h2. How to swallow your pride (and help your kid)

THERE YOU ARE at a parent-teacher conference, sitting confidently atop your third grader’s plastic school chair, waiting to hear the teacher say what a genius she is at math and what a pure joy it is to have her in the classroom. So you’re shocked when instead he delivers a bombshell: “Suzy’s math scores have plummeted, and last week she put earthworms in my desk.”

Karen O’Brien, a school psychologist and member of the Oregon School Psychologists Association, says that with only 20 minutes to discuss these issues with a teacher, there’s not a lot of time to let it all sink in. So it’s vital that you’re as positive as possible. The National Parent Teacher Association outlines the following steps for a smooth conference, and O’Brien shares tips for taking it all in stride. —Sally Powers

1. Don’t take the news personally. O’Brien warns against two common mistakes parents make: denying there is an issue and being overly defensive. Remember that the teacher is delivering this news so that the two of you can team up to help your child do better. Likewise, there’s no need to be overly apologetic—this is about the student and not an attack on your parenting skills.

2. Listen up and ask questions. Hear everything the teacher has to say first. Then ask specific questions about how long the problem has been observed, how often it occurs and when it happens. If it’s an academic issue, you should ask the teacher to compare examples of your child’s work against classmates’ so that you have a reference point. O’Brien notes that it’s also crucial to disclose anything going on at home—from a divorce to a recent move. This is information that will help the teacher understand what’s going on inside your child’s head.

3. Set an “action plan.” This will outline how you and the teacher will work together to help your child improve. It may be as simple as creating a memory device so your child remembers to turn in her math homework, but it can be as involved as bringing in counselors, tutors, etc. If you run out of time with the teacher, set up another appointment to decide what that plan will be.


4. Talk to your child. Don’t wait to go over what you and the teacher discussed—that can cause your child more anxiety. So begin with the positives: “Children need to hear what they’re doing well and that you’re proud of them,” says O’Brien. Then outline the action plan so that the child is clear on what is expected. Use language like “we” so children know that you and the teacher are a united front. And make sure to follow up with the teacher on how the action plan is or isn’t working.