Student-Led Conferences Help Black Kids Take Their Education Into Their Own Hands

Student-led conferences engage children and encourage their active participation in the process and beyond.

Parents and teacher with young student

Sturti/Getty Images

My grandparents raised me with three crucial perspectives on education: it's necessary, something to be proud of, and something no one can ever take away from you. I carry their lessons with me as I raise my three children. So when I received a notice in my kids' folders asking me to sign up for their student-led conferences a few months ago, I saw it as an invitation to emphasize this teaching and experience something I'd never had with my 7-year-old twins. I was excited to hear them talk about their academic strengths and weaknesses while being supported by their teachers. But as I sat in the hard blue chair, my knees touching the horseshoe-shaped table across from their teacher, a white woman, I was in awe of what I was witnessing. 

I realized their education did not stop or start with their reading comprehension or math skills. It was clear how they were growing socially and emotionally mattered just as much as what they were learning, if not more so. I was there bearing witness to my multi-racial kids, half Sri Lankan and half African American, talking about who they were as students, as active participants in their own educational trajectory. They were building their social and emotional development before my eyes. My wife and I teach these skills at home, alongside my grandparents' lessons on the value of education, by modeling them for our three kids. Still, to see it translated into the "real world" for my 7-year-olds was new. I watched my daughters confidently speak about their accomplishments and shortcomings in the classroom. I watched them talk about helping their peers and being receptive to the feedback they provided. It was a proud parent moment for me.

One of the goals of student-led conferences is to engage students and encourage their active participation in the conference process. Student-led conferences provide a place to nurture and develop a student's social and emotional learning competencies. They also strengthen their skills and further develop the five core social and emotional learning competencies. According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a leader in the SEL space, "SEL can be a powerful lever for creating caring, just, inclusive, and healthy schools that support all young people." I witnessed this power firsthand at my kids' school that day. I was already confident that we'd chosen the right neighborhood school for our kids' education. But I wondered if Black families in a lower socioeconomic class than ours had access to the resources. 

During the 2017-2018 school year, 1 in 10 teachers identified as Black, Hispanic, or Asian American. For students to feel comfortable and see the benefits of student-led conferences, they must feel a sense of belonging to the larger school community. But with so few educators of color, it’s a challenge. Experts like Dena Simmons, Ed.D., the former assistant director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and faculty at the Yale Child Study Center, speak of the importance of teachers' self-awareness, anti-racism, and emotional intelligence to make sure Black students have a sense of belonging in schools. When teachers and parents do the work, Black students—and ultimately all students—have what they need to thrive with student-led conferences.

Sitting in my twins' classroom and listening to them speak proved that they were in the right place, with the right teachers and academic community for their needs. They were learning the five competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. But for many Black students, beneficial opportunities like student-led conferences are rare or nonexistent. 

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2020, there were 49.4 million students within the public school system in the United States, of whom 7.4 million were Black. Some students may find it harder to benefit from opportunities with so little representation.

Vinnie Hurst, MS.Ed, director of school climate and networked learning at Ramapo for Children, says the impact of student-led conferences depends on many factors, including school climate and stakeholders' social and emotional learning competencies. "School climate is the plate on which all other programs—all actions and strategies—are served," he says. "The success of the other strategies, like student-led conferences, depends only on the school climate and the quality of relationships within them." 

As a parent, what struck me most about his comment was the importance of the "quality of relationships." It's not only about whether the teacher can teach or the principal can connect with their teachers and students, but also the core and quality of each relationship. Students and families may ask if the relationships they have with educators and faculty are authentic and build trust when determining the quality of a relationship. I saw this foundation in my children's interactions.

I watched them confidently speak to their respective teachers. I knew I was witnessing something extraordinary.

I watched them confidently speak to their respective teachers. I knew I was witnessing something extraordinary. My little girls had become self-aware leaders capable of asking their teacher for help when needed, volunteering to help their classmates, and taking charge of their education. They told their teacher when they didn't understand something, recognized when they were too frustrated or upset to conquer a math equation, and so much more. The student-led conferences played a vital role in their lives as second graders. The structure gave them the stage to be open and honest with those who matter most in their lives—their family and school environment, especially their teachers.

In the past, I'd not been consistent with attending parent-teacher conferences. It wasn't because I didn't care about my kids or their education. My reasoning was simple: my kids were not failing or in trouble, and they didn't seem to be struggling, so I didn't see the value. I'd show up if I felt something was off between the teacher and my kid. Or if I thought my kid wasn't getting the support they needed or putting in the effort I knew they could. But student-led conferences revealed a different perspective and a more impactful opportunity to witness my daughter's progress. I had the chance to show up for my daughters and hear them speak about the highs and lows of second grade. It was magical to see how this model prioritized their experience as they articulated the areas where they excelled and how they were a part of their class community. They showed me their self-management skills. And I showed them mine by not crying as they spoke of their proudest moments since the start of the school year. 

What's more, these conferences can also benefit parents too, especially when it comes to their own knowledge of SEL. "Parents have to exhibit and model those skills to enhance SEL in students. You can't teach SEL if you're not exhibiting those same skills," says Hurst highlighting how parents play a crucial part in modeling SEL for their kids. He says when parents understand what SEL competencies look like in practice and model them, it shows up in other environments. Student-led conferences are an extension of that. "Parents exhibiting high SEL competencies tend to see their kids exhibit the same. It's important that parents understand what SEL is. We must also consider how the schools message that to parents in an equitable manner. Equity is every kid, every day." 

Student-led conferences remind us that equity is about showing up for every single kid to ensure they have opportunities like these every single day. It's about following through to support the needs of every student, whether they come to school hungry or need help understanding that sentence on the board. But most importantly, it allows students to consider their successes and reflect on their potential for improvement in ways that benefit them indefinitely. Too often, students' thoughts and perspectives are overshadowed by the teachers, especially Black students. 

"Student voice is important,” says Hurst. 

Expanding access to student-led conferences can help them develop that voice.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles