Open Discussion Forum

Topic: Family Conferences: What works, and how many each year?

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1.  Family Conferences: What works, and how many each year?

Posted 06-26-2017 05:41 PM
Our early childhood program, now in its eleventh year of operation, has always had three parent/guardian-teacher conferences each year. Knowing the value and importance of developing strong partnerships with families, we've always felt that offering three regularly-scheduled opportunities to sit down with teachers each year was preferable than the standard amount (two per year, at least locally). We use a narrative approach to documentation and assessment and create learning portfolios for each child, and this documentation forms the basis of our conversations for conferences (as well discussion based on parents' questions and concerns, of course).

As our program has become more diverse, particularly in serving working families whose children are enrolled for full-day schedules, we've seen our conference attendance decline steadily over the past two years. For example, in one of our older preschool classrooms, less than 50% of families have signed up for summer conferences next week (which is what prompted me to write this query). We offer conferences at a wide variety of times and days over one and two-week periods, provide childcare during conferences, and more -- so I don't think the declining attendance is based on those sorts of logistical considerations.

The declining attendance has been disappointing to some teachers, who are now questioning the practice of holding them three times each year. As an administrator, I feel like we're at a strange crossroads where we are considering intentionally reducing a best practice. Does this make sense? What are your thoughts and experiences?

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Stephen Karmol
Portland OR
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2.  RE: Family Conferences: What works, and how many each year?

Posted 06-27-2017 04:06 AM
Stephen, what a very thoughtful and interesting description of your teacher/family conferences. I wonder if it might be worthwhile to talk with some of the families who are coming to the conference to find out what motivates them to take the time to come to the conference and to ask them for suggestions how to increase the number of family members who decide to come to the conference. I might also try to talk with two or three of the family members who are not able to come to the conference to find out what is preventing them from participating in the conference. Finally, I suggest considering sending an online survey to families to find out their reasons for not signing up for a conference and suggestions they might have to increase the percentage of families participating in the conference. It might be the communications between the teachers and families is strong and given the demands of family members, they might feel they are informed about their child's growth and development and do not need to come for a conference, at this time.

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Robert Gundling, Ed.D.
President
Sense of Wonder, LLC
Alexandria VA
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3.  RE: Family Conferences: What works, and how many each year?

Posted 06-27-2017 10:00 AM
Stephen, I think your declining attendance may be related more to the change in young parents than the practice of having regular conferences.  Today's young parents prefer different communication methods than the traditional formal parent teacher conference.  In particular, this digital generation prefers using technology for communication, such as email, texting, and electronic portfolios.  They also prefer ongoing communication that doesn't require a scheduled appointment.  There's some emerging research that these methods can be equally effective in engaging all young parents, including those who are low income and may not have internet access, but have a smart phone (see this study done with Head Start parents:  Mobile Technology and Family Engagement: Texting Intervention Increases Head Start Parents' Engagement in Parent‒Child Activities). While texting doesn't allow indepth conversations, it can be a way to have regular conversations with parents to get their questions answered immediately.  Another option to have more indepth conversations via technology are electronic portfolios.  The teachers in our area really like the electronic Seesaw portfolio that parents can view on their phone, tablet, or computer (Seesaw - Student Driven Digital Portoflios).  It is interactive where teacher and families can regularly communicate about their child's progress and the child can also be a part of the conversation.  If the teachers wanted to have a real time conversation with families, they could potentially schedule a phone conference where everyone is looking at the electronic portfolio and discussing its contents.  I wouldn't suggest completely doing away with formal conferences, but I would encourage your teachers to think about other methods to engage families that will give you the same results - an opportunity to share their child's ongoing development, make suggestions for home activities, get their questions answered, and build trusting relationships.

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Julie Ray
Professor and Dept.Chair
Southeast MO State University
Cape Girardeau, MO
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4.  RE: Family Conferences: What works, and how many each year?

Posted 06-27-2017 11:19 AM
We have had consistent numbers of conferences and find that we have to be very flexible in meeting times for parents. We have some that we do over the phone, but we also let parents know that this is an expectation upon enrollment, and through newsletter, and reinforce how important this is. We have been hesitant about using texting apps in the classrooms. Are programs using a program and not personal phone for this purpose? I am eager to learn more about this through sharing.
Thank you for sharing.

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Ann Rappelt
Learning Bridge Early Education Center
Evanston IL
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5.  RE: Family Conferences: What works, and how many each year?

Posted 06-28-2017 07:51 AM
I teach in a lab school and we have two scheduled conferences a year (one for each semester). My complaint about this schedule is we are only allowed a short time with families. Over the years I have discovered ways to make my partnership with families more meaningful. I do home visits about 6 weeks into the programming year. I also host family gatherings -- local museum, concerts, and seasonal activities. This gives me opportunities to communicate more informally but pass on important information.
My school does not offer bus pick up or drop off service, so I see parents daily and have an opportunity to conference/plan with them when needed.

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Phillip Baumgarner
Hull GA
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6.  RE: Family Conferences: What works, and how many each year?

