Most experts suggest telling the teacher about your child: Describe what they're like at home, what interests and excites them, and explain any issues at home that may be affecting your child at school.
"Often times we don't have any understanding of what happens when a child leaves school," says Amanda Wirene, a reading specialist at the Montessori School of Englewood in Chicago. "Often parents are our only way to know what's going on at home."
Be thorough, but do be aware of the time.
"You always get that one parent who wants to stay forever and tells you in great detail all about their child," says Colleen Holmes, assistant principal at Lincoln Elementary School in Erie, Pa. Share information, she says, and if you need to talk more, schedule another time.
Ask about what's happening in the classroom — both academically and socially.
"Parents have more access to student information than ever before," says Scot Graden, superintendent of Saline Area Schools in Saline, Mich. "Chances are, anything that's going to come up at parent-teacher conferences, the student will already know about it."
By talking to your child in advance, you can ask more specific questions about grades or behaviors, says Graden.
Don't be afraid to ask the teacher to clarify what assessment or grades actually mean.
"Teachers can sometimes use educational jargon that may seem alien to you," Karen Mira writes in The Asian Parent, a parenting magazine in Singapore. "Don't be shy to ask your child's teacher to explain what a certain educational word means."
If teachers bring up areas for improvement, don't get defensive, says Holmes, the elementary school assistant principal.
And don't let the meetings be a dumping ground for pent-up concerns or frustrations.
"We don't want parents to load up on things they've wanted to discuss and are looking to have a sort of 'gotcha' moment," says Graden.
The same holds true for teachers: Lindsay Rollin, a second-grade teacher at Teachers College Community School in New York, says conferences should never be the first time parents are hearing about problems their child is having.
"I am not dropping bombs on anybody," she says.
Before the meeting is over, you should be sure you're clear on the teacher's expectations for your child.
"It's important for everyone to understand what the goal is at the end of the year," says Graden, the school superintendent. "That way you all have a stake in that success."
Spin the conversation forward and ask what you can do to help.
Parent-teacher conferences are no longer a once-a-year check-in; they can provide useful insight for immediate and clear next steps.
"Conferences are now a progress report timed so parents can actually do something about what they learn from teachers," says Heather Bastow Weiss, founder and director of the Harvard Family Research Project.
To get the most out of the conversation, she says, both the teacher and the parent should know what comes next. Brainstorm with the teacher to come up with ways to solve challenges your child faces. Ask for concrete examples of things you can do at home to help.
"Go in looking for an opportunity to get involved with supporting your child," advises Holmes, who taught for 16 years before becoming an administrator. Parents should leave knowing the resources that are available to them, says Holmes, such as teacher or school websites and assignment calendars.
Ask if the teachers can recommend resources outside of school.
"There are many out-of-school programs that can help kids improve their success in school," says Weiss. "The nonschool learning experience should be part of the conversation at conferences."
Concrete next steps are essential, says Graden. If parents feel as though they didn't get answers to all of their questions, he recommends trying to connect with the teacher again within a week.
"We want both the teacher and the parent to have a positive experience," he says. "When parents and teachers work together, the results are always better."