Get Ready for Parent-Teacher Conferences

parent teacher conferenceFor some parents and teachers, conference time is an uncomfortable, awkward or stressful exchange of information. But it doesn’t have to be. With a little preparation, you can turn your parent-teacher conference into a productive dialogue that actually helps your child.

Most public schools today sandwich parent-teacher conferences into a revolving door of fifteen-minute blocks. Knowing you’re one of 12 meetings in 3 hours or that the next-in-line parent is peering through the classroom door window waiting their turn is not the ideal situation to build connections with your child’s teacher. But a parent-teacher conference is an important touch point. Making time to attend the meeting also sends a critical message to your kids – and their teachers – that you’re involved with and care about your child’s education.

If you can’t make the proposed conference times, email the teacher and politely request another option. By union contract, parents must have access to their child’s teacher to discuss academic progress at a time that mutually works for both of you – and it must be conducted in the parent’s preferred language.

auditory kidListen Well and Respect Both Experts

As the parent, you have in-depth knowledge of your child that a teacher can’t possibly acquire in a few weeks or months. Remember, you are your child’s first teacher. You’re the expert on his strengths, quirks, and what makes her tick. On the flip side, your child’s teacher is trained to know what is socially, emotionally, and academically appropriate at this grade level and knows your child best in a group setting. Respect both positions and listen carefully. Take notes. Listen to what is said and what is not said. The more sharing that happens – the more candid and respectful the dialogue between teacher and parent – the more likely your child will thrive this school year.

P3Use P3: What Positive, Professional and Persistent looks like:

If you follow the Power of P3, you’re more likely to get your concerns addressed and your child’s needs met. Start out POSITIVE (I’m confident we can resolve this situation together; or Luke loves it when you use baseball examples in class). Be PROFESSIONAL (Polite and Respectful in your Observations and Feelings). This means keeping your language focused on your child’s feelings or your own feelings and observations rather than what the teacher or another child is doing or not doing. (I’m concerned…Aidan is feeling overwhelmed…Jamie seems to be struggling with the reading homework….Henry doesn’t feel safe in the cafeteria…Kara is very unhappy with her seat change). Finally, be PERSISTENT when necessary. P3 doesn’t mean you are superficial or avoid problems. It’s a tool that helps you bring up issues so teachers hear your concerns and take action rather than feel blamed and defend their previous actions.

Here are some questions to keep things positive and focused on solutions for your child vs. criticizing or attacking the teacher. I’ve organized them into three groups depending on whether your child is 1) doing well, 2) struggling, or 3) needing more of a challenge. Not all kids fall cleanly into one group. If you have a specific concern you know you want to talk about, send a short email to your child’s teacher in advance. Teachers appreciate a focused discussion as much as you do.

teacher talking to paretnsFor the Child Doing “Fine”:

  • Jackie is doing well academically; how is she doing socially?
  • Do Jake’s classmates see him as a leader or a follower? How is he getting along with his friends? Is their one child he is spending more time with?
  • I’m wondering if Rachel is performing up to her ability; how can we be sure?
  • Do you see any area that Harry can improve upon? What makes him spark?
  • Do you have a sense of Mollie’s work ethic? Her attitude toward learning?
  • What are Joe’s strengths? Weaknesses? What subjects does he gravitate toward?
  • Have you noticed any other interests that could be encouraged?
  • If Morgan was your child, what would you ask that I haven’t?

teacher talking to momFor the Child Struggling:

  • I’d like to understand the grade level that Jamie is performing at in reading (or math) and how that compares to grade-level benchmarks.
  • How often are reading fluency tests given? May I see the results for the past year (s)?
  • What do you see as the problems or factors contributing to this situation?
  • Does Luke stay focused or does he need frequent reminders to finish his work?
  • What other support does the school offer if Sarah is not on a special plan?
  • What kind of reading instruction support does Sam need? Is it in phonics, fluency, or comprehension? Does the support he gets now focus on this specific area?
  • At what point would Lucy be tested? What is involved in the testing?
  • What can we do at home to support these efforts? How often should we do this?
  • I’m wondering what else we can do to make sure Jill doesn’t fall further behind?
  • What strengths does Connor have that we can tap to shore up weaknesses?
  • How does Alex work in small groups? Does she participate in class?
  • When can we meet again to monitor and follow-up on Chris’ progress?

dad talaking to teacherFor the Child Who Needs More Challenge:

  • We’ve noticed Abby finishes her homework quickly; are you seeing this in class?
  • We’re feeling that Philip may need some additional challenges? What are your thoughts on that?
  • What subjects does Annie excel in and what areas can she improve upon?
  • What can I do as a parent at home to support Mathew’s curiosity in science?
  • How is Andrew socially? Does he participate in class? How do his friends interact with him?
  • Is Tamika a candidate for the school’s gifted program? Should she be tested?
  • Do you see kids that Charlie might be grouped with so he is more challenged?
  • If there is disagreement: I’d like to offer my point of view on why I disagree with this assessment of Julia. Could you help me better understand your point of view?

ptconference cartoonIf your discussion has focused on taking action for your child’s struggles or providing more challenge, then a follow-up meeting may be in order. It might make sense to set up monthly touch points until you’re feeling more comfortable that your child is on track. Or dialogue by email. Do what feels right in your gut and what works for both you and the teacher. But don’t let issues slide; they’ll only get worse.