Posted 06-28-2017 10:37 AM
Phillip, home visits are a great idea!  They are basically a parent/teacher conference, but done in the convenience of the family's home instead of a center or school.  I think we often operate in a "school-centric" manner in thinking that families have to come to school for everything.  A family friendly parent/teacher conference could happen in the home or a neutral community location like a community center, library, or even McDonald's.  Another option is a work place conference if you have a lot of parents employed at the same place.  For example, we have a large plant in our community where several parents work.  Making arrangements with the plant manager to do conferences in a private break room during the day or after work can be a convenience to busy families, while also being an employee benefit provided by the plant.  Not all parents would want that, but it's a way to reach some of them.  The basic idea is that communication is not a "one size fits all" approach, and programs/schools have to be flexible in how they communicate with families, if meaningful communication is going to occur.

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Julie Ray
Professor and Dept.Chair
Southeast MO State University
Cape Girardeau, MO
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7.  RE: Family Conferences: What works, and how many each year?

Posted 06-28-2017 11:24 AM
This is a fantastic idea! I struggled with attendance last year, too; when parents did show up, we had limited space to meet. Next year, I'll find ways for parents to participate online or offer them an alternative meeting place.

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Amy Latta
Mebane NC
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8.  RE: Family Conferences: What works, and how many each year?

Posted 06-28-2017 10:29 AM
Yes, there are programs like Remind where you don't have to use a personal phone # for texting. https://www.remind.com/

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Julie Ray
Professor and Dept.Chair
Southeast MO State University
Cape Girardeau, MO
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9.  RE: Family Conferences: What works, and how many each year?

Posted 06-30-2017 08:26 AM
Appreciating all of the different ideas about engaging with families, and family conferences. Julie, really appreciated your comments regarding considering communication preferences for today's families- what works.  In Maine this year, have been collaborating with a few preschool/K teachers exploring SeeSaw to not only inform families about learning activities in the classroom (parents have been very happy to see regularly, through photos and videos, what their child/the group is doing, which provides them with new opportunities for discussion at home) but also considering what types of messages/invitations might inspire learning activities at home and new ways for families to become engaged. We have heard from families they are not really interested in reading print/newsletters so am interested in hearing from others using print alternatives to communicate/partner with families- digital portfolio systems like Seesaw, Remind,- what have you found that is working well?

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Bonnie Blagojevic
Morningtown Consulting
Orono ME
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10.  RE: Family Conferences: What works, and how many each year?

Posted 07-01-2017 10:14 AM
Bonnie, I talked with some parents who liked Class Dojo because they could get regular updates on their child during the day on their phones.  However, I think teachers were using it pretty narrowly for behavioral reports.  It does allow parents and teachers to communicate back and forth and is not just a one-way communication method.  The Class Dojo website claims that it is also good for parent-to-parent communication, but I haven't heard any examples of that happening with the parents in our area.  Another claim is that all of the information can be easily translated into other languages, which I think is a key feature and advantage of electronic communication methods. One dad made the comment that he liked getting information on his phone, as long as the teacher regularly used the app.  He was not happy with one teacher who had all the parents load an app on their phones and then rarely used it.  It used a lot of his phone's memory, but he was afraid to delete it in case he would miss some important communication.  So one recommendation would be to choose apps/programs wisely and regularly use them, as opposed to having parents sign up for a lot of different communication platforms and not use them.

Closed Facebook groups are also popular in our area and can be a good way to build community among families.

For an alternative to print newsletters that get ignored or thrown away, some schools are using Peachjar, which is a digital flyer system that can be delivered via email or on a school/program's website.

I would also be interested in hearing success stories about alternative communication methods with families!

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Julie Ray
Professor and Dept.Chair
Southeast MO State University
Cape Girardeau, MO
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11.  RE: Family Conferences: What works, and how many each year?

Posted 07-07-2017 07:32 AM
Really enjoying the comments regarding digital communication systems- thanks, and hope others will join in,  As several in the group have mentioned, it is important to look at features different systems offer when deciding what to use: can you share photos, video, is there a digital portfolio option/ways to organize children's work, translation support, how can families receive, and reply to messages? Text only, send audio recording, can work created by children at home be mailed back, families communicate with other families/become a community of learners-connect with others directly, cost, etc. Do some families need support to get set up initially using the system? As an info lover, and because I am very interested in this topic, started a Symbaloo link collection (see link below) - each tile links to the various systems people have mentioned using, and can continue to add to it. Thinking if people want to compare systems/features, perhaps this will make it easier to do so.  Thanks for the stories of what your program is using to communicate with families and considerations- find it all so interesting!

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Bonnie Blagojevic
Morningtown Consulting
Orono ME
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12.  RE: Family Conferences: What works, and how many each year?

Posted 07-02-2017 05:56 PM
I teach in a preschool for 3 and 4 year olds.  We use Kaymbu to share photos with parents.  I love that I can take the photo or video within the app and don't have to move the photo into the program later.  Kaymbu offers customized tags which I have done as learning domains.  So when I take a photo, I can tag it with the children's names and the various learning domains that are applicable to the photo.  It automatically sends all the photos tagged with a child's name to the family on Friday night at 7 p.m.  Families tell me they look forward to receiving the photos and using them to talk about the activities the child has engaged in during the week.

