11/14/2013 02:43 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Parent-Teacher Conferences: Back-To-Basics in a Digital World

Stacy walked into her son's second grade parent-teacher conference at his elementary school full of questions relating to his academic performance. She was especially concerned about her son Sloan's problems with the school's newly-instituted online math program. She also wanted to know more about preparing him for the online testing the school system was instituting for all grade levels.

She was surprised when the conversation began with a discussion about her son's social skills.

"All of a sudden it hit me," said Stacy "I was overlooking this important piece of the school experience."

Stacy said that the first thing her son's teacher showed her was a self-assessment he'd done in class regarding various aspects of social interaction and skill. Although Sloan ranked himself "high" on making friends, he ranked himself "low" on working in groups and with peers.

"I definitely agreed with his assessment; he really doesn't like group projects. He likes to be in total control and he tends to argue or give-up when he has to share the lead role," confessed Stacy.

His teacher told her that team building was one of the themes for the next quarter, and that there are several group projects the children will be required to do. "She told me that this was just one of the social skills they work on with second graders."

For some parents, talking with their child's teacher about their expectations and learning about the teacher's priorities for their child can be an eye-opening experience. There are many components to the school day that include opportunities for social and emotional learning.

"Conferences are also a critical opportunity for parents and teachers to establish a relationship and partner to set goals for the year for their child's development and achievement," said Renee Jackson, Ed.D, senior manager of education programs for National PTA. "To be effective, parent teacher conferences must be a two-way conversation. Parents should go to a conference prepared with a list of questions to ask their child's teacher," said Dr. Jackson

When Stacy inquired about the online math homework assignments her son struggled with, the answer surprised her.

"His teacher wants the children to develop autonomy. The online system is supposed to give them clues and assist them without the need for parental intervention," said Stacy.

Stacy explained that Sloan loathed the computer math program, and it required her physical presence to get him to complete the assignments. He would get frustrated and cry or give up. His teacher reiterated that this was not the goal of the assignment, and that completion of the assignment was not necessary.

The teacher also explained, "The new curriculum's online components can be very frustrating for children -- especially in math. That's why we do not require that kids complete the assignments. We want them to try their best, and get as far as they can. We can help them better understand the "math" part at school. Learning to overcome their frustration, which is a big part of the learning process, happens over time -- and only when the parents refuse to get involved."

Stacy left with a very clear picture of what her goals were for her son this academic year. Interestingly, they were very different from the goals she went in with -- that were strictly academic. The new goals were broader; they were the very best goals for Sloan. In a digital age, she had lost sight of the big picture.