How to design pre-conference conversations with families


Part of shifting to personalized learning is centering students in the traditional parent-teacher conference. They need to lead the conversation with families and caregivers. And this shift can be hard for folks, because, you know, change is hard! So let’s look at how you can prep families for student-led conferences. It’s all in how you design your pre-conference conversations. Let’s try to make change easier on everyone.


Overheard before student-led conferences

We get around to a LOT of Vermont schools, and we hear what educators and caregivers have said about student-led conferences. News flash: it’s not always good. So, let’s break down the following quotes while doing two things:

  • thinking about the purpose of student-led conferences (and personalized education), and
  • trying to imagine how things could go better next time.

Forewarned puts you in a place of power: you control your destiny. Mostly.

(Don’t quote us on that.)

How to design pre-conference conversations with families

Looking for some talking points? Here’s what we recommend.

“My kid already tells me everything at home. We don’t need this!”
    • That’s so great! But this is an academic presentation of learning. It’s a little different from relaxed, at-home sharing. Could your child need practice with public reflection and academic language? How do you see them proving they own and lead their own learning? 
    • Even if you’ve already seen the work, and had a conversation about it, how might this presentation be different with teachers in attendance? Could they add any reflections on the learning?
    • Fantastic! So you’re able to come to the student-led conference with some ready questions to push your child to think deeper about what they’re presenting. That’s awesome!
    • Takeaway: Does every child have access to conversations at home about school? Who might this be helping? Does every child need access to high-level academic learning presentations/conversations?
“I just want to talk to the teacher about my kid!”
    • We hear this one a lot. It can definitely feel more efficient just to meet with the teacher. But a student-led conference doesn’t mean you can’t also meet with the teacher alone. Okay, let’s consider a hybrid approach! 10 minutes student-led, 10 minutes teacher-led, or 15 min/5 minutes. Let’s think about what split feels best considering the student. 
    • Consider all the different ways you communicate with families. Are conferences the only way to be informing caregivers? Should they be the only way?
    • Takeaway: Who is the conference for? Who should be centered? How can we meet all needs for a successful conference? 
“I’ve been to one of these and it was awful.”
    • Oh no! We’re really sorry to hear that. How can we design something that has meaning, centers your student and feels valuable to you and your family? 
    • This is such a great opportunity to spend time together; how can we maximize it? How would *you* design it to be more meaningful?
    • Takeaway: How can we encourage open mindsets and shifting of thinking?
“I’ve already seen this work. This is a waste of time!”
    • How can we together help go deeper into this learning conversation? What questions could we ask your student about the work that will help them with future activities?
    • Who might not have had the opportunity to see this work and have these conversations? 
    • Consider: Could you as the educator hold back some work to share at the conference? How can you help shape this conversation to feel valuable to all? 

What is “the why”?

Now that we’ve considered some of the critiques of student led conferences, we can create something that has meaning for families, centers students, and shifts the conversation. With your teacher team, it’s helpful to consider some prompts when designing conferences.

Some prompts when designing pre-conference conversations with families:
  • What’s the purpose of student centered/led conferences?
  • What’s the purpose of teacher led conferences?
  • And what do we want our shared purpose to be? Who owns the learning? Who is centered in the conference? 
  • What are the ways families are informed? Should conferences be the only/primary way?

Examples from the field to keep you going:

Thankfully, there are a lot of resources about shifting toward SLCs, including examples of what they look and sound like at various levels. Take a look at some of these to inspire your planning and design.

Develop your conference conversation plan for this year:

Ready to make the shift? YES? Next, here are some next steps that might help in creating your conference plan.

  • consider your grade level
  • consider the WHY
  • the proficiencies, power standards you want to share or report on
  • make something that works for your team
  • you could use this ready made, month by month checklist plan to use (not reinventing the wheel!)
  • possible structures: 
    • November (identity) and spring (portfolio more broadly)
    • November (intro SLCs + portfolio) and spring (sharing of PBL learning)
    • Fall (identity/transferable skills) and spring (academic portfolio)

Lamoille educator Katie Bryant helps her students design the conversation with families by laying out a script in advance, for them to use as they choose. That and a little pep talk, and everyone’s ready to go.


And now over to you: what’s the word on the street about student-led conferences? What are you hearing?

How do *you* design pre-conference conversations with families?