Sometimes it’s hard for parents (and even teachers!) to determine if certain struggles or behaviors are just a normal part of the learning process, or an indicator of a deeper issue. Certain problems can serve as red flags that a cognitive skill weakness may be causing serious learning struggles and holding a child back.

Cognitive skills are the underlying mental tools that make up IQ and include skills like logic & reasoning, attention, memory, processing speed, and auditory and visual processing. If one or more of these skills are weak, reading and learning can be difficult. If a cognitive skill weakness is the underlying cause of problems in school, the struggles will not ease until those weak skills are addressed.

So, as you head into conferences, or any time you talk to your child’s teacher, listen for these red flag phrases:

“I know he’s smart, but …”

  • His work doesn’t show it.
  • It’s just not coming out.
  • He makes sloppy mistakes.

This is one of the most frustrating aspects of weak cognitive skills for parents and teachers: a smart child locked inside a struggling student. This phrase is a good indicator that several cognitive skills are very strong, while others are deficient and causing a bottleneck for learning.

“He’s below grade level in reading.”

Most reading struggles can be linked to weak cognitive skills. Studies show 85 percent of all learning-to-read problems are caused by weak phonemic awareness skills, which give us the ability to hear, blend, unglue, and manipulate the smallest sounds in a word. Reading struggles can also be caused or compounded by deficiencies in visual processing, memory, attention, and processing speed. If your child continues to struggle in reading, it can eventually lead to problems in other subjects, too.

“He takes a long time to…”

  • Finish schoolwork.
  • Answer questions.
  • Follow directions.

Some kids take longer because they’re perfectionists, but weak cognitive skills are generally to blame if a child is always the last student done with an assignment, can’t seem to complete tasks, or takes hours to wrap up standard homework loads.

“He continues to struggle with…”

  • Math facts.
  • Paying attention.
  • Following directions.

Some struggles are normal when learning anything. But if your child takes a longer-than-average amount of time to master grade-level learning, a cognitive weakness is most likely the root cause.

While ongoing struggles in reading and math are often clear signs of a cognitive weakness, other behaviors are also strong indicators. Red-flag behaviors that may come up in a parent-teacher conference include:

  • The inability to stay on task
  • Bouncing from idea to idea
  • Making sloppy mistakes
  • Turning in incomplete work
  • Not turning in assignments at all
  • Impulsiveness
  • General attention issues
  • Spelling problems (including forgetting words after mastering them)
  • Problems with if/then analogies
  • Struggles following instructions
  • Difficulty comprehending numbers, directions, answers
  • Trouble discerning left and right
  • Poor ability to use maps
  • Hesitation to read aloud
  • Poor organization skills
  • Forgetfulness
  • Avoiding prolonged mental efforts
  • Dislike or disinterest in school

If you hear any of the red flag phrases at conference time, or if the teacher says your child has several of the above signs, it may be time to schedule a cognitive skills assessment. After determining which skills are weak, you can focus on the most effective way to target and train those skills.

While certain games, exercise, and activities can help strengthen weak cognitive skills, one-on-one personalized brain training targets specific brain skills that, when at their strongest, make learning easier and more efficient.


What I Wish I’d Known About Parent Conferences Before I Became a Parent Myself

When I started in my first classroom teaching position straight out of undergrad, I had lots of ideas. When it came time for conferences, though, few of them were about what it was actually like to be the parent sitting across from me. Now, as a mom of four, if I could offer my new-teacher self some advice for navigating parent conferences effectively and with empathy, here’s what I’d say:


Establishing an affirmative tone goes a long way. 

It doesn’t matter whether you’re meeting with a lawnmower parent charging in on a mission, a parent who rarely shows up, or someone who, like most of us, falls somewhere in between. Taking a few moments to open the conference with a glimpse into a student’s strengths as you see them at school is never a waste of precious minutes. A sweet story, quick video clip, or photo of the child immersed in learning creates an atmosphere of shared focus. My sons’ preschool teachers brainstorm a list of adjectives about each child, which they share to start each conference. I treasure those lists, and the sentiments behind them. When a conference for one of my children begins with acknowledgement that yes, my child is earnest and funny and smart, and YES, his teacher likes him, it makes the entire conversation feel more productive, whether subsequent topics are successes or struggles.

What happens at school is pretty much a mystery to parents.

