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Outside the Parent-Teacher Conference: Communicating with Parents, pt. 1

“They’re more afraid of you than you are of them.”

We often hear this line when it comes to encountering frightening animals. However, the same line can be applied to parent-teacher communications. Teachers often dread the daily or semi-annual meetings with parents, but what they often don’t realize is that parents often dread meeting with the teacher just as much as the teacher dreads meeting with the parents.

The last thing a parent wants to hear is that their child is having problems at school. They may feel judged or inadequate as a parent.. That is why it is important for teachers to remember how parents might be feeling whenever they contact them. It is also important for teachers to assess the reason for contact and to mold their communication style appropriately.

In general, I have found there are four reasons to communicate with parents outside of the standard parent-teacher conference. Teachers may communicate with parents to praise a child, to relay concerns, to check-in after an illness or other major event, or to receive and give daily updates on a child’s routine and general health. If these four situations are handled correctly, they can help foster more peaceful parent-teacher conferences.

Each reason for communication needs to be handled slightly differently and may occur more or less often than the others. For this reason, this article will only focus on the first reason: How and when to praise a child to parents.

The Problem with Clichéd and Generic Praise

Parents are especially adept at recognizing insincere and generalized compliments. Clichéd comments like, “David’s a clever boy, but…” or “Stacy has a lot of potential, but…” clue the parent into the fact that they are about to hear something they would rather not. It also gives the impression that the teacher is only paying attention to their child’s faults. Simple and unoriginal phrases like, “David’s a kind boy” or “Stacy did great with blocks today,“ are also problematic since they don’t let the parent know specifically what their child did to deserve praise. Sincere praise is specific and unique to each child.

What is Specific Praise?

Generalized praise can, in fact, be worse than no praise at all. A parent may learn to distrust anything the teacher says, creating tension, fear, and shame. Any time praise is given, it needs to be specific. “David really worked on his self-control today and made great improvements. He listened to the circle-time story closely and was able to answer several questions.” “Stacy was really patient and kind to a friend today when she helped him build a tower. Johnny was upset that the tower kept falling down, so Stacy showed him how to build it taller and taller.”

Concrete praise is hard to ignore. Parents know the teacher was truly paying attention to their child and appreciated what the child was doing. The praise also serves the additional purpose of giving the parent insight into his or her child’s day.

When and How to Give Specific Praise

Praise can be given in a variety of ways. A great time to give praise is at pick-up, when the events of the day are still foremost in your mind. Similarly, a quick note or email home to the parents the day the event happened can go a long way to fostering positive relationships. Researcher Sarah Graham-Clay (2005) found that written communication is one of a teacher’s biggest assets for fostering effective communications with parents. When a teacher takes time out of their busy schedule to make sure that the parent is hearing nothing but a positive, it brings everyone closer together and helps ease the fear and judgment in parent-teacher communication.

Praise can also extend to other forms of communication. I send out “homework” each week in efforts to encourage parent-child bonding time and to keep parents informed of what their child is working on in class. In each assignment I give, I try to incorporate at least one strength of the child. “Sarah has made such progress in learning how to spell her name, especially when she can sing it, and is very excited about her new skill. I’ve noticed that she picks up concepts faster when music is involved. So, this week I want you to practice...” By combining a specific praise with her homework, I’m able to address a concern while focusing on the strength the child already possesses to build it up. However, this type of praise can also be given in direct conversation with parents.

Ultimately, praise should never be routine. Teachers should try to vary the type of praise and the way it is delivered. I try to give at least one positive comment for each student in a face-to-face encounter with parents once a week and send home the homework assignment with a strength of the student, so that each parent receives at least two positive and specific praises about their student each week. Additionally, I also like to email parents whenever anything extra special happens in the classroom regarding their children. These emails do not happen daily, or even weekly, so when they do occur, it makes the praise that much more valuable.

Many teachers follow the OREO method (to be discussed next month) of parent-teacher communication, wherein they give a praise, state a concern, and end with a praise. Other teachers choose to discuss problems in isolation to highlight the importance of the problem. However, the key to successful parent-teacher interactions is first and foremost a positive foundation. Regular positive praise about the student, in a way that is sincere and specific, convinces a parent that you truly care about the child and builds a trusting relationship.


Graham-Clay, Susan. (2005). Communicating with Parents: Strategies for Teachers. School Community Journal, 16(1), 117-129.

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