Children, youth, and families often await the first reporting cycle with a mixture of excitement and apprehension. While they may have kept in touch with the school, supervised homework, or reviewed work sent home periodically, there is still a wonder about how it will all translate into a formal grade and a comment on a report card. Also in question is often what it will look and sound like when families sit face-to-face to discuss the academic progress of their child as well as their social-emotional well-being on the landscape of school.
A Note to School
I smiled as I read my child’s progress report this year. The comments indicated to me that not only do you know my child, but you value who he is as a learner as well. I appreciated the balance of successes and struggles, and that you took the time to document areas where he demonstrates leadership as well as those that require growth.
I look forward to meeting with you to further discuss his academic progress as well as his social-emotional well-being on the landscape of school.
A relieved parent
Families need clear, meaningful and understandable information about how their child is doing at school. The fundamental purposes of assessment and evaluation include fairness, transparency, and equity. Assessment and evaluation practices should be clearly explained to students and families at the beginning of the year and throughout the year, accompanied by feedback that is clear, meaningful, and timely. The ultimate goal is for students to become independent learners (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2011). Ongoing research demonstrates that this is best accomplished when families and schools work together to identify strengths, struggles, and set reasonable and attainable goals.
- How do you communicate student progress through the school year?
- How do you discuss assessment and evaluation with families? How are these practices explained to families?
- What is the format of your conferences?
- How do you invite and value family and child/youth knowledge?
Strategies such as the following begin to respond to the above questions and welcome families on to the school landscape as equal partners in the education of their children.
Establish a welcoming environment as families enter the school. Display the best of what students are doing each day – set up work displays that lead families through the school and tell the story of what happens each day. Offer light refreshments, partner up with a book fair, or set up slideshows/computers with class websites/blogs for viewing by waiting families. Arrange childcare and transportation as necessary to facilitate family participation.
Reconceptualize your parent-teacher interviews as conferences. The word conference is more open and implies that a conversation is going to take place as opposed to an interview. Conferences, like conversations, are marked by an equitable balance of give and take, and meaningful discussion about the child’s/youth’s strengths, struggles, hopes, dreams, and goals.
Let families communicate their knowledge with you first. When announcements for conferences are sent, let families know that you will be inviting them to share their observations of their child. Encourage them to bring examples of learning from home so that both families and teachers can see the transfer taking place between the two learning environments. Offer questions or conversation starters when necessary: What does your child like to do at home? What do they like about school?
Communicate your knowledge of the child with families. Every family wants to know that you know their child and can see the very best in them. Tell them what you have noticed about the child, the stories they like to tell, their interests, likes, and dislikes.
Keep it positive. There are lots of different ways to phrase an observation or make a comment. Ensure that what is said is positive and in the spirit of growth. Use a Praise-Question-Polish (PQP) that begins with legitimate and heartfelt praise of what the child/youth can do well. In the middle, raise the questions that you might have regarding progress or questions the family might have. End with ways that the family and school can support the child as they polish or pursue goals. Give concrete examples of what the child/youth needs to know and do; explain how you intend to follow through at school.
Be clear, concise, and consistent. Avoid the trap of educational jargon. Explain the difference between assessment and evaluation and keep families informed of the expectations you expect to cover in any given term. This is where a class newsletter is indispensable. At the beginning of each instructional cycle, teaching teams can send out a list of the expectations and themes they expect to cover in a given period. Ensure that report card comments are understandable by families and consistent.
Make contact as early as possible when struggles have been identified. Do not wait until report card time or when struggles, difficulties, or conflicts have reached a tipping point to communicate. Waiting too long can create new problems, often raising the frustration levels of those involved. If you have been communicating on an ongoing basis, and have checked in with families early and often, there should be no surprises, especially if the child is struggling in any way.
Be prepared for surprises. It’s not unusual for families to take the opportunity of conferences to share information that they feel may impact a child’s or youth’s academic progress or well-being. This may include personal information or reflections on years passed (either their child’s or their own). In such instances, try to keep the conversation positive, listen and be empathetic, schedule more time if necessary, refer to other supports, and above all else, focus on the child.
Keep the focus on the child. When discussing progress, growth, achievement, behavior, keep the focus on the child. Talk about this child’s strengths and struggles; avoid drawing comparisons to other students. Use exemplars to compare a child against a Ministry standard. Better yet, use a portfolio to demonstrate the child’s growth from one point in time to the next.
Address one or two concerns only. Listing or outlining too many concerns may leave families and children/youth feeling discouraged. It is best to focus on those things that require attention immediate , the barriers between struggle and success. Engage families (and children/youth) in an exploration of what they need to support these goals.
Encourage families to discuss progress reports with their children. Advise them to focus on the positive, ask the right questions, and establish goals and next steps. Talking to Your Child about Report Cards outlines solid guidelines that facilitate this type of communication from Kindergarten through to Grade 12.
Involve students in ongoing assessment and evaluation. Invite students to write their own progress report – you’d be surprised at how accurate they are at evaluating their strengths and struggles. As well, involve students in the conference – hold three-way conferences that give children/youth a legitimate voice at the table.
We have just touched the tip of the iceberg. What other exemplary strategies are used in your school community to facilitate reporting and conferencing with families?