How to handle a disappointing parents' evening

Parent-teacher meeting problems
No one likes to hear bad news at a parent-teacher meeting, but knowing how to respond could help your child turn the issue around. By Lucy Dimbylow.

Going to parents’ evening is a bit like having an ultrasound scan in pregnancy: exciting but nerve-wracking, too. It’s always a pleasure to be told your child is doing well, but finding out that there’s a problem is a real blow, especially if the news was unexpected. So how should you respond if the feedback is less than positive?

Parents’ evening protocol

While it’s lovely to soak up compliments about your child’s progress and behaviour, you should actively expect to be told about the areas that they need to work on too. ‘Parents’ evenings are a pointless exercise if your child’s teacher doesn’t discuss the full picture,’ says teacher and tutor Kate Morris. Matters such as low-level disruptive behaviour or slight concerns over progress are often raised for the first time at parents’ evening, so don’t take comments such as, ‘He needs to work on his concentration,’ as a criticism; rather, that the teacher has identified an area for improvement.

However, it’s reasonable to expect that you won’t be told of a serious issue out of the blue at a parent-teacher meeting. ‘These issues should not be left until parents’ evening, but raised after school, or even in a pre-arranged meeting, at the time they arise,’ says Sharon, teacher and founder of Panda Education

Responding to negative feedback

It’s bound to be upsetting to hear anything negative about your child, as Claire White, mum to Ellie, 11, knows. ‘We were used to fairly positive parents’ evenings, so were really shocked when the teacher told us that Ellie was at the centre of some major friendship issues,’ says Claire. ‘We just sat there open-mouthed, and didn’t think to ask any questions.’

While you may be reeling, try not to take negative comments personally. ‘You should never feel like you’re being told off, or that the teacher thinks it’s your fault,’ Sharon says. ‘This is your opportunity to put forward your views, and work out a plan with the teacher for moving on.’

Listen impartially to what the teacher is saying: don’t automatically assume the worst of your child, or jump too quickly to defend them. Use the chance to build a fuller picture of the problem. You might want to ask questions such as:

  • How long has the problem been going on for?
  • Is it affecting other children in the class?
  • What has the teacher tried so far to help resolve the problem?
  • What can the teacher suggest to help your child overcome the issue going forwards?
  • What can you do at home to help?
  • How can you be kept informed about your child’s progress?

If you’re too stunned to respond properly at the time, it’s best to go away and digest what has been said. You can then request a follow-up appointment with the teacher to continue the discussion. ‘This also applies if you’re not satisfied that you’ve tackled the issue within the parents’ evening time slot,’ adds Sharon.

Talking to your child

‘The relationship between parents, teacher and child is a three-way process, so it’s important to discuss the issues raised at parents’ evening with your child,’ explains Kate. But if your emotions are running high, put the conversation on ice until you’ve had time to reflect. ‘The mother of one of the other girls who was implicated in the friendship issues threatened to pull her out of the school, which was very upsetting for all of the children,’ says Claire.

Try to keep conversations with your child positive: mention the great things the teacher said about them, as well as the areas for improvement. ‘A plan should have been made for going forward, and maybe targets given, so make sure your child knows that you’re all working towards the same goal,’ says Sharon. If your child is upset, they will need reassurance that everyone wants the best for them.

You might want to discuss the problem with your child and come up with strategies for tackling it at home: for example, if handwriting is an issue, doing five minutes of practice each evening. If the problem is behavioural, rewards or incentives may work. 'When my son was having concentration issues, we arranged that the teacher would give me a thumbs-up or thumbs-down signal in the playground at the end of the day,' says Georgie Kelly, mum to Sam, Year 2. 'For every five days of thumbs-up, we bought him a Lego figure.'

Don’t punish your child for what has been said at parents’ evening: ‘There are occasions when they need to know that you’re disappointed and their behaviour is not acceptable, but if an issue has been dealt with at school, you don’t need to repeat the punishment at home,’ Sharon explains.

Making a plan

Your child’s teacher should never raise an issue without suggesting how it can be tackled. There are various ways in which this might happen, such as by using a home-school book to keep each other up to date; giving extra work or support to help your child catch up; arranging further meetings with your child’s teacher to keep track of their progress or using a reward scheme to encourage change. 

‘I was very worried when I was told that my daughter was having problems with her spelling and handwriting, especially as it had never been mentioned before,’ says Anna Jeffries, mum to Lily, Year 3. ‘But the school was proactive and gave her some intervention work, and we’ve already seen some improvement.’

In some cases, you or your child’s teacher might suspect a special educational need or disability (SEND). ‘If this is the case, you should feel free to discuss this,’ says Sharon. ‘The special educational needs coordinator (SENCO) can begin assessing your child and meet with you to discuss any findings.’ 

When it’s a teaching issue

Sometimes, you might feel that your child’s issues are the result of poor teaching, or a personality clash between child and teacher. ‘This is a very sensitive issue, but it can happen,’ admits Sharon. ‘The best policy is to raise the matter with the head teacher or governors. Although the head will want to protect their staff, they should be committed to resolving issues.’