10 Steps for Powerful Parent-Teacher Math Conferences
Parent-teacher math conferences can feel like a high-stakes obstacle course for both teachers and parents. But these conferences provide an ideal opportunity to focus on the abilities and learning needs of each individual student in your classroom. And better yet, both parties come to the meeting with a sincere desire to make sure that the student grows as a mathematician and as a human being. So how can you make sure that all of your parent-teacher conferences are productive?
Step 1—Send Informative Invitations
By now, you have already sent out your initial invitation to parents/guardians asking them to sign up for a conference day and time. Since everyone is busy, send reminders closer to the date and emphasize why conferences are important and how parent participation can improve their child’s learning experience. We recommend sharing an agenda so parents know exactly what to expect. You might also want to include questions that you would like parents to consider prior to the conference so that you can fill out your knowledge of students in ways that will allow you to better address their needs. And of course, if parents have specific concerns, ask that they share those prior to the conference, so you can both prepared to discuss possible solutions during the conference.
Step 2—Be Flexible
Remember that not all parents work standard hours and therefore may not be able to meet immediately after school or during the early evening hours. Make sure to include times that allow for parents who may have multiple jobs or work shifts. It may be easier for some parents to participate virtually in a conference. Also, think about how best to communicate with parents/guardians who don’t speak English. If possible, have an interpreter available, or although not ideal, use a translation app, such as Google Translate, iTranslate, Speak & Translate, or Microsoft Translator.
Step 3—Be Prepared
Even though you are holding back-to-back conferences, each group of parents/guardians wants to know that you understand and appreciate their child and that you are receptive to their ideas. In the limited time you have, you want to inform parents about the principle math content you will cover and the strategies you will use throughout the year, highlight student learning, address any challenges or concerns, and discuss how parents can best support their child at home. You may also want to discuss social-emotional development, peer relationships, work habits and motivation, and classroom behavior. Having a folder for each child can help you cover everything you want to share and allow you stay on topic.
Step 4—Showcase Student Work
We recommend creating a portfolio of student documents that support your discussion of areas of strength as well as areas for improvement. Student work also provides parents a window into their child’s thinking, highlighting how they approach math and calling attention to their problem-solving abilities. Make sure to include student math journals as they showcase the child’s progression and make it easier for parents to see growth and identify challenges that parents may be able to help their child overcome. Many teachers like to have students select a work example that they are particularly proud of, since that can provide parents insight into what their child thinks are their best math abilities.
Step 5—Be Positive
All parents want to hear about their child’s accomplishments, so start with the positive and remember to discuss not just their math progress, but also their social-emotional growth. Every student has areas for improvement, so concentrate on the areas that will make the greatest difference to each student mastering grade-level math content. Present any challenges or concerns as an opportunity for growth and work with parents to develop a plan for how you both will support the child as they tackle individual challenges. Staying positive and confident that by working together you can help each student overcome any difficulties can defuse potential defensiveness from parents.
Step 6—Ask Questions & Listen
Remember that parents are experts on their children and have valuable information to share with you. Ask them about their child’s strengths, needs, and learning styles, as well as their hopes and dreams for their child. Take notes so you can follow through. Hearing from parents will help you form a more complete picture of each student in your class and allow you to enhance your instruction and better address and meet each child’s learning goals. Listening to parents also shows them that you value their knowledge and view them as partners in their child’s learning journey.
Step 7—Explain Math Identity
Many parents/guardians may believe that you are either good at math or you are not. Some may have a negative relationship with math. Discuss how having a positive math identity— the belief that you can be good at math with perseverance and practice—can not only boost their child’s math confidence but also help them increase math achievement. Ask parents about their perception of their child’s relationship with math and share what you have seen. You may even want to explore how parents feel about math themselves as that can have an impact on their child’s approach to math. Most important, provide parents with specific ways that they can help their child build a positive math identity.
Step 8—Discuss Productive Struggle (and the importance of mistakes)
Most parents didn’t grow up at a time when we encouraged productive struggle in math class and may view any struggle on the part of their child as evidence that their child isn’t doing well in your class. Explain how productive struggle improves perseverance and problem-solving and leads to greater math progress. You will also want to discuss what productive struggle looks like so that parents can support their child at home and help identify struggle that indicates comprehension issues needing to be addressed.
We also recommend that you talk about how you encourage mistakes in your class, as that’s how all mathematicians learn and advance. Many parents may have attended schools where mistakes were punished, so it’s important that they understand the value of mistakes. This will help them support their child at home, presenting mistakes as an opportunity to persevere and learn.
Step 9—Develop a Plan
You want to make sure that you and parents are united in helping each student achieve to their greatest potential. Before you end the conference, work with parents to create next steps. These may describe how you plan to help the student overcome specific challenges, how parents can help their child build a growth mindset, or how the student can take action to own their learning. The plan doesn’t have to be comprehensive, but rather just the first steps on the student’s ongoing math journey. Your goal is that everyone leave the meeting feeling positive and ready to do their part.
We recommend that you have written handouts for parents indicating specific ways they can best support their child’s math growth at home. To get you started we’ve prepared a printable list of questions parents can use to help their child persevere when they get stuck on a homework question rather than telling them the answer.
Step 10—Continue the Conversation
The parent-teacher conference is just one point of contact. It’s important to communicate regularly with parents and keep them updated about their child’s progress in math class. At the conference, confirm parents’ preferred methods of communication and try to use those as much as possible going forward. If there are specific items that require follow-up, establish a specific due date, so that parents know when they will hear back from you. And send a thank you note. Parents are busy and their time is valuable. A short thank-you will go a long way to letting parents know that they are important partners in their child’s education.