What Happens in Strong Parent-Teacher Conferences?

We all know horror stories of parent teacher conferences gone wrong-- but what does it look like when they go right? How do teachers pull it off? This post looks at some of the research on what goes right in conferences.

Research to Practice: Parent-Teacher Conferences

The problem

Parent-teacher conferences are one of the key opportunities that teachers have to build relationships with students’ families, yet teachers often receive little training on them and struggle with their execution (D’Haem & Griswold, 2017; Walker & Legg, 2018). Teachers and caregivers often describe conferences as fraught or scary (D’Haem & Griswold, 2017; Lemmer, 2012; Tveit, 2018).  While strong conferences may lead to increased trust and communication between home and school, weaker conferences can lead families to feel unheard or judged (Matthiesen, 2016; Wanat, 2010), and to the creation of a “a cauldron of fiery feelings” (Lawrence Lightfoot, 2004, p.xxi). And, unfortunately, many conferences lead to fiery feelings, not partnership. Many conferences fail to build partnerships, are teacher dominated, and, at times, leave caregivers feeling judged or silenced (Bilton & Hymer, 2018; D’Haem & Griswold, 2017; Matthiesen, 2016; Wanat, 2010).


That’s the bad news. The good news is that there are some teachers who are amazing at conferences, teachers that we can learn from. Let’s start with some goals that teachers and parents express for conferences.

Conference goals
  • To build trust and  connections between the teacher and caregiver (Bryk & Schneider, 2003;Lawrence Lightfoot, 2004; Mapp & Kuttner, 2013).
  • To inform parents about how the child is doing school (Lemmer, 2012)
  • To learn from parents about their child (Lemmer, 2012)
  • To address any academic or behavioral challenges a student is facing (Cheatham & Ostrosky, 2011)
  • To exchange information (Minke & Anderson, 2003).

There are more, but these are the big ones that come up in the literature!

Characteristics of strong conferences
  • Caregivers are welcomed and greeted (Lawrence Lightfoot, 2004)
  • The meeting is frame and run as a two way exchange of information (Walker & Legg, 2018)
  • Caregivers are treated as valuable resources and teachers acknowledge the expertise of the caregiver ( Lawrence Lightfoot, 2004; Walker & Legg, 2018). 
  • Teachers say positive things about the students and sound like they like the child (Lawrence Lightfoot, 2004; Pillet-Shore, 2012).
  • Teachers share information about how the student is doing and provide rich details and examples (Lawrence  Lightfoot, 2004; Walker & Legg, 2018). 
  • Teachers manage the flow of the meeting  (Walker & Legg, 2018). 
  • Teachers stay professional and avoid  blame and defensiveness (Gerich, Trittel, & Schmitz, 2017; Walker & Legg, 2018)
  • Teachers check for understanding and mutual comprehension throughout the meeting (Cheatham & Jimenez-Silva, 2012)
  • The meeting is collaborative, not just a teacher run show (Mapp & Kuttner, 2013)
  • The teacher avoids telling the parent how to parent  their child (Francis et al., 2016)
  • The teacher responds effectively to any concerns raised by the parent– and lets them raise concerns (Francis et al., 2016)
  • The teacher shows empathy and demonstrates that they care about the parent as a human, not just a parent (Lawrence Lightfoot, 2004; Sebastian et al., in press).

All of that is pretty abstract, so here are some examples of teacher candidates excelling in practice conferences

Exemplars from practice conferences

Warmly welcoming the parent

  • Here’s an example of that: “I first just wanted to say thank you for taking the time to come in today. I know work can get hectic with both you and Katie’s mom… But I’m happy we found a time to meet.”

Sharing positive information about the student

  • An example of this would be something like, “Let’s talk about her school performance. So Katie is a wonderful addition to our classroom. She seems to be performing really well in reading. She’s reading above grade level. And she always finishes her work on time, which is really good…And whenever I have an individual conversation with Katie, she always has something valuable to add to the discussion. Very insightful.

Setting a collaborative purpose for the meeting

  • One teacher set their purpose as: “The purpose for this meeting is… I’ve noticed that her social interactions… she tends to want to work by herself… I want to try to develop a plan together to gradually increase her collaboration with other students.”

Asking questions of the parent

  • Some good examples of this are: ‘What has been different this year compared to last?’ or ‘What is she like at home?’ ‘Are there any supports that I should know that would help her?’ 

Following up on a parental concern

  • When the father said he was worried about his child, the teacher asked: ‘What are you worried about?’ When the father responded that he was worried about his daughter checking out, James followed up, ‘I understand your concerns. No, she’s not checking out in school,’ and then shared more of the student’s academic strengths.  

Responding to a personal disclosure by the parent

  • When the father shared that there was a weight on his shoulders, some of the strong responses included, “Why do you say that?” and followed by, “Is there something that I can help you with? Maybe resources?” Another strong response was, “Okay, I hear you and I am here to support you with that because that sounds like a really stressful situation.” And finally, a third strong response was, “Well, I’m sorry to hear that. If there’s anything that we can do from as the school and from our standpoint, please let us know. We’re happy to help.”


  • Bilton, R., Jackson, A., & Hymer, B. (2018). Cooperation, conflict and control: parent–teacher relationships in an English secondary school. Educational Review, 70(4), 510-526.
  • Bryk, A. S., & Schneider, B. (2003). Trust in schools: A core resource for school reform. Educational Leadership, 60(6), 40-45.
  • Cheatham, G. A., & Ostrosky, M. M. (2011b). Whose expertise? An analysis of advice giving in early childhood parent–teacher conferences. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 25, 24–44.
  • D’Haem, J., & Griswold, P. (2017). Teacher educators’ and student teachers’ beliefs about preparation for working with families including those from diverse socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. Education and Urban Society, 49(1), 81-109.
  • Gerich, M., Trittel, M., & Schmitz, B. (2017). Improving prospective teachers’ counseling competence in parent-teacher talks. Effects of training and feedback. Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation, 27(2), 203-238.
  • Lawrence Lightfoot, S. (2004). The essential conversation: What parents and teachers can learn from each other. Ballantine Books.
  • Lemmer, E. M. (2012). Who’s doing the talking? Teacher and parent experiences of parent-teacher conferences. South African Journal of Education, 32(1), 83-96.
  • Mapp, K. L., & Kuttner, P. J. (2013). Partners in Education: A Dual Capacity-Building Framework for Family-School Partnerships. SEDL.
  • Matthiesen, N. C. L. (2016). Understanding silence: an investigation of the processes of silencing in parent–teacher conferences with Somali diaspora parents in Danish public schools. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 29(3), 320-337.
  • Minke, K. M., & Anderson, K. J. (2003). Restructuring routine parent teacher conferences: The family-school conference model. Elementary School Journal, 104(1), 49–69.
  • Tveit, A. D. (2018). Construction of pupils’ school achievements and future plans in parent-teacher meetings. Interchange, 49(2), 231-246.
  • Walker, J. & Legg, A.M. (2018). Parent-teacher conference communication: a guide to integrating family engagement through simulated conversations about student academic progress. Journal of Education for Teaching, 44(3), 366-380.
  • Wanat, C. (2010). Challenges balancing collaboration and independence in home-school relationships: Analysis of parents’ perceptions in one district. School Community Journal, 20, 159-186.