By Dr Robert Needlman
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The idea behind regular interviews is for parents and teachers to work as a team. Parent involvement in education is a powerful force, and annual or semiannual parent-teacher conferences guarantee that every parent is at least involved to some extent.

Of course, parent-teacher interviews make a lot of parents nervous. Even if you're pretty sure that your child is having a good year, it may seem that he – and therefore you – are on trial. And if you know that your child is having problems, you might well dread the idea of talking face-to-face with a teacher who may be holding you responsible.

There's a good chance that the teacher is a bit nervous, too. After all, teachers also feel responsible for any problems a child may be having. So you may take some comfort in knowing that, in a sense, you and the teacher are in the same boat.

The meetings tend to be short – 15 minutes or so – and you can make them much more effective by keeping a few principles in mind:

Don't wait for the interview to be the first contact between you and the teacher. Instead, find opportunities to chat informally with her, even if only for a minute or two. If your schedule permits, volunteer to help in a class activity or excursion. Let the teacher know that you are friendly, approachable and interested in how your child is doing. You're much more likely to learn about any problems early on, and the teacher is likely to take a special interest in your child.

Be polite, but don't be shy. If you have concerns about how your child is progressing either academically or socially, let the teacher know that you'd like to talk about it. A note asking for the best times to talk on the phone or in person gives the teacher the message that you respect how busy she is and are willing to work around her schedule. When it comes time for the conference, be sure to be on time.

Combine criticism with praise. If you have a concern about something that is going on in class, try to mention something positive at the same time. By acknowledging the good things that she is doing, you'll help the teacher hear your concerns without becoming defensive. (This approach to offering constructive criticism works well for children too!)

Be specific. Specific observations and events are often more helpful than generalisations. ‘He usually spends 40 minutes to an hour on his maths homework and still has a hard time understanding it’ is more helpful than ‘He's spending too much time on homework’.

Consider leaving your child at home, at least for the first interview. Children are sometimes invited (and have a right) to sit in on parent-teacher interviews. However, adults sometimes need a chance to talk freely, without concern for what the child may be understanding or misunderstanding. Children sometimes wonder what their parents and teachers are saying about them, and they have a right to know. But parents can tell their children afterwards; the children don't need to be present during the interview itself.

Even if you have no concerns, plan to ask a couple of questions in order to get the most out of the meeting. You might ask:

  • ‘What is my child particularly good at, and what are some things he could do better at?’
  • ‘Are there things that my child is reluctant to try right now?’
  • ‘Are there things he does that surprise you?’
  • ‘Are there things we could be doing at home to help him get even more out of school?’
  • ‘How is he getting along with his peers?’

If you or the teacher do have concerns, try to work with her to define the issue as specifically and objectively as possible. Fight the temptation to blame or to feel blamed. Instead, keep focused as much as possible on finding a solution. Whatever decisions you come to in the first meeting (for example, changing your child's seat or having him finish his homework before turning on the television), plan a follow-up conference within a couple of weeks to a month to discuss how your first plan worked and plan further interventions.

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