With the new school year in full swing, chances are you’re tee-ing up a parent-teacher meeting sometime soon. Here’s how to make the most out of the conference so your child is on the right track for a successful academic year.

Start preparing your parent-teacher meeting

Your child may already have an individualized education program (IEP), which would have been developed through a team effort and needs to be reviewed regularly. If they don’t have an IEP, bring that up with the teacher to see if one is needed.

As a substitute teacher doing a term block in a new school, there were key assessments about a grade 1 child in my class that didn’t appear until week 3. That was when the child’s mother and grandmother had initiated a meeting with me and handed over the report.

“We’re surprised you weren’t given this,” they chimed.

I agreed. It would have been helpful to know that well before with their child whose special needs about behaviors were puzzling and troubling me.

In short, don’t leave your child’s new teacher to guess what assessments have been done before. Let them hit the ground running with your child’s learning.

Organize those documents

Whether you have an IEP or not, collect learning documentation about your child into a three-ring binder that’s logically organized. Add tabs so it’s easy for you and the teacher to flick through at your meeting. As your child probably has a new teacher this school year, you can’t assume all the relevant reports about your child would have been passed onto them or that they’ll have them at their fingertips when you meet.

Tabs to consider are the IEP, all evaluation reports, their report cards from previous grades, as well as communication between the school and you. This would include meetings, phone calls, emails, etc.

By the way, don’t shirk at having an IEP. It’s been described[1] as having the potential to “humanize the bureaucratic nature of school processes if it places the student and family firmly at the center of planning”.

Start with small talk

Consider that your child’s teacher will have had a conveyor belt of parents quizzing them before you actually talk to that teacher. They’re doing this at the end of a long school day, may be hungering for the much-promised staff pizza dinner after interviews conclude and only then finally get home to their families. They’ll be professional, but you can help put them at ease with a warm welcome, some empathy for their duty and perhaps a compliment about them that your child has shared with you. It’s about making an emotional connection with the person who’ll be partnering with you to guide your child’s learning for the next year.

Bring paper and pen

Talking about your child’s academic and socio-emotional progress at school can be a tad stressful. You may have plenty more questions and want detailed answers than can be worked into a time-limited parent-teacher interview. Having your questions written down and available to you during the interview will be helpful. Ask the teacher, too, if they mind you jotting down the key points as they speak. You could also forewarn the teacher about the questions you’re planning to ask – share that list with them beforehand.

Consider asking these questions 

Here are a range of thinking points to guide you at the parent-teacher conference. You may not get to ask all of them. But, at least, you can crystallize them to the key points that matter most to you:

  • Can I tell you about my child? This is what I think is important for you as their teacher to know.
  • Would you like an update on what’s going on at home? (also a good time to mention if there are any accessibility issues you as parents need to flag for communication)
  • How is my child doing socially?
  • How is my child doing emotionally?
  • What do you see as my child’s strengths academically, socially and emotionally?
  • [If your child has an IEP] How is my child progressing so far with their IEP?
  • [If your child doesn’t have an IEP] Does my child need an IEP? If not, why not? If so, why?
  • What concerns do you have about how my child is progressing in your class?
  • What do you feel is important for me to know about my child in your class?
  • Tell me how I can support you as a teacher to enhance my child’s learning?
  • Are there pull-in services you think we need? And if so, how would you suggest I organize assessments for my child to access them?
  • Would you have an overview of the content such as units you’ll be delivering to students this year?

Trust their decisions

In a UK study[2] involving parents of children with special needs and their teachers, it was found that parents were part of every conversation and decision made about the allocation of special education needs resources. But, those from the teacher profession were clear the power lay with them to make the decisions.

As one special education teacher said: “Obviously there are times when we have to inform them [parents] as opposed to consulting with them because, at the end of the day, it’s our professional judgement as to what a pupil needs rather than asking the parents what they think.”

The study also found that the “actions of parents can and sometimes do constrain the actions of SENCos [Special Educational Needs Coordinators] and influence what happens in schools”.

“If SENCos want to continue to exercise their influence over the development and allocation of SEN provision and resources, they need to ensure that parents trust their judgement. Only through an open, honest, supportive and co-operative relationship can this be achieved. Parental involvement and support is greatly important in facilitative inclusive education,” said the report.

The bottom line is your goal should be open communication and building trust in your relationship with your child’s teacher. It certainly pays off.

Your child may always need support

Even if there have been early interventions in your child’s learning, don’t assume they won’t be needed for the rest of their life. They well might need ongoing support to ‘keep up’ with the rest of the class and later in work life.

Mary, a British Columbian primary teacher with special education qualifications and 30 years’ experience, offers this advice.

“I think it would be good for parents to understand that even if we identify special needs, create an IEP, bring in services and supports early in their child’s schooling, they may well need ongoing support throughout their life. In parent-teacher interviews, there’s often an assumption that, in a way, we’ll be able to ‘fix’ the issues and they’ll be fine. That’s not always the case,” she says.

It can take more than just school, and good parenting to support your child. Talk to your child’s specialists about whether a home-based program they can do online could help boost their potential. Here at Gemm Learning, we work with K-12 students as well as adult learners who struggle with reading and/or learning in general. Our expertise covers dyslexia, ADHD, autism, auditory processing disorder, speech and reading delays and more. Find out more with a free assessment.

Forget about venting on Facebook afterwards

If, in spite of your preparation for the meeting, you’re just not happy with how your child’s needs are being met, don’t be tempted to vent on Facebook or other social media platforms. You never know who knows whom, so chances are your child’s teacher could get wind of your whinges. That could do irreparable damage to your relationship with that teacher. You want them on your side, batting for your child, not carrying a grudge.

By Margaret Paton

Freelance writer and substitute K-12 teacher

[1] Cavendish, W. Connor, D. [2018]. Toward Authentic IEPs and Transition Plans: Student, Parent, and Teacher Perspectives. Special Series: Parent Voice in Educational Decision making for Students with Learning Disabilities, Learning Disability Quarterly. Vol 4(1) pp32-43, SAGA USA

[2] Maher, A. [2016]. Consultation, negotiation and compromise: the relationship between SENCos, parents and pupils with SEN. Support for Learning. February 1, 2016, UK.