Soon, your student will be strapping on his or her backpack and heading off to a new grade, a new classroom, and a new teacher. As a parent, you want to know how your children are doing in school since they spend more than half their waking hours there each weekday. If your child is like mine, all they will tell you when you ask how school was is “fine.” You want them to be independent but you also want to be an involved parent.
A great way to do that is by building a strong relationship with your child’s teacher, since both of your goals are to have your student do well in school. The parent-teacher conference, usually held in the fall, allows you to check in with a teacher, or teachers, and see how your child is adjusting to school.
At conferences, teachers will share academic assessments documenting how a student is performing against expectations, what their strengths are and what areas they need to work on, but these conferences can offer much more. Conferences provide a snapshot into the emotional and social well-being of the student. Time is usually limited, though, so what questions can parents ask to make the most of this opportunity?
Kathryn Coon, principal of the Miller-Driscoll School in Wilton, says questions for parents to ask at conferences can include, “Is my child happy in school? How can you tell? Does my child engage appropriately with other students in school?”
Although academic achievement is very important, Coon says, it is more important for students in elementary school to develop a love of learning along with wonderful friendships and social skills. “If you are not happy and you don’t enjoy spending time with the other students in school, you will have a very difficult time with everything else,” she explains.
“How the child performs on tests is really among the least factors of happiness and success in fifth grade,” states Dr. Steven Clapp, assistant principal, Saxe Middle School in New Canaan. “Who the child is and how they feel about themselves is far more important. Kids who are happy and confident will succeed.” Clapp notes by the time a parent-teacher conference takes place, a teacher would have already reached out to the family if there was an academic issue.
Among questions he suggests parents ask include:
How has my child transitioned to middle school?
Does she or he participate in class discussions appropriately?
Will she or he ask questions or seek help when she or he does not understand something?
How would you describe his or her perseverance or grit?
Luke Forshaw, principal of Ox Ridge School in Darien, suggests parents ask, “How will you get to understand my child? What happens if he is struggling in some aspect of life at school? How do you balance the academic, social, and emotional needs of my child?”
Forshaw says open-ended questions help a parent understand a teacher’s priorities for the education experience, and give insight into the teacher’s communication.
“Ultimately you want to understand the plan; how you will partner with a teacher,” he says. “You want to be clear how your teacher will learn about a child, understand the whole person, and get a sense of them as a reader, writer, mathematician.”
“I asked parents for their input by posting a query on a Ridgefield parents Facebook group — ‘What can I do as a parent to support my child at home to ensure success?’” says Lisa Toscano Percoco of Ridgefield, a kindergarten-to-fourth grade teacher of Spanish at Carrie E. Tompkins Elementary School in Croton, N.Y.
Parent Allison Romeo suggests parents ask, “What do I do if my child is struggling? What resources are available? What types of intervention are offered and what are the different levels of intervention?” Another parent, Darrian Zaslowe Lacey, adds, “What can my child do to expend some of the excess energy without disrupting the class?”
Caroline Kulik says, “First, I’d like to remind teachers they have my child for the better part of the day and I can’t see them. What is the best thing about my child that you, the teacher, would want to know if he or she were the parent and what is the most concerning or bothersome?”
The common thread here seems to be while academics are always going to be a conversation topic during the teacher-parent conference, a focus on the whole child is equally, if not more, important.
Jan Murphy, principal of West Elementary School in New Canaan, suggests these questions:
How has my child adjusted (socially, emotionally) this year?
How can I help my child be successful as a learner?
Does my child take risks with trying new things as a learner?
How is my child being appropriately challenged every day?
Is my child kind to others?
“During parent conferences, information that is exchanged with the teacher can often be very helpful in gaining a deeper understanding of the child as a learner,” Murphy says. “Parents know their children best, and when teachers and parents work together, the child benefits and often excels.”