Articles and Topics
Can We Talk?
I am borrowing a comedienne’s identifying slogan as a title, as it offers a good reminder of a question you want to ask your child’s teacher very early in this fall semester. Can you and I talk? Can we discuss my child objectively and dispassionately while you are getting to know her? Can I offer information that might help the two of you get past possible disagreements and conflicts? And can you make suggestions of ways I can make this school year go any better?

When our children are in early childhood programs, conferences with teachers are standard and expected by parents and the staff. Sometimes they are informal, squeezed in at drop-off or pick-up time. Those ad hoc meetings, if relations between you and the teacher or director are mutually respectful and pleasant, can accomplish a great deal. In fact, you can often hold these impromptu meetings with teaching assistants—or even secretaries—and learn a lot about important things happening in your child’s life. Scheduled conferences are also extremely useful.

When your child reaches “formal” school age—usually kindergarten or first grade—this kind of natural give-and-take between you and the staff is not so easy. Parents are not usually welcome to come inside the school and get their children; they must wait in an automobile queue or be available near the house at a bus drop-off. Furthermore, the teacher often has to rush away for a meeting in another building, or participate in an in-service obligation at the school the moment the children are released. If you are to talk to her, you have to schedule an appointment. And, if you work outside the home, the appointment time offered may well be within your work hours and difficult to make. Certainly it will be at the teacher’s convenience rather than yours.

The difficulty of scheduling a meeting, and its formality, can make a parent-teacher conference a dreaded, rather than eagerly anticipated, event. Furthermore, in our own minds, we may associate a parent-teacher conference with something that occurred during our own childhood, when we had misbehaved or were not showing expected progress. Thus, when we become parents, we may do everything we can to avoid talking with our child’s teacher. We don’t want to hear bad news, and that is what we have come to expect from such meetings.

In spite of these fears, it is a good thing to schedule a conference with your child’s teacher as early in the school year as you can get an appointment.

Offer reciprocal help.
The best way to think about a conference with your child’s teacher is to view it as a means of sharing information that will facilitate adjustment to the school. As a parent, you know your child better than anyone else in this world. And, early in the year, the teacher is struggling to know your child’s strengths and weaknesses and patterns of reaction—along with those of 15 or 20 other new children. You can be a big help to her by mentioning his likes and dislikes (“He doesn’t like to lie down unless he has a book to look at”), behavioral idiosyncrasies (“He tends to get really upset if he loses something”) and a few of the things you know about his learning style (“Sometimes when you think he isn’t listening, you will find that he really hears you”). The teacher is sure to appreciate knowing these things.

And urge her to reciprocate. Think of questions you have, and ask them freely. “How is he getting along with other children? He’s an only child, and I worry that he might not be willing to share with the others.” If she doesn’t have any information to contribute, suggest casually that you will be interested in what she has to say on that topic later. Be sure to let her know that she may call you any time she has a question, and offer phone numbers where you may be reached. They should be on file in the principal’s office, but it is a nice gesture to offer them directly to the teacher. It sets the stage for reciprocity.

Don’t be defensive.
This is perhaps the most important advice of all. If the teacher says (and there are teachers inept enough to say this), “Boy, she’s really a handful, isn’t she?” Make sure you don’t bristle and icily respond, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. She doesn’t give me any trouble.” Try instead to say something like, “Can you describe a situation in more detail in which she has given you trouble?” The important thing to keep in mind is that the purpose of this conference is to identify ways in which the two of you—and the entire school, for that matter—can work together to help your child have a good year.

Use it as a learning opportunity.
This early conference is also a good time to learn some of the school rules—or rules of this particular teacher—that might not have been communicated fully in school brochures. What are the procedures about homework? (Yes, it is assigned in many kindergarten classrooms.) Do assignments require your signature? What will happen if the family goes on a winter vacation?

Find out how you can help.
Use some of the time at the parent-teacher conference to find out if there is some way you can help the teacher. Creative teachers can use parental help for more things than cupcakes and birthday parties. They spend hours making teaching materials for their classes, and sometimes parents can spare them from such time-consuming labors. Many teachers welcome having parents serve as volunteers in the classroom, and there is no better way to monitor your own child’s progress unobtrusively and, at the same time, get a fuller grasp of what is expected of the children.

So, at an early opportunity, ask your child’s teacher if you can schedule an appointment with her. Go to that appointment with positive expectations of things you will (a) learn from the teacher and (b) teach the teacher, all of which will help your child have a better school year.

Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education