A successful parent teacher conference with newcomer families

little girl on a swing

Does the thought of parent teacher conference season leave you feeling anxious?

When your student families are refugees or immigrants, the risk of miscommunication at a parent teacher conference is even higher than normal.

A parent teacher conference is a wonderful opportunity to connect home and school, keep parents informed about progress – both academic and social – and for developing cooperative strategies that can benefit every student. Here are some more specific ways that you can create a comfortable atmosphere specifically for your refugee and immigrant families.

Before the parent teacher conference

  • Connect with each parent to confirm the day, time, and place of the conference. Translate the letter or use an interpreter if possible.
  • Inform parents ahead of time about the purpose of the conference – many refugee and immigrant families will be unfamiliar with parent teacher conferences, and you may need assure them that you’re meeting with EVERY family, not just theirs.
  • If necessary, make arrangements for an interpreter.
  • Clarify ahead of time who will be attending each conference. Is it the child’s biological parents, a relative, a guardian, a grandparent?
  • Invite parents to bring a list of questions, issues, or concerns. Have sample textbooks readily available. Establish a waiting area outside your classroom. For reasons of confidentiality, you only want to meet with one set of parents at a time.

During the parent teacher conference

  • Greet parents warmly with a smile. Keep in mind that cultures have a variety of greeting rituals. Be aware that in many cultures unfamiliar men and women do not touch each other. So, if you’re a female teacher, don’t be offended if a Muslim father does not shake your hand. He is just showing his respect.  You may want to ask the family about their greeting ritual – it really is a great way to break the ice and to allow the family to bring their authentic selves into the meeting.
  • Consider your seating arrangements. You may want to ask refugee and immigrant parents where they wish to sit during the conversation. Keep in mind that some cultures value formality in their educators, while some appreciate a more conversational atmosphere. Some cultures will show their respect by NOT looking you in the eyes; some will be more effusive. Be aware that some cultures/religions will be more sensitive to gender roles: for example, if you’re a male teacher, meeting with a Muslim mother she may feel more comfortable with a female aide or friend sitting in during the conference.
  • When speaking to refugee and immigrant parents who have sensitive or traumatic histories, you may want to spend the majority of your initial conference reassuring them about their child’s successes and getting to know more about their current needs. Traumatized families will tend to focus on negatives, and criticism of the student’s work or behavior may become an outsized issue at home. At least in the first few meetings, criticism may not be constructive.
  • Use “active listening” skills. If a parent says something about the child, try to use some of the parent’s words in your response. For non-native English speakers, you may need to gather more information about how they are using a term, but you can continue using that term to increase their comprehension of your feedback.
  • Ask for parent input or feedback. Be aware that in many places, families do not expect teachers to address non-academic issues. Families may be surprised with certain discussions that are common in American schools about welfare, home situation, etc. and will most likely not bring up those issues themselves.
  • Refrain from giving parents commands. It is far better to “invite” parents to become part of the solution than “tell” them what they should or should not do. Some refugee and immigrant families will be timid to become involved in their child’s schoolwork, while others will be actively involved.
  • Summarize some of the major points, and clarify any action that will be taken. Most important, always end a parent teacher conference on a positive note! Escort them to the door rather than just dismissing them.

After the parent teacher conference

  • Save a few minutes after each parent teacher conference to make notes. Don’t take notes during the conference – it tends to inhibit many parents and makes conversation difficult. Record your observations, perceptions, and suggestions.
  • Plan for some “decompression time” between conferences. You may need time to gather your thoughts, regroup, and get ready for the next conference.
  • Be sure to follow up with every parent, including those who didn’t attend. Immediate feedback is necessary to ensure parent cooperation and participation in any shared solutions.

Remember, most parents are just as nervous as you are. Your primary goal should be to help make them feel comfortable. These steps should help you foster more open and positive relationships with your newcomer families.

Adapted from and with thanks to

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Resources for teachers and supporters

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Opinions expressed and advice given in USAHello’s Voices and Hello blogs are the writers’ own. USAHello offers impartial information and online courses to help newcomers in the USA.