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Acing your parent-teacher conference

By Dr. Michele Borba, TODAY contributorIf youjust received a memo from your child’s school that your parent-teacher conference has been scheduled, I urge you to attend. Your involvement in your child’s learning is critical to his or her success. Here a few tipsto help make the most of your time with the teacher and find out how your child is really doing.Before the conference: Do your homework

By Dr. Michele Borba, TODAY contributor

If youjust received a memo from your child’s school that your parent-teacher conference has been scheduled, I urge you to attend. Your involvement in your child’s learning is critical to his or her success. Here a few tipsto help make the most of your time with the teacher and find out how your child is really doing.

Before the conference: Do your homework

Most appointments last about 20 minutes, so it’s important for you to be prepared so you can use that time wisely. Here are a few things you can do before the conference to be ready:

  • Check grades and teacher expectations. Many schools post student’s grades on their Student Information System. So review your child’s past work. There’s no reason to get caught off guard.
  • Jot questions and prioritize concerns. Take a few minutes to jot down questions for the teacher. Take those with you so you won’t forget to ask. Also, don’t forget to ask your kid if there is anything the teacher might tell you that you don’t know. (It’s always best to not be surprised.)  
  • Meet your needs. If you need extra set of “ears” to be with you, you feel intimidated, or worry the teacher may use jargon you don’t understand, bring a friend (a neighbor, relative, older child). If you need a translator (language or sign), call the school to arrange one. Let the teacher know before the conference if you are in a contentious divorce or if your partner requests to come to the conference separately.
  • Block time. The teacher has scheduled only a set amount of time, so you will want to use every second wisely and not be distracted. Arrange a baby sitter for a younger child and allow ample time to get there.

During the conference: Ask the right questions 

Go to the conference with a friendly, open mind. Listen carefully and stay focused on your child. Take notes of what you need to remember. Your goal at the conference is ideally to form a respectful alliance with that teacher, find out how your child is doing and leave a beginning resolution to any problem. Here are the four areas of learning to discuss:

  • Academic:Find out what your child’s strongest and weakest subjects are, how he compares to the other students and if he is keeping up with the workload. You might ask: “If you were to evaluate my child now, what would his grade and average test score be in each subject? "If the teacher uses educational terms that you’re not familiar with, ask for a simpler explanation. Ask to see specific examples of any academic problem so you know how to help or if a tutor might be helpful.
  • Social:Find out how your child gets along with others. Let the teacher know of any bullying or repeated peer rejection and create a safety plan. Ask for recommendations for a new friend if there are social problems.
  • Behavior:Find out how your child behaves around peers and adults and if he is showing up on time and prepared to learn. If there are behavior issues, get specifics: what the behavior looks like, the teacher’s discipline approach, any triggers or patterns (when and where the behavior usually happens), and how it is being resolved.
  • Emotional/health:Find out how your child is coping. Explain any home issues that could affect your child’s learning performance (a divorce, deployment, illness of a relative) and any serious allergies, sleep problems, medication, counseling or other health-related issues that the teacher should know about.

If your child is having any kind of problem in one or more of those four learning areas, then discuss strategies you and the teacher can do to help your child by creating common goals. Discuss how you will you know if things are improving or declining and if there's no improvement, ask what our “next step” will be and how the teacher would like to be contacted.

After the conference: Follow through until improvement

Go home, share what you learned with your child and parenting partner, and then commit to doing what you discussed. If you see that your child continues to struggle or you do not see improvement in a few weeks, or things get worse, call for another conference. If you still don’t get help, then it’s time to seek the help of the principal, vice-principal or counselor.

The former teacher in me also offers this piece of advice: Remember, teachers are trained professionals who for the most part cherish teaching children. If it feels appropriate, write a note to the teacher thanking her for her time and advice. Believe me, it is appreciated.

Parents, what are your parent- teacher conference experiences? Do you have any tips of your own to share? Watch the video and share your stories in the comment section below.