Of all the back-to-school traditions students go through each year, there is one tradition that is especially for parents - the annual parent-teacher conferences.

This one-on-one time between teachers and parents gives the adults a chance to discuss a child's progress, as well as his or her potential for growth. But for parents who haven't attended a parent teacher conference before, the idea of what to ask the teacher during what is sometimes only a half-hour meeting can be overwhelming.

Ashley Kaufman, a marketing strategist at the online signup creator, SignUp Genius, and a mother to first grader Katie, says the best way to feel confident walking into a conference is to be prepared. This begins with talking to your child before the conference to learn about how he thinks school is going and what he thinks you might expect to hear from the teacher.

"It's interesting to see what pops into the child's head, to hear what she thinks the teacher would say about her," Kaufman says. "If your child does have needs, think about the questions that relate to her unique needs."

After talking to your child, it can also help to write down the five most important questions you want to ask your child's teacher, since the meeting time can go by quickly, according to former teacher, mother of four and chief operating officer for SignUp Genius, Angel Rutledge. "Conferences allow parents to avoid "red flags" by talking through warning signs of social, academic or behavioral issues a child may be experiencing," says Rutledge.

When heading into the conference, Kaufman says it can be helpful to start by asking the teacher a few questions about themselves; it shows compassion for him or her and the work they do, and breaks the ice.

Once you move on to talk about your child, Kaufman says the first questions should focus on subjects he is excelling in most, then what areas in which he may be struggling. Rutledge says, "Teachers will be open and honest with parents during this time, so be prepared to hear both positive feedback as well as constructive criticism."

For those areas that do need extra focus, she says parents should ask how they can support their children at home to help them improve.

Kaufman suggests asking, "What can I do to support you and make your job easier to help with my child's growth?" And, "What can we do at home to keep the academic and behavior expectations consistent from school to home?"

For parents of older children, Rutledge recommends asking about a child's performance beyond what is shown in grades. She suggests parents ask, "From what you see in class, do you think my student is giving his or her best effort?"

Beyond academic questions, Kaufman says it's important to ask about any social issues your child might be facing, as well as how social disagreements are handled in the classroom.

"How do you handle disagreements between the children?" Kaufman suggests asking. "That was really important for me to find out that [the teacher] does try to encourage [students] to communicate between themselves," is an effective affirmation.

Other questions that may seem less obvious to parents, but are also worth asking, include learning about how much screen time is used in the classrooms and learning about what types of questions to ask your own child after school each day.

"Asking my daughter 'how was your day?' is not going to get me very much," Kaufman says. "So ask the teacher 'What questions would you recommend I ask my child on a daily basis about what's happening in school?'"

When it comes to other topics to cover during the conference, Kaufman says, "It's important not to be afraid to broach any issues."

"When it comes to your child I think you should feel comfortable asking whatever comes to mind," she says. "And that is important. We may worry about offending the teacher if there's some issue that you're concerned about, but when it comes to asking how your children are doing there shouldn't be a restriction on what to ask."

If a teacher does bring up any areas where a child is struggling, Rutledge says it's important not to become defensive.

"For some, it might be best to just take notes and hold off on responding immediately," Rutledge says. "Look to schedule a follow-up conference to give yourself some time to think through the feedback and come to the table with proactive questions."

After the meeting, parents should remember to send a thank-you note to the teacher, as well as make any follow up meeting plans if necessary.

If your child asks how the meeting went, Kaufman said it's worth bringing up new ideas the teacher mentioned or asking for his perspective on any problematic situations, including a plan for how to help him improve.

"Sharing the positive feedback is a great place to start," Kaufman says. "And then depending on what the areas of progress are, you could mention 'Hey we're going to start doing some math activities at home.'"


Kate Magill is a reporter for Baltimore Sun Media Group and freelance writer in the greater Washington, D.C. area.