Much of your success in being involved with your child’s education hinges on how effectively you communicate with the teachers and school staff. If you communicate in a positive, professional way, keeping the focus on your child’s feelings and needs, you are more likely to be successful.  If you don’t succeed the first time around, reevaluate and be persistent. Follow up in a positive, professional way using a slightly different approach. Remember that educators, like parents, are busy people. Give them a reasonable amount of time to get back to you. If they don’t, put the Power of P3 to use again. You’ll find if you do this consistently, your efforts will pay off, and your child will thrive.

For more information on parent involvement, or to buy The Parent Backpack for Kindergarten through Grade 5, visit www.theparentbackpack.com.

A Parent Quiz on Schools & Education

 

I was thrilled that The Boston Globe asked me to write a quiz on parent involvement in education. It appeared in the September 14th edition of their G  magazine. I’ve posted it here so you can test yourself.

And yes…the answers are included:

 

By ML Nichols

SEPTEMBER 13, 2013

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During the school year, it’s the most-asked question in American homes, echoed by millions of parents, five days a week: “How was school today?,” usually followed by “Is your homework done yet?” And the inevitable, droning answers: “Fine.” “Nope.”

At this point, some tired families acquiesce; others brace for homework meltdowns; and still others jump in and overdo it.

Most parents know it’s important to participate in their children’s education, and scores of studies from major American universities support the finding that kids do better in school when their parents are involved. But what does getting involved actually mean? What’s the best way to connect to your child’s learning with the little time you have? How do you help your kids succeed in school without getting too close to the process?

While our children soon will sweat through their initial benchmark tests, it’s only fair that parents take their own back-to-school quiz. How do you score when it comes to being involved in your child’s education? Take this test and see.

 1. Three of the following statements are true. Which one is false?

a. Teachers hold higher expectations for students whose parents are involved in their education.

b. Reinforcing at home what your kids are learning in school has a greater impact on their education than attending a fund-raising activity.

c. It’s helpful when parents correct their child’s homework before they turn it in.

d. The gifts teachers appreciate most are thank-you notes from parents or students and classroom wish-list supplies.

 

Answer: c. Correcting your child’s homework gives teachers a false impression and ultimately hurts your child; teachers use homework to gauge which students need more instruction, which are ready to move on, and whether the lesson was effective.

 

2. The best strategy for raising a child who likes to read is to:

a. Remove all picture books from your child’s bookshelves.

b. Introduce a phonics-based program to your child before kindergarten.

c. Prod your child up the ladder of early readers through first grade.

d. Read to, with, and in front of your child at least 15 minutes every day until they’re in middle school.

 

Answer: d. Research confirms that reading daily (anything — books, magazines, sports pages) with your child in a fun, bonding, and expressive way is the most important thing you can do because kids will associate reading with pleasure.

 

3. New brain studies indicate the most effective way to study for a test is to:

a. Highlight key facts and read the material over multiple times.

b. Write out the concept or questions with answers and examples in your own words; quiz yourself regularly for at least a week before the test.

c. Review the answers at the back of the chapter orally.

d. Both a. and c.

 

Answer: b. Because the brain is a muscle that grows stronger with use, having students write out questions, then retrieve information and connect the dots repeatedly is more effective than passively reading or listening.

 

4. New public-school standards for learning (called the Common Core State Standards Initiative) will launch this fall in Massachusetts. What changes will this trigger in your child’s curriculum?

a. More nonfiction reading and persuasive writing in all grades.

b. Showing more work in solving math problems.

c. A higher level of critical thinking and deeper understanding.

d. A new standardized test in English and math.

e. All of the above

 

Answer: e. The initiative, which has been fully adopted by 45 states, seeks to standardize and improve education across the nation.Common Core benchmarks will be supported by one of two new standardized tests in the 2014-15 school year.

 

5. Which of the following strategies will not help you build a positive relationship with your child’s teacher?

a. Filling out forms and permission slips on time.

b. Reading the class newsletters and reiterating key messages at home.

c. Making sure homework is finished every day.

d. Sending the teacher a comprehensive e-mail detailing a problem along with your proposed solution.

e. Volunteering to help in the classroom or with trips when possible.

 

Answer: d. E-mail is not an effective way to discuss issues. When there’s a conflict with your child that needs to be resolved, send a brief e-mail to the teacher stating your concern, your questions, and a request to talk or meet.

