03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Parent-Teacher Conferences, a Time to Celebrate Strengths

It's parent-teacher conference time and you arranged your schedule three weeks in advance to attend. If you are like most parents, you feel a certain amount of anxiety around this event. You attend hoping there won't be any surprises and that you won't discover that your child is experiencing any difficulties. Unfortunately, most parent-teacher conferences focus on grades rather than children, with the primary goal of addressing a child's area of weakness. Few parents go to conferences with the main goal of discovering where and how their children excel. I know, I was a teacher for ten years and the parents of the students who were getting A's in my class rarely attended conferences, or if they came, they usually breezed by my table, winked and whispered, "Keep up the good work."

Parent-teacher conferences become an occasion to look forward to when they are viewed as prime opportunities to talk with teachers about your child's strengths. What exactly are strengths? Strength are the activities that energize and excite your child when he is doing them. This is as opposed to his weaknesses, the activities that leave him feeling depleted. There are three kinds of strengths: Activity Strengths (the things you do that energize you), Relationship Strength (the things you do with and for others that make you feel energized and proud) and Learning Strengths (the ways that learning makes the most sense to you). All of these strengths are discoverable and your child can develop them to find success.

The conversation about changing our minds, our schools, and our nation to a paradigm that focuses on strengths begins with parents and teachers. Parents, teachers, and students can begin to form a strength alliance between the home and the school. If you are a parent you can initiate strengths rather than deficits discussions with your child's teachers. Likewise, if you are a teacher and look for strengths in your students, waste no time in sharing them with your students' parents. Here is an exercise to help advance the strength alliance:

  • Draft a one-page letter to your child's teacher if you are a parent, to a child's parent if you are a teacher, or to both your teacher and your parent if you are a student. In the letter, describe the Learning Strengths of the child in question in as much detail as you can. Include how he or she likes to learn, what things he enjoys doing most, what type of environment works best for him, and what he finds difficult. Share this letter with the person for whom you wrote it. If you are a parent, bring the letter to parent-teacher conferences.
For too long, we have focused on weaknesses at school. We believe that children will get ahead when we spent most time on the areas where they are most challenged. The problem with this notion is that it is a one-sided or half-baked approach to education. In the long run, children don't make their biggest contribution in their areas of weakness. Children overcome weakness, but they rarely excel in them or end up building their lives work around activities that make them feel depleted.

By looking at a child's strengths we are not failing to consider his challenges, we are merely balancing the equation that has been out of proportion for too long. So go to conferences and find the strengths. Even if your child is doing well, grades are not necessarily indicators of where your child's true passions lie.