Written by Gen
Communicating with families, particularly face-to-face, is an art that I have been developing for a long time. In the beginning, as a novice literacy specialist trying to find my place in, what is essentially, the classroom teacher’s show, I did a lot of things wrong. I’d like to think that I do more right now, but it’s always a work in progress. Here are a few tips that always seem to make the experience more positive…when I remember to do them all!
1. Communicate ahead of time with the classroom teacher
A few weeks before conference time, ask classroom teachers for the conference times of the students you share. If you haven’t already, schedule a time to meet with the teacher to share data and find out how things are going in the classroom. The last thing you want is to find out the teacher has a completely different view of the student than you do at the conference in front of the family. If you do have a difference of opinion, collaborate on a game plan of how to communicate as a team to the family.
Since you’ll have all of the times of your conferences, you’ll know if any overlap. If so, arrange with the classroom teachers ahead of time how you’ll handle it. You may participate in one for the first 15 minutes and the next for the last 15 minutes. Let the teachers know, though, so that you don’t show up to the second half of a conference only to find out that the teacher finished early and sent the family on their way.
2. Prepare your key comments before you arrive
Make a brief list of the most important things you want to share with a student’s family ahead of time. There are many types of family members who can take the conversation off-track, and it is imperative that the classroom teacher stays on schedule. You may encounter a parent who may be used to hearing “bad news” from school and seems difficult to talk to. Or parents who like to share lengthy stories about their child. Or someone who asks a lot of questions. It’s helpful to have your thoughts organized so you can help keep the conversation focused. Here are a few ideas of what you might want to discuss or ask about:
- Importance of reading at home
- Effort during lessons
- Type of programming the child is receiving
- How and why the student was selected to receive the services
- Inquire about the student’s affinities and interests
- Ask if there are any questions or concerns that the family has
3. Use a simple note catcher for future reference
A great place to jot down what you want to share is on a simple note catcher where you can also record important information shared by the family, the classroom teacher, and any other service providers or administrators who also attend. There have been times when I’ve had 10 conferences in a day and by the end, it all begins to blur together. Having a record of each one helps to keep it all straight.
Here’s a sample that I’ve found to be the most helpful:
4. Start with the positive… and don’t forget to say “thank you!”
Many of the students we see struggle and some are difficult to work with. Reflect deeply about what you love about the student and what the student is doing well. This is an excellent strategy for changing your mindset anytime when faced with a difficult student. Whether it was easy to think of, or not, open your part of the conference with this. You need families to be on the same team as you, and they want to know that you care about their child as much as they do.
Similarly, find at least one thing you can thank the parent for doing. Just like with students, this can sometimes be difficult to find, but it is important to find something. You need the family to be on board with your efforts, so work hard at this. Here are a few suggestions for when it’s hard to find something to say “thank you” for:
- Making sure their child’s attendance is satisfactory-the more the child is there, the more effective interventions can be.
- Encouraging reading at home-this simple task supports all the work you’re doing at school.
- Attending the parent conference-it shows that they support you, and you are happy to have the opportunity to ask how you can be of help to the family.
5. Talk texts, not levels
We want to avoid students labeling themselves by a reading level. Whether it’s leveled texts in guided reading, set numbers in a basal system, or an achievement level on a test, letting kids in on their reading level can be detrimental to their progress, not to mention their self-esteem. Parents, for the most part, do not keep up on research in the field (that’s our job, after all!) and so sharing a student’s achievement level with a parent may get back to the child or set up an unhealthy sense of competition. Rather, show parents the types of texts that their child is using to learn to read. Show an example of a text from early in the year, a current level text, and an average level text for the time of year. Show the differences in complexities and explain where the child is on the continuum of reading behaviors, not levels. Parents are more likely to walk away with an understanding of what their child is learning to do, rather than simply knowing how far behind their child is performing.
6. Show writing samples
If writing is a part of your intervention (I would strongly recommend that it is, but that’s another day’s topic!) then bring 2-3 writing samples. One from early in the program and 1-2 current samples that best show some of the ways the child has improved or what he’s working on. Avoid sharing a child’s entire journal, or giving parents an entire book of samples to flip through on their own. These conferences need to be on topic and you’re the interventionist, so make sure what you show has a purpose and gets a point across.
7. Tell it like it is, but be prepared to share your plan
As an interventionist, you will have students who respond beautifully to your teaching, and others who are a puzzle that you need to work hard to figure out how to teach. For the latter, you don’t want to sugar-coat the child’s progress. If the student is significantly behind his or her peers, then you need to say that, but don’t stop there. If you are about to attend a parent conference for a child like this, then you must prepare a plan for how you are going to address the difficulty in your future lessons before the conference. Simply telling a parent that their child isn’t making it isn’t fair. We are the educators, we are the specialists and interventionists. We may not have all the answers, but we work hard to sort through all of our resources, collaborate with our colleagues, and read all the research to keep working at getting closer to what those hard-to-teach students need. We want the parents and families to leave the conference with hope and trust.
Following these seven tips has made my parent conferences easier, more organized, and more productive. A bonus has been a stronger relationship with the families of my students, as well. Completing all of these steps takes more organization and time up front, but the result is well worth every moment.