This past November, our family had the first parent-teacher conferences of the school year. I always look forward to these meetings because they give me an idea of how well my children are settling into their new classes and progressing academically. These meetings also help me understand their teachers’ expectations and styles of instruction.
This year, though, I was in for a surprise when I learned that my fifth grader was expected to attend the conference with me.
The Student-Led Conference
Many K–12 schools around the U.S. are beginning to implement “student-led conference” (SLC) in place of the longstanding parent-teacher conferences that many families have taken part in. Within this traditional format, which typically involves one or both parents and a teacher without the child present, the instructor informs parents how their child is developing academically and socially. The SLC offers a welcome shift in this paradigm, with students actively participating in both the preparation for and dialogue at the conference.
In a student-led conference, parents, teachers, and the child come together as a team. While some educators may spend a few minutes in discussion with the parent(s) alone beforehand, most of the conference is carried out in the presence of the student.
The child prepares a portfolio of selected work (with help from her teacher), which she then presents to her parents. The collection may consist of a binder with several carefully chosen samples of work from each academic area, or these pieces may be shared digitally. In my son’s case, for example, his portfolio consisted of online samples of his writing, his reading responses, and pictures showing his math work.
Using this work as evidence, the student highlights her achievements and strengths as well as areas that are challenging or where she needs improvement. Usually, a child undertakes a goal-setting exercise in advance (with support from the teacher) that will guide the work she will do in the coming term. She presents her goals and a plan for meeting them to her parents, while the teacher may offer specific suggestions that parents can use to support their child’s learning at home. Parents are typically invited to ask questions or offer comments during or after the presentation.
For students in kindergarten through second grade, the format differs slightly because younger children require more support from teachers while presenting their work. For instance, several family groups may circulate among stations where classwork is displayed while the teacher takes time to speak individually with each parent-child group.
Although the traditional parent-teacher conference can feel rushed and often lasts no more than 15 minutes, many SLCs extend for a longer period in order to permit a detailed discussion of a child’s growth. The exact time frame varies according to school policy and the individual teacher, but most provide for at least 20–25 minutes of conference time.
The strengths of SLCs lie in the central role of the child as she communicates her academic and social progress, as well as the collaboration between student and teacher in setting goals and mapping out a pathway to continue this development throughout the year.
Anne Rosenberg, a fifth grade teacher at Village School in Princeton Junction, New Jersey has conducted SLCs for the past three years. She points out that when a student takes ownership of her learning and receives support from teachers and family, she stands a much better chance of accomplishing her goals. Older kids in middle school and high school also welcome the autonomy that comes along with taking charge of their learning targets and devising the plans to achieve them.
In an SLC, the teacher acts as the facilitator of the conversation between parents and student. Rosenberg guides students in preparing their portfolios and setting individual goals during the weeks prior to the conference, and then lets them do most of the talking when answering their parents’ questions. She intervenes only if critical information has not been conveyed. For the most part, she says, students are usually spot-on about both their challenges and their plans to overcome them. If a child is struggling to attain grade-level standards or has serious social issues, she will schedule a separate time to discuss solutions with the parents alone.
In preparation for an SLC, Rosenberg suggests that parents consider their child’s strengths and difficulties before coming to the conference, as well as how to support their child’s learning and strong study habits at home. During the conference, parents need to be attentive and interact meaningfully with their child by asking questions, seeking clarification, and being receptive to suggestions from both teacher and student. Above all, parents are encouraged to express pride in their child’s accomplishments, since their role in these meetings is largely supportive.
Parents can help students stick to the plans outlined during the conference, especially if these efforts require forming new study habits. They can also remind kids about their goals and help them keep track of their progress.
Teachers also need to check in on how well students are accomplishing their goals throughout the school year. Rosenberg, for example, includes comments on subsequent report cards that indicate how a child is faring with the aims set at the initial conference.
The Feedback from Parents and Students
After the conference this fall, Rosenberg sent out surveys to parents and students to elicit feedback on the new format. In a class of 20 children, she received 19 responses from parents, 16 of which indicated that the families preferred student-led conferences over traditional ones. She heard comments such as:
“I am more aware of my child’s strengths after the conference.”
“I’m impressed that my child is aware of his own strengths and challenges.”
Students, too, felt largely positive about leading the conferences. Many indicated that they gained confidence after presenting their work to their parents, even though they had initially felt nervous. These children gave feedback like:
“My dad heard good stuff about me.”
“The conference helped me speak up in front of people.”
“I learned that my mother is proud of me!”
“I learned that the teacher was not saying bad stuff about me to my parents.”
Those parents who did not prefer the SLC stated that they were already aware of their child’s strengths and challenges, and wanted more detailed feedback from the teacher. One parent I spoke to felt that her middle-school daughter was embarrassed to be present during the conversation.
A Teacher’s Assessment
Rosenberg believes that the collaborative structure of the SLC is effective because it enables parents to hear consistent feedback from a student and teacher at the same time. Even though preparation for the conference requires more time and greater effort from all of the participants, the format helps children develop self-assessment and presentation skills, which are both valuable for future learning experiences. Most importantly, the SLC gives children a voice and an opportunity to play a leading role in their education.
Clark, J. Student-led Conferences in Action: With a Technological Twist (October, 2012). Retrieved November 8, 2015 from National Association of Secondary School Principals.
Fung, J. A Step-by-Step Plan for Student-Led Conferences at the Elementary Level (March 20, 2013). Retrieved November 8, 2015 from Teaching Channel.org.
You can use the free Noodle search tool to learn about schools near you. Or look for your child’s school and ask a question on its profile to learn more about how teachers approach conferences.