I can also make an online Storyboard using photos that I use for our newsletter.  Storyboards are also useful as a Documentation Board that is emailed to the parents rather than posted in a hallway where nobody has time to stand and read it.

Kaymbu also offers an app called OneNote that offers daily communications to parents on meals, potty, nap, etc.

I do not work for Kaymbu, but wanted to share how we use it.

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Julie Bedard
Collinsville IL
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13.  RE: Family Conferences: What works, and how many each year?

Posted 06-29-2017 02:59 PM
Hi Stephen,

What a thorough post! This was just a current discussion in my center as well. We use teaching strategies gold for our curriculum and it has several tools tailored toward family conferences including digital portfolios, family online participation/contribution, checkpoints, family conference, and a very useful tool individual child planning reports. It is very expensive but after using the paper method (cheaper) and now the digital method, it is more convenient and easier to use as everything is linked (including lesson plans) so it is easier to express information to families. There will be an upgrade soon and the name will change to My Teaching Strategies.

Also, after working across multiple age groups, I find families with children under 4 are least likely to attend conferences. Families with children who are 4 and older and preparing for kindergarten or another major transition are more likely to attend. In the case of families with younger children, I would always note something positive at the end of the day that is either new or something the child is consistently doing, and even try to show pictures and/or videos of the child engaged in that activity or skill. I found this to be very useful and had very high conference attendance for my infant/toddler families.

I hope this helps.

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Jelena Shaw Moore
APO AE
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14.  RE: Family Conferences: What works, and how many each year?

Posted 07-04-2017 03:36 AM
Hi!
Thanks for sharing your experiences with Teaching Strategies. I use the printed Assessment tool TS Gold but I am curious about the price for the on-line version.

Thanks,

Patricia Perez

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Patricia Perez
Little Stars Family Childcare Inc.
Eugene OR
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15.  RE: Family Conferences: What works, and how many each year?

Posted 06-30-2017 07:46 AM
Interesting dilemma. With the increased and vital emphasis on family partnerships connected to Quality Rating and Improvement Systems, Strengthening Families and all the other agencies and policies that are designed to accentuate the bond between educators, families and delivery systems: the conferences are very important. It is a struggle we all face having conferences and parent meetings in general. We have found that attaching food that promotes cultural diversity and awareness usually gets us a pretty large response for a least one of our parent meetings. The conferences are little more difficult given the schedules of our working parents and the ever increasing stresses they face for time as well as emotional and financial stability. Not to mention the added pressure within certain communities we serve from outside forces and policies around immigration. The best we seem to be able to do is create monthly time blocks bi-annually and hope for the best. We recently started a program called Tech Goes Home. It gives parents IPads loaded with educational apps. There is a requirement to commit to 15 hours of training and $50 in order to receive the IPad. Once the parents go through the program they seem to make the meetings more frequently.

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Clarence Little
Grove Hall Child Development Center
Mattapan MA
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16.  RE: Family Conferences: What works, and how many each year?

Posted 06-30-2017 01:12 PM
Thank you, everyone, for sharing your thoughts and suggestions to my post. Much appreciated.

Earlier this week we sent out our our annual family program survey, with about 25% of families responding so far (our typical response rate is about 50% each year, after more time has passed). Overall, the feedback so far reflects the lower attendance -- families feel that there are too many conferences each year.

The reasons they are typically sharing are positive, however, and speak to the underlying question: what are conferences for?

In the main, conferences are an opportunity for families to connect to their child's life at school, including their learning, growth, and development, their teachers and the program as a whole.

The good news is that families already feel connected to their child's education due to all of our other approaches supporting family communication: centrally, robust documentation practices and consistent face-to-face check-ins and conversations each day.

On the digital front, in terms of reaching younger families who might prefer alternative ways to connect, I checked out SeeSaw and some other digital portfolio platforms. We've been using Tumblr to share our documentation for years, but one piece of consistent feedback in the family surveys so far is that families don't necessarily feel connected to other families. This has got me thinking about digital spaces that are more interactive than blogs, such as a closed Facebook group where photos and documentation can be shared and families can connect socially to arrange care outside of school, schedule play dates, and more. The only issue I see with a shift in that direction is that it requires you to have a Facebook account (which people may not want to do), whereas anyone with internet access can check out a blog like Tumblr.

Hmm....

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Stephen Karmol
Portland OR
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17.  RE: Family Conferences: What works, and how many each year?

Posted 07-08-2017 02:10 PM
Trying to meet program needs of building relationships and sharing important developmental as well as social and emotional growth and or needs of children is always a challenge with some families.  As much as I think I am aware of all the various reasons why there are challenges I was struck by a comment and question by a co worker.....she could not understand why her daughter's tutor keeps "encouraging" her to sit in on some sessions.  The mother commented "doesn't she understand I am a single mother and the time my daughter is with her there are so many other things I can get done.  This particular mother is a major multitasker.  Has anyone ever considered doing a conference via a web meeting?

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Patty Graff
PSU / BKC Westmoreland Co
Greensburg PA
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