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4 Steps for Productive Parent-Teacher Conferences

Acceptance, honesty and collaboration are key ways to help your child.

Key points

  • Parent-teacher conferences can be challenging, particularly if a child has been acting out.
  • Accepting a teacher's feedback and having an honest discussion are important steps to remedy any issues.
  • It's important to think about what your child might be struggling with in life to understand where a behavioral issue could be coming from.

By Tim Rice, M.D., with Linda Michaels, Psy.D.

Many parents find parent-teacher conferences challenging. Especially when a child has behavioral problems at school, these meetings can induce dread, confusion, and even embarrassment.

Sturti for Getty Images via Canva
Four Steps to Better Parent-Teacher Conferences
Source: Sturti for Getty Images via Canva

Hearing, “We need talk about your child’s behavior in the classroom...” can be extremely upsetting.

Fortunately, parents need not feel helpless. Navigating these meetings through an understanding of children’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors are a path to success.

While a child’s problematic behaviors should not be excused or explained away, an active parent role in school conferences can guide productive collaborations.

Step 1: Accept teacher feedback

Recognize that parent-teacher conferences can help you better understand your child and that teachers can offer valuable observations. If you accept these observations with non-judgmental curiosity this is an excellent first step. Remember, teachers want to see students succeed.

For example: Worried parents Ali and Betsy arrived at their parent-teacher conference with son Charlie’s third-grade teacher. The teacher talked about Charlie making loud, distracting animal noises in class. Ali and Betsy listened with patience, accepted the teacher's feedback, and assured the teacher they are committed to working together for the growth and development of their son.

Step 2: Define the problem

Try to define and thoroughly understand the problem by asking clarifying questions and engaging in a dialogue. Define the problem in detail by asking, “Where/when/with whom do my child’s problem behaviors start?” Try to understand patterns: “Is there something that usually happens before the problematic behavior?" “What patterns do you see?” “What happens after?”

Ali and Betsy thanked the teacher for her observations and asked questions to help define the problem. They learned Charlie usually made noises near the end of the day at pick-up time. Interestingly, on days Charlie had gym class, these behaviors did not happen. After the behaviors, Charlie was reprimanded by the teachers, which seemed to calm him down. They had seen this pattern at home, and shared that with the teacher. Hopefully, they could all think together about ways to support Charlie before behaviors become problematic.

Step 3: Generate hypotheses about your child’s feelings

Try to put behaviors and patterns together to figure out what your child is feeling. Often, children cannot put feelings into words, acting them out instead. Wondering aloud in the presence of your child’s teacher shows trust in thinking about the meanings of behaviors. Toss some ideas around and invite the teacher to build with you.

Ali expressed curiosity around Charlie’s troubles on days without gym class. “I wonder if Charlie needs physical exercise, or if his gym coach’s presence has a good influence on him?” Betsy wondered if Charlie’s end-of-day troubles are related to his upcoming separation from the classroom. “Does Charlie seem to crash near the end of the day, or does he struggle to say goodbye to his friends and teachers?” Charlie’s teacher responded that these were great ideas, and wondered aloud how they could be tied together. The teacher noted Charlie seemed to calm down after being reprimanded. Even though this attention was “negative,” the attention seemed to help Charlie. Together, Charlie’s parents and teacher wondered about ways to help Charlie proactively, so he wouldn’t need to disrupt the class to get attention from the teacher or help calming down.

Step 4: Think about how children deal with difficult feelings

Children and adolescents (boys in particular) often struggle with painful feelings. They try to get distance from these feelings by acting out the feelings through behaviors. In other words, disruptive behaviors can be defenses against painful feelings. When their child is acting up, parents can ask, “Is my child avoiding painful feelings? How can I help him deal with those feelings, so he doesn’t have to act them out?”

Keeping this idea of defenses in mind can help build an understanding of disruptive behaviors, and it can offer solutions, too.

Ali and Betsy responded well to the teacher’s invitation to tie everything together, explaining how Charlie has had a hard time saying goodbye to loved ones since the death of his grandfather. Maybe Charlie’s gym teacher’s absence reminds him of separations, and it’s easier for Charlie to make animal noises than think of how much he misses his connection with his gym teacher, friends, and maybe even his grandfather. When he doesn’t have gym class, it may be harder to feel those longing feelings. Maybe it makes sense to talk with Charlie about how hard it is to say goodbye and separate. Charlie’s teacher thought this was a great idea, and offered to pay attention to this in the classroom, too. By tending to Charlie’s real feelings, maybe he may not need to become disruptive.

Listening carefully to teacher feedback, helping define problems, thinking collaboratively about the child’s feelings and meanings behind behaviors, working together towards solutions are productive approaches to parent-teacher conferences. Parents and teachers can come together in constructive ways through a foundation of understanding children’s defenses. When parents need help laying this foundation, consulting with a child and adolescent psychoanalyst can help.

The next day, when the class lined up to say goodbye, Charlie barked like a dog but his teacher said “Charlie, I think it’s hard for you to use your words and your parents helped me see how goodbyes can be hard. I can’t let you make these noises, but you can talk to me at the carpool line in a few minutes.” Later at home, Charlie happily told his parents about having time to talk to his teacher and learning something new about himself. At the end of the next day, Charlie stomached his sad feelings and told his friend Danny, “Bye! See you tomorrow!” His parents and his teacher were proud of him, and Charlie turned a new leaf.

Timothy Rice, M.D., is a child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in practice in New York, NY.