As the parent of a “spirited” child, I myself get anxious about parent-teacher conferences!
Preparing for any parent-teacher conference takes time, but more time may be needed for more challenging children. These more “challenging children” are typically the ones we wish were absent on those mornings we forget our coffee, but at the same time they’re our favorites! Teachers often refer to these children as “spirited.” Which doesn’t mean they are bad children by any means; it just means they challenge us as teachers—which in return makes us better teachers. My son was and still is referred to as “spirited.” (He is pictured above, drinking the sensory activity water.)
No matter how nervous we may be prior to a conference, the parents of “spirited” children are just as anxious. Don’t forget these are the parents who are probably growing accustom to only hearing the negative or challenging aspects about their child. They consistently feel as if they need to defend their children because all they hear is the bad, and they know there is good inside there too! Keep in mind every parent loves to hear positive and funny stories about their children; that’s a great place to start the conversation.
Here are some key steps to a successful parent-teacher conference:
- Interact with the children in your care. This should occur constantly throughout the year, everyday—not just before conferences. If you’re not interacting with the child chances are you have very little information on that child. As you interact with children, engaging them in play and conversation, you’re able to discover their skills, abilities, and developmental levels. You also establish what their interests are which you can use to entice them to learn or enhance skills.
- Determine goals based on those everyday interactions. Where does this child need support? I found sometimes starting with a few goals is more productive than having goal overload. It’s easier to focus and plan for between one and three at a time. Plus this focus and planning will increase the child’s chances for success surrounding that goal. More goals can always be added later when the child is ready. Allowing the parents the option to add a goal is a great way to create a teaching team between school and home.
- Create an action plan of how you’re going to support that child with each goal. This is the step a lot of teachers skip. Children don’t magically develop the skills needed to reach our goals, they get there through play, repetition, and our intentional planning. Document and explain to parents what YOU are going to do to help support their child using concrete examples. For instance, if Johnny’s goal is to recognize his name in print, but avoids the writing center like the plague, how can you use Johnny’s interests and favorite areas to intentionally plan for letter recognition through play? What kinds of playful interactions can families do at home to reinforce concepts and skills? I’ve found that suggesting “activities” to parents adds pressure and more often than not, there’s no follow through. However, everyday, intentional interactions are much easier steps for parents because there is no prep time or materials to gather. It can simply happen in the car or during dinner. Communicating your action plan takes some of the anxiety off parent’s shoulders and gives them ideas of how to make learning fun. Plus, it puts them more at ease during the meeting knowing you already have a plan to help their child. Again this helps create the teaching team between school and home.
- Put it all in writing. Prior to the meeting, document your talking points, goals and action plan examples to ensure you’re not forgetting anything. It’s not only professional, but when parents see that you’re plan is documented, they know you’re going to follow through.
Most importantly please remember, regardless of what our biases and opinions are telling us, ALL parents want their children to be successful. Some parents just show it in a different way than others. And some parents just don’t know or realize what they can do to help their children be more successful. That’s where you as the early childhood educator come in!
In 1988, I became a mother for the second time. Our first son, Matt, was a normal three-year-old boy, enjoying all the things that little boys liked. He loved to play outside, read books, interact with others and talk. After our second son became nine months old and we began to watch for milestones, we noticed something was different. Chris was different. He wasn’t trying to walk or climb, he didn’t like to read books or concentrate on simple tasks and motor skills were not developing. Was I jumping to conclusions? I was a mother working in the field of early childhood and I felt lost. After months of doctor appointments and evaluations, we found out that Chris was diagnosed with severe apraxia. This is a speech and neurological delay that presents problems with communication, fine motor and comprehension skills. I was experiencing anxiety on both sides of the fence—educator and parent. I needed support, more education, understanding and answers.
Knowing what is “typical” versus problematic when it comes to communication can be difficult for parents and educators. In their first years, children form foundational communication skills. If issues develop during this period, children generally respond well to treatment. Below are five behaviors an early childhood professional or parent should pay attention to:
- A child isn’t making eye contact or smiling. Much of early speech and language development is non-verbal. One of the first ways an infant communicates with a parent is through eye contact. As early as age 6 to 8 weeks, a child should be able to hold a gaze—particularly with a parent or other caregiver. A social smile should be present as well.
- A child isn’t using gestures. Also in the category of non-verbal communication, an infant should begin using gestures by the time he is between age 6 to 12 months. These include clapping, pointing and waving.
- A child isn’t cooing or babbling. Well before the long-anticipated first word is spoken, a child should be verbalizing sounds. Cooing typically occurs by the time a child is age 2 to 4 months old, and babbling by 6 months. By age 1, a child generally should say one or two words. By age 2, a child should be stringing two or more words together.
- A child is not understood by others. Parents are wonderfully attuned to their children’s needs. They can tell the differences in their cries of being hungry, tired or in pain. As the months progress, parents get even better at deciphering what their child wants. But even if they understand a child’s sounds or words, they should pay close attention to whether other people, including a caregiver, can understand what their child says. If others cannot understand a child by age 18 months to 2 years, this is an indicator of a potential speech or language issue.
- A child is not responding to his own name. This can be a sign of hearing impairment. Parents or caregivers may not realize the need for vigilance about hearing because most newborns undergo hearing screening before leaving the hospital. However, hearing problems can emerge weeks or months following birth. Ear infections can also lead to hearing problems. Hearing issues may not be obvious. If a child is not responding to his or her own name by age 7 months to 1 year, a problem may exist.
If you suspect a child has a developmental delay and believe a parent is unaware of it, use the following guidelines to make the conversation go smoother:
- Highlight some of the child’s strengths, letting the parent know what the child does well.
- Always use facts. Let the parent know that you are using solid examples of milestone criteria versus your feelings. Talk about specific behaviors that you have observed in caring for the child. For example, “Most four year old children participate in ‘pretend play’ with other children. I have noticed that Joey does not interact with others in the class.”
- Make the conversation a discussion. Pause often, giving the parent time to think and to respond.
- Listen to and watch the parent to decide on how to proceed. Pay attention to tone of voice and body language. Expect if a child is the oldest in the family, the parent might not have experience to know the milestones the child should be reaching. This might be the first time the parent has become aware that the child might have a delay.
- Let the parent know that she should talk with her child’s health care provider soon to relay any concerns or other information is needed. Parents can also be advised to look into Early Intervention programs in their state, or seek an assessment with a certified speech-language pathologist or audiologist.
- Lastly, remind the parent that you do your job because you love and care for children, and that you want to make sure that the child does his very best. It is also okay to say that you “may be over concerned,” but that it is best to check with the child’s doctor and be certain, since early action is important if there is a real delay.
Early intervention works and is crucial for the development of a child. Support is crucial for parents and caregivers. I was given both. My son received the services that he needed to reach milestones and his caregivers received support through professional services. Continue to advocate for children with special needs because every child deserves the chance to succeed in school and in life.