Parent-teacher conferences can be pretty stressful for everyone involved: families, teachers, school staff, even students. Whether teachers are trying to meet with 100 parents in one a day, dealing with angry parents who demand answers, or holding a full day’s worth of meetings with no breaks for meals, these events can be absolutely exhausting. Here’s some teacher-tested advice on helping conferences go smoothly for everyone involved.
Benefits of Parent-Teacher Conferences
It’s pretty easy to see the benefits of a conference when a student is struggling or getting into trouble. The goal is to give families and teachers a chance to work together to help a student succeed. These conferences can be long and challenging, but when all parties go into the meeting prepared to be open and cooperative, they can accomplish great things.
Of course, that’s how conferences work in a perfect world. The reality is usually far different, especially in elementary school. At this age, teachers are urged to meet with the family of every student in their classes at least once a year, and possibly more. And with so many parents to meet, the meetings themselves may be only 5 or 10 minutes long.
Is there really a benefit to these extremely brief meetings? We think the answer is generally yes. Getting face-to-face time helps teachers and families establish a rapport. Teachers can get a feel for parent personalities and family dynamics, which can help them understand students better. And parents often feel more comfortable reaching out later if they’ve met a teacher in person.
TIP: If you want to make your meetings even more valuable, you might consider switching to student-led conferences instead. This method brings the student into the conversation, making them a part of their own educational team. Learn more about doing student-led conferences the right way here.
Scheduling Parent-Teacher Conferences
Whether you’re setting up dozens of conferences at once or arranging a longer meeting for a student with challenges, we’re big fans of using parent communication apps. They can save the time of making endless phone calls, and make it easier for parents to respond on their own schedule too. Check out the Top Teacher-Parent Communication Apps for Schools in 2023-2024.
What’s the ideal parent-teacher conference length? That’s a tricky question, since it can depend on so many factors. For annual conferences, 15 to 30 minutes is usually enough time to address basic issues and let parents ask questions. If it’s clear your time will run out, encourage parents to set up a time to talk more later on. When you call a conference for more specific reasons, plan at least 30 minutes to an hour so you’ll have time to hash out all the issues.
Whatever amount of time you choose, don’t forget to build in breaks! Block off at least 15 minutes every three hours for bathroom or snack breaks, and be sure to give yourself a meal break too.
Many teachers recommend using an app like Calendly to set appointments. This puts the scheduling responsibility in the hands of parents, while still giving you control over when you’re available and for how long.
Preparing for Parent-Teacher Conferences
One key way to make the most of your time is to prepare for each conference in advance. Here are some things to consider:
- What are the student’s strengths and accomplishments?
- What areas present challenges, and how can parents help students at home?
- Are there any serious behavior problems to address?
- What test scores or exam results can you share with parents?
- What might students want or need their parents to know?
Prepare for each meeting with our free Customizable Parent-Teacher Conference Forms. They’ll give you a place to take notes during the conference and keep track of follow-up needs. They also include a pre-conference reminder you can send home to parents, with space for them to note their own questions in advance.
Before parents arrive, set up a conference space that’s comfortable for everyone involved. Provide paper and pens so parents can take notes. Equip yourself with a beverage and some snacks, and offer some to parents too if you can. Make sure parents know where to go, and provide a waiting area if your conferences run back-to-back. Using a sign-in sheet or app can help keep things on track too.
TIP: If more than one teacher or staff member is participating in the conference, decide in advance who will take the lead. Hold a short pre-meeting to ensure you’re all in agreement on what needs to be covered, and share notes with the meeting leader.
Conducting Parent-Teacher Conferences
- When the meeting finally starts, be sure to greet parents by name in a friendly manner and introduce yourself and any other school staff who are participating.
- Provide paper and pens for parents to take notes, or a template like the one from our parent-teacher conference forms bundle.
- Start by briefly explaining the purpose of the meeting and what you hope to accomplish. Parents might be nervous, so set them at ease by explaining your expectations up front.
- It’s always smart to start with a student’s strengths. Parents usually expect to hear from teachers only when there’s a problem. Giving them positive feedback can set the tone for a more cooperative experience.
- If time is very short, ask parents up front if they have any questions or issues to address. Otherwise, provide your own progress report from the notes you made before the meeting, focusing on the most important issues first.
- Be sure to provide action items for any challenges or issues. For instance, if you tell a parent their child is struggling to master multiplication facts, provide some activities they can try at home to help out.
- Ask parents for their own thoughts about their child. How does their child feel about school this year? Have any issues come up that parents would like to discuss? Do parents have any requests or goals for their child?
- Keep an eye on the clock, and start wrapping up when you have about five minutes left. Do your best to end the conference on time, so other parents aren’t kept waiting.