 

6. Match up learning style with corresponding characteristics. Which characteristics are associated with: visual (spatial) learners, physical (kinesthetic) learners, and auditory (language) learners?

a. Process and learn through what they hear; they prefer to verbalize ideas.

b. Learn best through images and words they see; they tend to notice details.

c. Learn best by what they do and experience; they prefer hands-on projects.

 

Answer: Visual learners learn best through (b.) images and creating pictures in their mind; physical-kinesthetic learners like to (c.) touch, feel, and use their hands; auditory learners learn by (a.) what they hear and prefer to recite spelling words orally. Most children learn in a combination of ways but lean toward one style. Understanding how your child learns can help you support homework, projects, and studying.

 

7. Overloaded school backpacks cause more than 20,000 back injuries per year. Which statement is not true? The ideal student backpack should:

a. Weigh no more than 10-15 percent of your child’s total body weight when packed.

b. Have wide padded shoulder straps and a hip strap to distribute weight.

c. Not hang below the waist or hip line.

d. Include wheels so it can be pulled around school or carried.

e. Keep the heaviest books closest to the back.

 

Answer: d. Many schools don’t allow rolling backpacks because they’re a hazard in crowded hallways.

 

8. Praising hard work and effort leads to a more confident, competent child. True or false?

Answer: True. Research shows that simply praising a child’s “smarts” is counterproductive because the child may develop fear that they could lose their “smart” label if they fall short on difficult challenges — and begin avoiding them. Praising progress and hard work motivates kids because effort is a factor they can control, and it reinforces the message that learning and improvement is achievable.

 

9. Which statements are true about fueling your child’s brain and body?

a. An overload of simple carbohydrates (sugar cereals, juice, junk food) negatively affects concentration and behavior.

b. Some research suggests foods like blueberries, tomatoes, broccoli, kale, fish, eggs, whole grains, walnuts, flaxseed, and pumpkin seeds may enhance your child’s brainpower.

c. Chemicals released during exercise help improve concentration, motivation, and learning.

d. Elementary age children need 10-11 hours of sleep per night; teens need 9.25 hours to optimize learning.

e. All of the above

 

Answer: e. Diet, exercise and sleep affect your child’s ability to process, learn, and retrieve information.

 

10. Which three statements or questions are more likely to result in a constructive conversation with a teacher?

a. “What are you doing to stop that bully from beating on my child?”

b. “I’m wondering what else we can do to make sure Emily doesn’t fall further behind?”

c. “I know many other parents in this class who feel the same way I do.”

d. “Sam feels intimidated on the playground; he doesn’t feel safe at lunch.”

e. “We’ve noticed Alex finishes her homework very quickly; are you seeing this in class?”

 

Answer: b, d, e. Keep communication positive and professional by sharing your child’s feelings, behaviors, or your own observations. When teachers feel accused or blamed, they are more likely to focus on defending their actions instead of helping your child.

 

11. Which strategies help minimize homework meltdowns:

a. Help your child break down work into sections so it’s not so overwhelming.

b. Carve out time for play or unstructured activities so your kids can process their busy day.

c. Alert teachers if your child’s homework takes far more time than the accepted 10 minutes per grade (e.g., 40 minutes, fourth grade) without breaks.

d. Encourage your kids to use online videos and podcasts and also their siblings to explain or reinforce lessons rather than mom or dad.

e. All of the above

 

Answer: e. In addition to involving your child in the decision about where and when homework is done and providing a well-stocked homework supply bin, all these strategies will help keep thingson a positive track.

 

12. What are the two best ways to help kids stay organized for the school year?

a. Preview, review, and remind — but don’t rescue.

b. Invest in an agenda notebook in first grade, so they begin writing in a calendar and develop early habits.

c. Pack your child’s backpack before school and clean it out each week so they have a fresh start.

d. Display visuals that show kids what a clean desk, backpack, picked-up room, and “ready to go” look like.

 

Answer: a, d. Many kids need to make mistakes before they can take full responsibility for their schoolwork and belongings. Don’t do for your child what they can do. Even 6-year-olds can pack their own backpacks.

 

If you got 11 or 12 answers correct, congratulations! You’re doing a terrific job of supporting your child’s education. If you answered eight to 10 questions correct, don’t fret, because most parents are right here with you. If you managed seven or fewer, the good news is that you probably picked up some tips to give you a hand in helping to make your child a better student. And the beginning of the school year marks a great time to start.

ML Nichols lives on the South Shore and is director of The Parent Connection, a nonprofit parent-education group. She is also author of “The Parent Backpack for Kindergarten Through Grade 5: How To Support Your Child’s Education, End Homework Meltdowns, and Build Parent-Teacher Connections.’’

Do’s and Don’ts of Emailing Teachers

We’ve all been there.

Something happens to your child at school and your mama or papa bear surfaces – that primal, raw protector of child. A burning need to blast a note or an email to the teacher about the situation overwhelms you. [Read more...]