Parent-teacher conferences are a unique opportunity for parents or guardians and teachers to come together and discuss a mutually vested interest: the education of the child.

"I look forward to parent-teacher conferences," said Betsy Madison.

Madison has taught first grade at Shaftsbury Elementary School in Shaftsbury, Vt., for 13 years.

"I think it's an opportunity for parents to come in and celebrate their children," she said.

Behavior, progress

However, many parents and teachers find that, despite having a common goal, challenges in effectively communicating about a student's behavior and progress often arise.

Madison approaches the meetings as a way to emphasize the positive growth of a student, but she said that she is also happy to direct interested parents to resources that could help their child in areas where they are struggling.

Kathleen Milani, a special education teacher at Mount Anthony Union Middle School in Bennington, Vt., who previously taught high school English and reading as well as second grade, says that to help talks go smoothly, parents should prepare questions before entering into a conference.

Good questions to ask include: "Does the teacher feel the child is developing socially and emotionally at a rate consistent with their peers," and "what can we do at home to help our child," and "how can we be more communicative." Milani said she loves when parents communicate by email, and is always happy to talk to engaged parents.


Successful outcomes

Her colleague, Rachel Kipp, teaches sixth-grade math at the middle school, which hosts conferences twice a year. She said another important question for parents to ask is, "What areas are my child doing well in, and in what areas are they struggling?"

Kipp suggested that parents can become more involved in their children's education simply by asking them to explain one thing that they learned every day.

A 2014 Harvard University study indicated that there's a strong link between effective communication between parents and teachers and successful outcomes for the student.

Researchers made a case study by sending brief individualized messages from teachers to the parents of high school students in a credit recovery program. Students whose parents received even weekly one-sentence updates on their child's classroom performance increased the students' likelihood to earn credits, and resulted in an overall 41 percent reduction in students failing to make up the credited classwork. Researchers ultimately concluded that "increasing parent-teacher communication could be one of the least expensive ways to increase student performance."

Show up

Kipp said that the worst thing parents can do is to not show up to their student's parent-teacher conferences. She said that if possible, parents should also try to avoid bringing younger siblings to the conferences, as they can distract the parents and draw attention away from the conversations. Milani also encouraged parents not to compare the student being discussed to themselves or other siblings, because every student learns differently.

While being engaged and informed about your child's education is important, there are also pitfalls to being too involved.

Land the helicopter

All three teachers warned about the dangers of "helicopter parenting," which defines as, "a style of child rearing in which an overprotective mother or father discourages a child's independence by being too involved in the child's life."

Kipp encouraged parents not to do their child's math homework for them if the student is confused by the assignment. Instead the teacher suggested that parents write a note on the homework so that the teacher can see where the student is struggling and work to clear up the confusion.

"They have their student's best interests at heart, but they can make excuses for their child, which is counterproductive in the long run," Kipp said.

"We want children to grow in a way that is natural," said Madison, who said that parents can interfere in their children's social development by doing too much for them, and not letting them experience consequences.

"You're not teaching your kid how to do things on their own if you're always doing everything for them," she said.

Derek Carson can be reached at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.