or written materials is great, but talking clearly, even passionately, about your goals for the class is better. Talk about what you hope to accomplish during the semester with excitement, and you’ll be amazed at how the parents become your partners in learning.
  5. Provide feedback—both good and bad. Give them the feedback you need to provide, such as a review of grades and assignments. But if you feel it’s necessary to point out a deficit, find a way to do it with understanding, and try also to point out a strength.
  6. Before they leave, ask one last question. This is one of the most important ways a parent can see that you really notice and care about their child and are seeking to develop a positive relationship with them; that they are more than just one among many. Something such as “What do you think I should know about your son or daughter to help him or her thrive in my class?” works. Or something more specific, such as “Tell me about your child’s sparks,” or perhaps their strengths, struggles, or “How might I be able to help your child navigate these challenging times, or give him or her extra support?”
  7. Take notes on what you learn. Integrate what you learn from the parent into your interactions with the student, and return to your notes at your next parent-teacher conference. 
  8. Remember it’s about the relationship! Parents want to know their child is seen and cared for and that you are paying attention to the insights they are sharing with you about their child. They want to feel like they have built a connection with you. They—and you!—want to build on that connection next time you meet.

Building Intentional Relationships with Families

All of these tips are based on our relationship-centered approach to working with young people and their families. Family engagement was already challenging before the pandemic had us all struggling to keep up with health, bills, technology, and stress.

However, many educators are learning fresh approaches to engaging families by centering the families’ strengths and building systems to support these critical partnerships.

When educators, students, and families all work in partnership using a shared language, so much more is possible.

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