How to make the most of parent teacher nights

Parent teacher nights can be stressful experiences. Both for your teenager, who may be sitting there nervously waiting for the guillotine to drop, and for yourselves, as you struggle to find your way around an unfamiliar campus, to line up for a few minutes with a teacher, only to find you’ve missed your slot because the previous teacher was running over. Even when parent teacher nights are well organised and running smoothly, and your child is dux of the class, it can still be a challenge to know how to make the most of these 5 minute catch-ups.

We interview Murray Evely, psychologist/guidance officer with Psych4schools, to get the lowdown on parent teacher nights.

Apart from getting an update on how their child has performed, is there any other point to parent teacher nights?

A sound education is the basis for later life achievement for your child and parent teacher nights are an important way to promote success. Australian education departments and schools see families as partners in a student’s learning because there is clear evidence that involved and positively connected parents increase student-learning outcomes. Parent teacher nights are fundamental to supporting your child’s learning outcomes.

Schools usually follow the general principle that whatever a teacher knows about a student’s learning and behaviour, the parent also has a right to know. So if a student is performing poorly at school then this information needs to be communicated to the parents as early as possible. An effective parent-teacher learning partnership can better guide and support the child’s education, as the student is ultimately responsible for their own learning.

Parent teacher nightsSchools often structure a sequence of parent teacher nights throughout the year around sharing information and insights into a child’s learning. For example, at the beginning of the year a parent teacher night can provide general information about day-to-day matters for each year level in regard to teachers, curriculum, assessment and reporting, time-tables, home-work and study expectations. School rules and responsibilities can also be discussed and clarified.

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Many schools will offer another parent teacher night, also early in the year, to give parents an opportunity to share with the Home Room Teacher, Year Level Coordinator or other teachers any learning concerns they have about their child. Parents can also alert teachers to information about part time work, family upsets, issues the young person might have keeping up or being challenged, and academic strengths and interests. It is also another opportunity for parents to ask about homework, study expectations, major topics coming up, and ways they can assist their child.

At the end of each semester, parent teacher nights generally focus on growth in learning. Parents will usually already have a written report about their child, so there should be no real surprises. Many schools will encourage students to play an important role, taking a lead role in sharing their work and answering questions posed by their teacher or parents about their learning, and in exploring scope for further growth.

What questions should parents be asking about their child, particularly if the teacher is not very forthcoming?

Parents should ask about their child’s performance and potential:

  • Is the child working well in class and applying themselves at their level of capability?
  • Are all assignments, work requirements and tasks being completed?
  • Is the child attending and contributing to all classes?
  • Is the child completing all homework requirements and handing work in on time?
  • Is the child managing socially or are there concerns that need further follow-up at home or through more formal school processes?

If your child is known to be struggling in a specific subject, parents could enquire about any additional assistance programs provided by the school. For example:

  • Is there an after school homework club supervised by a staff member who could give additional support or guidance to your child once a week?
  • Are there any special or additional needs teachers that support small groups and individuals during class time?

Alternatively, if your child is very bright or has been previously identified as a ‘gifted and talented learner’ you could ask what extension education or enrichment programs do subject teachers or the school provide?

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What advice do you give when the parent is speaking with a teacher who ‘clashes’ with their child?

Generally, teachers are acutely aware of the importance of the student-teacher relationship and will do whatever they can to build positive relationships to promote effective learning.

Student learning is a shared responsibility amongst a key group of teachers and other staff at the year level and across the school. Depending on the size of the school, a number of senior staff will be monitoring and assisting students, and are a resource for teachers, parents and students.

Where a parent believes there is a clash between their child and a teacher, they could ask for a planned way forward, some short and long term goals about work, homework, attendance, and student attitude. If the parents are unsure what issue is causing friction in the learning process, there are others in the school who can become involved. The Homeroom Teacher, Year Level Coordinator, Student Welfare Coordinator, Head of House or other senior staff members may be approached to assist.

If the parent receives negative feedback about their child, what should they do or not do while their child is present?

If there is bad feedback during a parent teacher interview, beyond what might be calmly dealt within the next few minutes, a parent should request another meeting time. Time allowed in regular parent teacher interviews is generally not sufficient to fully discuss unexpected concerns and problems. Parents should note down the issues of concern that have been raised by the teacher.

Parents should generally refrain from bringing the child or the teacher to task during parent teacher meetings. To promote effective working relationships, parents need to allow the teacher to retain control of the meeting while the student is present to help maintain the student-teacher relationship. To help address an issue of concern the teacher may ask the student to express their point of view as a means to clarify issues or to help promote problem ownership. If the issue isn’t easy to resolve, it is often preferable to set another meeting time. However, if necessary, a student can be asked to leave the meeting while the teacher and the parent further clarify any concerns or misunderstandings.

A short follow-up meeting to more fully address a concern with the teacher (and others if required) could be arranged within the next 24 to 48 hours. Sometimes a home/school communication book, a simple learning or behavior plan can lead to improvement in learning or behaviour. If there is little resolution of a concern after a week or two, involvement from the Student Welfare Coordinator or a request for a school psychologist to assist might be made.

The Psych4Schools website contains abroad range of resources for subscribing teachers, psychologists and school staff to help them to meet individual student needs.

[RELATED: Guest post: Home schooling, from a mum who did]

What other advice can help parents to get the most from parent teacher nights?

Parent teacher nights are an opportunity for quick two-way communication, an opportunity to alert teachers to major incidents or upheavals in a child’s life which might be impacting on success at school. They are also an opportunity for parents to enquire about expectations, homework demands, upcoming projects/camps/concerts, friendship issues and so on.

As the year proceeds, particularly at the end of semester, they provide a time for teachers to give feedback to parents and students, summarising learning outcomes and what can be done to assist the child to learn at their personal best. It is important that all concerned set realistic expectations for the child in a supportive manner.

Most school professionals make an effort to invite and support parents as partners and are open to help in building and restoring confidence in today’s schooling. Any past negative experiences associated with a parent or a child’s own schooling needs to be resolved or put aside so there are no impediments in the teacher-learning process.

Support your child by attending parent teacher nights, as there is clear evidence that involved and positively connected parents improve student-learning outcomes.


About the expert

Psych4Schools supports teachers, school leadership teams and other professionals in working with children, parents and colleagues, through an expanding range of online resources and workshops.

Murray Evely has extensive experience as a teacher-trained psychologist providing practical resources and advice to principals, teachers and school communities.




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