6 Secrets You Need To Know To Conquer Hard Parent Conferences

Navigate a tricky parent-teacher conference with these awesome tips from A Word On Third!

It's tough to survive parent-teacher conferences.

Especially the ones which require you to deliver hard news. 

You want the families of your students to know that you are on the same team. Sometimes it doesn't matter how great your intentions are - sometimes, parents DO NOT want to hear what you have to say! Who can blame them? It's hard to hear someone say something negative about your child. This is what makes many teachers fear those hard parent-teacher conferences. I certainly used to. I remember those feelings of dread and anxiety that would linger in the pit of my stomach all day until the conference, sometimes remaining even after the conference.

My hope is that this post will give you the confidence and structure you need so that you can conquer any fears you might have when it comes to holding those hard parent-teacher conferences. I also hope these tips will help you to disarm parents (and maybe yourself too!). These secrets of mine will help you to run tricky conferences smoothly, but they are also just good practices for any conference. They will help you to communicate effectively with parents.

Throughout this post, I'll be referring to an example of some hard news I might need to share with a family so you can see these secrets in action. For the sake of this post, let's imagine that I need to tell David's mom about a serious, repeated behavior, which is that David is not treating his classmates well. He uses unkind words and excludes them. I'm also going to assume that you have about 20 minutes for a scheduled conference. If you have more time--that will only make this easier for you!

The first thing you'll want to do is head over to my store and download my FREE parent-teacher conference template. This will help you to plan your conference effectively.

If you downloaded this before, I've updated this product in my store! You might want to go back to re-download it.

If you already have a template that you prefer using, great. Get it out! When you are about to have a tough conference, it's important to prepare. You want to do this because it helps you stay on track, manage time effectively during the conference, and conveys to families that you know and care about their child. It's so important that parents see that--especially if you're about to have a difficult conference.

If a parent requests a conference, I recommend responding with, "I'd love to meet. What specifically do you want to discuss? I want to make sure to be prepared." There's nothing wrong with that, and it allows you to be prepared and feel confident that no surprises will come your way!

1. Connect with the student's family members as individuals before diving in.

Everyone attending the conference deserves a warm greeting and to be asked how they are. Maybe it sounds like common sense, but sometimes we can be "all business" and forget about these things! If you know something going on in the family that you can comment on (like a vacation or new pet), ask about it to break the ice.

I suggest that you sit in a circle when discussing things with families. The same way we meticulously arrange furniture and desks to have an inclusive feeling in our classrooms, we must make sure parents feel included and equal in conferences. When parents and teachers sit across from each other at a table, it sets a subtle tone of the teacher being the authority figure. No bueno! If you can't sit together at a round table, sit at the corner of a table so that you are next to each other rather than across from each other.

2. State the purpose and format of the conference.

Maybe it sounds silly, but it provides structure for your conference and allows you to stay on schedule. Here's what I might say.
Today I'd like to talk about what I'm noticing David doing in the classroom. I'll start by sharing a few academic observations, and then I'll spend the majority of the time talking about David's social development. During the conference, I will share David's strengths and the goals we are working towards also. I'm hoping you'll stop me to ask any questions you may have along the way. Does that sound good to you?
I like asking family members if that is OK with them so that they feel involved and empowered. It also allows you to re-adjust your plan and devote some time to specific parent concerns if needed.

3. Share strengths and goals.

This is so darn important! No matter how good at a particular subject a student is, he/she is still working on SOMETHING. Similarly, if a child is really struggling in a particular area, he/she is still great at something! It's important to share these. I find parents really appreciate a little reassurance when discussing goals, especially if their child typically performs above grade-level. If you are used to hearing how amazing your child is, and you never hear any feedback about what your child should be working on next, wouldn't that make you a little worried? That's why I like to prepare families for this ahead of time.

Ok, so so far, all of the 3 tips I shared for you should be present in ANY parent-teacher conference, challenging or not. The following 3 tips are extremely important in the more challenging conferences, and I find they can make or break the success of the conference.

