TCHERS' VOICE / Assessment

A Step-by-Step Plan for Student-Led Conferences at the Elementary Level

Center for Teaching Quality

Confession: I look forward to parent conferences. I value the opportunity to connect with families face-to-face. But discussing report cards? Ugh. After 16 years of traditional parent conferences, I decided to make a good thing even better.

Student-led conferences intrigued me. The basic concept: students lead the conferences about their academic progress. They take ownership of their learning experience, sitting at the table with parents and teachers. Older students generally share their body of work through portfolios and work samples.

But how could it look for primary students? Nine years into implementing student-led conferences with primary students, I've found this is the key: have students demonstrate what they can do.

What Happens at a Student-Led Conference

Parents come into the classroom with their children. Together, families visit four learning stations set up around the classroom. I schedule two conferences every half-hour period. Families move from station to station as they complete each task.

Each station is designed to take about five minutes. Parents can read the instructions and interact with their children, but should observe and not participate in the activities. I circulate around the stations, answering questions and providing feedback on student progress.

students leading a conference

The Benefits of Student-Led Conferences

  • Students actually show parents what they know and are learning in school.
  • Parents are exposed to materials and activities that students engaged in during the school day.
  • Teachers can observe interactions, comment, offer suggestions, and model strategies.
  • Students, parents, and the teacher are all active participants in the conference.

Where to Start

1) Decide on areas to highlight. (I usually choose reading, writing, math and science.)

2) Consider what students should know and be able to do in those areas at this time of year. What is most important? (Keep in mind that less is more; you cannot address everything in 20 minutes.)

3) Identify simple activities to demonstrate students' understanding of specific standards.

4) Figure out how to organize and set up the activities.

What It Can Look Like

My conference stations typically involve large display boards and tubs, but I have colleagues who use large plastic Ziploc bags or who just place materials on students' desks. Whatever you use, make sure it is simple to take out and put away. Instructions should be easy to follow.

Example One: Science

elementary student science project

Example Two: Reading

elementary student reading project

Example Three: Math 

elementary student math project

Example Four: Writing

elementary student writing project

Helpful Tips for Organizing Student-Led Conferences

  • Keep it simple. One- to three-step directions work best. You want for your students to be able to show what they know—not to leave parents trying to figure what they are supposed to do.
  • Limit handouts. I once provided rubrics, standards, and lots of home activities at each station—but most parents didn't take them. A sheet for jotting down notes is all that parents really need. You can post additional handouts online or provide them per request.
  • Provide translations. Provide pathways for non-English-speaking parents to participate. I try to schedule Spanish-speaking parents at the same time, so that I can make sure there is someone to translate for them. If there is no translator available, I make sure directions are translated ahead of time.
  • Together is better. Find a buddy! I once asked two colleagues to join me in trying out student-led conferences and we split the amount of work, each taking on a subject and creating stations for the others. My kindergarten colleagues are now doing student-led conferences, so when students and parents come to me in first grade, they already know what to expect!
  • Practice with students. This is the best way to try out your stations.  Introduce each task so that students know what to expect when they arrive.

Yes, this is more work than sitting down with each set of parents, but trust me, it's worth the effort. Students feel ownership of their learning and look forward to showing their parents what they know.

Parents get a much better sense of what is happening at school and how to continue that at home.

Anyone else out there doing student-led conferences with students in the primary grades? Please share your experiences.

Center for Teaching Quality is writing a series of blogs in partnership with Teaching Channel. CTQ is transforming the teaching profession through the bold ideas and expert practices of teacher leaders.

Jane Fung is a National Board Certified Teacher in urban Los Angeles, where she currently teaches 1st grade. She serves on the board of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, and she is an active member of Accomplished California Teachers, Milken Educator Network, and the Center for Teaching Quality's Collaboratory. Jane has a master's degree in curriculum and instruction and 25 years of teaching experience.

Dear Jane, What a wonderful way to look at conferences!!! and I'm betting parents felt like they learned more than they normally do. I'll admit back to you...I love conferences too!
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Thanks Marsha! It's always so interesting to see how parents and students work through each center. It really gives me a chance to observe and demonstrate strategies they can use. It's one thing to tell a parent your child is succeeding or struggling, it's a whole different ball game when the child is there and can show parents what they can and are struggling to do. It's never boring! The kids really like it too!
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I was introduced to student-led conferences by Jane Fung and have been doing them in kindergarten for three years. They are a very useful tool for the parents. The parents give us positive feedback because they get to see their child's strengths and weaknesses. They also know what particular area they can help their child in. The child truly enjoys this process because they get to show their parents what they are learning. I highly recommend giving them a try. It is a learning experience for all.
Recommended (1)
I love this idea! I have done something similar for Open House-the students take their parents on a tour of the class and show them some of the work they do on a daily basis, but I love this idea even more. I think this is even more specific and clearly shows the parents what their child can do, almost do, and what they struggle with. This is so much clearer than saying "your child is working below grade level." This gives them a visual and clear ideas of how to support their child at home. I agree that providing lots of handouts for the parents may not be the most effective way to share strategies with them, but I love that on the science station, you included the home connection ideas. Parents can take notes, take a picture, or just make a mental note on what follow up activities they can do. What feedback have you received from the parents?
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Erin, I think what sold me on this concept was an experience I once had teaching kindergarten. After receiving an upsetting report card (below grade level), a parent asked for a conference. I created center activities like these for Open House and when the parent was done, I asked if he would like to schedule the appointment. He said, "No, I know what she needs now." Most of the parents appreciate the process and understand the importance of it, but you also have some who go through it just because it's expected. I think the most important thing about student led conferencing for me is that parents gain a better understanding of... 1. What is expected for the grade level, 2. Where my child is at academically, 3. What can I do to help support his/her learning at home. I am there walking around holding informal and honest conversations with parents. It's more relaxed then me sitting across from them with some assessments/ student work and telling them this and that. I just had my first Student-Led Conference with my kindergarten son and it was great to confirm things I knew about his progress and some things surprised me too! FYI: I know teachers that do both fall and spring conferences student-led. As of now, I conduct the first conference more formally (teacher/parent) and then the second one is student-led. If there are issues that should be discussed away from the child (very rare), I schedule 1 to 1 time at a later date.
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