Q: During the first week of school, my second-grade daughter's teacher suggested a conference. This soon? Does it mean there's something wrong?
A: Successful teachers often make efforts to connect with parents early in the school year, rather than wait until the end of the first grading period to establish communication.
It makes sense, says Stephen Edwards, a California teacher, who tries to schedule informal get-togethers with parents during the first week of school. He doesn't call them conferences, so as not to raise worries.
"The goal is listening to parents' questions, concerns and hopes. It gives parents a chance to describe their child's special interests, unique challenges, family structure and prior school experience," says Edwards.
Early-year meetings give teachers a jump on planning successful learning experiences. "One little comment is often key to understanding what motivates the child, what her special interests are or the easiest way to modify unwanted behavior," notes Edwards.
Marilee Rosen, a New York kindergarten teacher, recalls one mother asking for five minutes of her time at the end of opening day: "Out of earshot of her daughter, she said, 'Selena loves to read. She's proud of her library card. She just finished "Little House on the Prairie." Please challenge her with new books.'"
Rosen says, "With 20 kindergarteners, it would have taken days to learn just how advanced she was. I walked her to the school media center the next day, where she met the librarian and checked out an armful of books. I was grateful for this mom's initiative."
Rosen tries to have a conversation with each parent during the first few days. "I ask about the child's summer, get feedback on the prior school year and ask about goals for their child this year. Sometimes parents volunteer important information.
"Last year, one dad asked to meet the first day of school. He said Ben's uncle had been killed on a motorcycle a few weeks earlier and that Ben was having a hard time. That information shouldn't wait until October's conference week. Right away, Ben got counseling that helped him succeed in kindergarten."
These days, parents and teachers email each other to facilitate communication. "Digital dialogue is wonderful, but more effective if we've met early on," says Rosen.
Parents should take the initiative, advises Edwards, if there are things you'd like the teacher to know: "Call or email for an appointment. And it never hurts to ask them how they take their coffee!"
What topics should an informal conference cover? Focus on your child's interests, strengths and areas for improvement. Describe your goals. If you'd like, share information about home routines such as after-school activities, homework, sleep and exercise habits. Tell the teacher how you support your child's learning and describe any TV- and media-usage rules you might have. Ask how best to support your child at home, especially in core subjects.
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)