4. Share delicate information tactfully!

Think about why you are sharing the tough news. No matter how many reasons you have, one of them should be to help your student improve. If you are angry, you need to reframe your perspective until you can find a productive reason to share this news. I like to share tough news this way:

  1. Start with a specific compliment. ("He does so well," is not the same as, "He does so well during class conversations because he participates often. The class benefits from hearing his ideas.")
  2. Objectively state the behavior you are concerned about. (Bonus points if you have reached out about this issue before--you can refer to prior contact, and what parent wants to be blind-sided by bad news?) Share any consequences you have already observed happening as a result of the behavior.
  3. State why this information concerns you.
  4. Give a different specific compliment. (Compliment sandwich much? Remember, these compliments must be genuine.)
  5. Ask the parent if he/she sees this at home and request any helpful input he/she might have.
This approach really prevents parents from becoming aggressive or defensive as much as possible. It shows parents that you are not attacking their child and that you still see positive things in their child. It conveys your concerns respectfully, sensitively, and the objectivity you used gives you credibility. Similarly, by remaining objective, you are also showing concern over a child's chosen behavior rather than discrediting their personality. Let me show you what this might sound like in action now...
David has been showing off his amazing work ethic each day. He always makes sure to complete his classwork. I can tell how much he cares about doing well in school because he puts so much effort into each and every assignment he completes and he checks it over before handing it in, especially in science class. His written observations during science experiments are extremely detailed. There is something I have noticed (insert time frame here) that is concerning me. David demonstrates difficulty with treating his classmates respectfully. He sometimes chooses to use unkind words with peers and excludes them from recess games. For example, I know we previously discussed another incident in which David called another student names in class. Also, yesterday David told two classmates that they were not allowed to play a recess game with the group he was playing with. When David and his two classmates came back from recess, I helped them to settle their dispute, but David said he was still upset afterwards. As a result, he was distracted during science class. He only wrote one observation, though I regularly see him writing at least 4 or 5 observations during most experiments. I also noticed that those same two classmates he excluded from the recess game told him that they did not want to work with him during a group project and avoided working near him for the rest of the day. When David chooses to use unkind words with classmates, I worry that it is impacting his ability to maintain friendships. I know fitting in is important to David, and I don't want him to find himself struggling in social situations due to this behavior. I also know that David will show more growth academically when he is not worried about these social issues. (Notice how I objectively brought up how a social issue could impact academics? I recommend doing that too!) I really enjoy working with David, and I don't want to see these things happening to him. It is clear that it upsets him. He is a capable worker, and I know he cares about his school performance. Have you seen anything like this at home before?

5. Listen to and validate family members' feedback.

Now it's time to listen. No matter what judgements you have made about a family member, you can learn a lot about a student by listening to the family members' feedback. You can learn about how family members address this behavior, what the family members value, etc.

I also recommend asking the student's family member what strategies he/she uses to deal with the behavior that seem to work best for your student. Remember, you only know this child better than the family member does in the school setting. Your student's family member knows your student better in every other setting! Sometimes children act very differently in both settings. It's hard to believe, but it's very true. Sometimes you will see more positive choices and sometimes you will see more negative choices than the family members do.

Now, just to cover our bases... if your conference gets too tense or aggressive despite your best efforts to be sensitive and respectful, it is okay to end it. As a matter of fact, you should. You can always finish the conference at another time with an administrator, case manager, guidance counselor, etc. present. You could also invite the administrator ahead of time if you know the conference will be tricky (but make sure to inform family members ahead of time so they don't feel ambushed or ganged up on). However, if you are following these tips and you are working hard to communicate with families throughout the year, it's going to be very, very rare that you find yourself in an aggressive conference. 

6. Make an action plan.

Assuming the family member is on board and you have successfully delivered your hard news, now it's time to think about what you've heard. Do you need to make a behavior plan? Do you need to communicate more regularly? Do you need to schedule a follow-up conference? Make a plan with the family member and stick to it! How are you going to help this child solve this problem? You might not know right away, so you might decide to reach out to each other in another week to see what ideas you have generated.


If you're looking to improve relationships with families, I recommend checking out the above posts on fostering a connection with family members. It's always easier to be proactive than reactive. When you have an existing relationship built on trust, parents see you as an advocate for their child instead of an adversary. Just click on each picture to be taken to another blog post.

What are your tricks of the trade when it comes to running a tricky conference? Share your best idea that has saved you grief below!!

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