School & District Management

Learning the Parent-Teacher-Conference Dance: Study Finds Steps to Avoid Conflict

By Sarah D. Sparks — November 16, 2014 2 min read
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Even in the most collaborative schools, parent-teacher conferences can be a source of intense stress. A new study suggests teachers and parents subtly try to help each other through it—but tensions can rise quickly when they don’t pick up each other’s cues.

Parent-teacher conferences become more fraught at a time when teachers are under increasing scrutiny about the value their instruction adds to individual students’ achievement, and parents increasingly identify their own success with their children’s performance, according to Danielle Pillet-Shore, an assistant professor of communication at the University of New Hampshire-Durham. In a study discussed at the annual meeting of the National Academy of Education here, Pillet-Shore analyzed videos from 41 regular parent-teacher conferences in preschool through 7th grade, over three years in four different schools in New Hampshire.

“Parents and teachers have a regular set of practices they use to avoid face threat and thus conflict,” Pillet-Shore said. “It shows up in ... a marked contrast in how parents and teachers praise and criticize students.”

Students were not present at any of the conferences, but the teachers and parents followed a predictable pattern. Parents typically withheld praise of their own child, and instead criticized him or her directly and specifically, sometimes even mock-imitating a student’s attitude or behavior. The teacher typically allowed the parent to bring up a problem first and note how the family was responding, before agreeing and adding to the parent’s plan.

When teachers praised a student, his or her parents acted as though they were learning about the strength for the first time. The teacher led with concrete details and the parent was able to agree or add to the explanation.

“I was surprised to see a lot of collaboration going on, even if the participants weren’t aware they were doing it,” Pillet-Shore said.

From the videos, it’s also easy to see how quickly a cooperative session can become tense when either teacher or parent doesn’t or can’t follow those social cues, though.

For example, in one conference between a veteran teacher and a young single working mom, the mother responded only with nods and brief answers to the teacher’s questions about homework, and it became clear that she actually was not aware there was a problem until the teacher pointed out that her daughter had been turning in minimally done assignments. The teacher became much more explicitl and asked the mother what she was doing at homework time and directed her to help in specific ways, and the session as a whole was much more tense.

Pillet-Shore, a 2013 fellow with the academy, did not see differences in the basic social template between teachers and parents when the participants were of different sexes or races, but she said she does want to follow up with more study of social-class differences, particularly when the teacher is considerably more educated than the parent, as was the case in the homework session.

“That parent and that teacher had a history,” she noted. “That particular mom works a lot; she has a lot of kids and she comes into the room smelling of cigarette smoke. And that was definitely an issue for the teacher, who is from a different generation, and she has a problem with smoking.”

The final study is forthcoming in the Journal of Communication.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.