Here are some more helpful tips for parent-teacher conferences:
- 6 Things Teachers Should Never Do in a Parent Meeting
- What I Wish I’d Known About Parent Conferences Before I Became a Parent Myself
- Tips for successful virtual parent-teacher conferences
Parent-Teacher Conferences Follow-Up
After parents leave, take a minute or two to jot notes to yourself, including any need for follow-up. Consider using your phone to make voice notes that you can transcribe later, since this is often much faster.
If multiple school personnel participated in the meeting, spend a few minutes debriefing about your experience together. Discuss what you observed, and share any insights others might have missed.
When possible, send parents a brief summation of your meeting via email or communication app. Documentation can be helpful if issues arise somewhere down the line.
If you or the parents requested a follow-up meeting or status report, be sure to add it into your calendar or scheduling app ASAP so you don’t forget. Make notes about the purpose of the follow-up, and be sure to schedule a reminder for both yourself and the parents.
Parent conferences can be stressful! Be sure to set aside time to unwind afterwards, and deal with any emotions or anxiety that popped up. These feelings are completely normal, but it’s vital to manage your stress appropriately. Learn more about handling teacher anxiety here.
Common Questions and Problems at Parent-Teacher Conferences
Parent asks: How does my child compare to other children in the class?
Response: How many times have you told students “Keep your eyes on your own paper”? That’s kind of the response you’ll need to give parents here, but more diplomatically. You can show parents how their students compare to average test scores or expected skills for their age. But don’t share specific information about other students with parents. Encourage parents to focus on their own child’s potential and progress without comparing them to others.
Parent has unreasonable expectations of the teacher and/or school.
Response: Parents have made some pretty outrageous requests of teachers over the years, and sometimes they’re so ridiculous it’s relatively easy to say no. Other requests might sound reasonable to parents, but you know there’s simply no way you can say yes due to time or resource constraints. That’s when it becomes important to set and maintain your teacher boundaries—find out how here.
Parent says: You’re just picking on my child.
Response: Many parents bristle when they hear negative feedback about their child’s performance. Be prepared to support your statements with data, examples, and other supporting evidence. Assure parents that you want to find a solution to the problem, and bring some constructive suggestions to the meeting. Let parents share how they’re feeling, but then steer the conversation back to ways to work together.
Parent doesn’t sign up or show up for a conference.
Response: It’s so frustrating when parents seem unwilling to get involved in their child’s education. But it’s also important to remember that some parents are struggling just to keep their heads above water. If a parent wants to attend a conference but can’t work with the schedule that’s available, consider other options. Maybe they can meet virtually instead, or you could make a rare exception for a weekend meet-up. (If you need to meet with parents and simply can’t get a response at all, it’s time to bring your administrator into the loop.)
Parent says: I don’t even understand this subject, so how can I help my child?
Response: This one seems to come up a lot in response to “new math,” which stresses a variety of ways to approach mathematical thinking. Regardless of the subject, the key is to present parents with an array of support resources their child can use. Students can benefit from online activities, practice worksheets, or other learning resources, while parents take on the role of supervisor in making sure kids complete these activities rather than trying to teach students themselves.
Parent says: You just don’t understand my child.
Response: The majority of parents know that teachers are the experts and want to work together to help their child succeed. But every teacher knows about the parents who don’t want their child to face any struggles at all. They often insist their child’s challenges and failures are entirely the teacher’s fault. This is an incredibly frustrating situation, and one that takes some finesse to handle. Allow parents to express their concerns, but don’t let them direct every interaction. Look for constructive ways to redirect the parent’s interest, and remind them that you’re on the same team.
Parent says: I don’t allow my child to [use technology/read that book/learn about that subject, etc.].
Response: Fulfilling specific parent requests often depends on a school’s philosophy or policies. If you’re unsure, let parents know you’ll be looping in administration to help navigate the issue. They can help you determine which accommodations are reasonable (or even legally required) and how to find a solution everyone finds acceptable.
Parent yells, threatens, or gets physical.
Response: No teacher deserves to be yelled at or threatened. It’s hard to keep your cool when a parent raises their voice, but take a deep breath and ask them calmly to lower their tone. Suggest everyone take a moment to regain their composure before you continue. If the parent can’t get themself under control, cut the meeting short and schedule a follow-up with administrators or other support staff present. And if you ever feel unsafe, ask the parent to leave immediately, or leave the room yourself and follow your school’s safety procedures. Your personal safety is paramount.
Here are even more tips on surviving challenging conference situations:
- How To Survive Even the Scariest Parent Conferences
- These Crazy Parent Conference Stories Prove That Teachers Can Survive Anything
- An Expert Shares Smarter Ways To Deal With Helicopter Parents This Year
- Biggest Parent Communication Mistakes and How To Fix Them