So far, I’ve taught all the grades my children have been in, which gives me an advantage most parents don’t have—and I still have almost no clue what their school days are really like. Yes, I ask my kids often about school, but they are not reliable reporters. They exaggerate or downplay information based on their own value attribution. (Recess trumps reading workshop, every time.) Plus, the time of day they really get talking is usually in the “bedtime apocalypse” timeframe. Anything shared at that delicate hour probably reflects a much higher drama quotient than reality. Giving parents contextual information during conferences, in plain language, is always helpful when explaining children’s behavior or performance. This can be as simple as a quick backstory on a curriculum goal, an explanation of a classroom routine, or showing something concrete, like the actual book you used for a reading assessment.

The best conferences are conversations.

I got better at this the longer I taught, but as a parent it rings even truer. Parents don’t want (or need) you to read them entire checklists or a student’s entire writing sample. If you’re losing your voice after an afternoon of conferences—I admit, I often was—maybe you’re talking too much. You have a unique perspective on each student as a learner and member of a classroom community, and that’s crucial for parents to hear. They have a broader view of their children than you do, over more time and in different contexts, and that’s important for you to hear about, too. Leave space to ask parents questions like, “Does this fit with what you see at home?” “Does this feel like something new for your child, or the continuation of a pattern?” Then, wait, and let them talk, too.

(Of course, you’re in charge of this conversation. Some parents, myself included, can easily go down a rabbit hole of talking about their kids. Keep your eye on the clock and politely steer the conference back to what you know you want to share within the time you have.)

Headlines help.

There’s a meme floating around social media about how many browser tabs a mom has open in her mind at any given time. With a big family, I feel this acutely, but I think it’s true no matter how many kids you have. Know that school is only one part of a child’s existence. Parents think about the big picture for their kids (“Will he grow up to be happy?”), and the very small picture too. (“Did he change his underwear this morning?” “Do we have anything in the fridge for dinner tonight?”) The best conferences focus on a handful of priority take always for parents. Embedding specific goals and action plans into these headlines is even more helpful.

Open (don’t close) difficult conversations.

Nervous about blindsiding parents, I sometimes gave them a heads up via email before a conference if I knew I wanted to discuss something difficult. In one memorable instance, this backfired in a colossal way, as the father of a student for whom I suggested repeating kindergarten was so angry that he refused to even attend. Tough topics are often best broached after building a rapport. A thoughtful conference is a chance to do this, and parents may even arrive at their own conclusions as the conversation unfolds. Establish a collective focus on supporting the student and then say your piece in person. Know that parents will need to debrief with each other (or a trusted confidante), and look at the child with the information you’ve shared in mind. Give them time, and follow up as needed.

Kindness first.

Once, as a nervous new teacher, I attempted to joke with a parent about her second-grade daughter’s tendency to act as the ringleader of a clique of girls. Definitely aim for a collegial ease to your conversations with parents, but know that when it’s a mama (or papa) bear listening to information about their precious cubs, any hint of sarcasm or perceived eye roll is amplified. This mother ended up contacting me after the conference, upset that I “didn’t like her daughter.” We met again, and reframed the conversation. By the end of that year, she was one of my biggest champions, and thanked me for being honest about my observations of her daughter at school. We probably could have gotten there with less angst, though, had I taken more care with my initial delivery.

As I pencil in my name on the calendars posted in my kids’ classrooms this year: Busy teachers marching through an endless conference schedule, I see you. Parents for whom just one name on the list fills your world, I see you, too. Let’s pull our student-sized chairs a little closer this conference season to make the most of our twenty minutes together.


Top 10 Questions to Ask During a Parent Teacher Conference

Ready for another checkup? Only this checkup isn’t at the doctor’s office, it’s at your child’s school: It’s parent teacher conference time!

Did you know that parental involvement is a strong predictor of academic success?Teachers want you to attend conferences and be involved in your children’s school lives. This is an exciting opportunity for both you and the teacher! 

To make the most of this opportunity, here are 10 important questions to ask during a parent teacher conference. By asking these questions, you will get a better understanding of how your child is doing in school and the values and beliefs of your child’s teacher, which will both be extremely valuable as the school year continues.

Questionsto Ask During Parent Teacher Conferences:

  1. How do you best prefer to communicate with me? (Email? Phone? Text? Notes?)

2. What do you see as my child’s strengths?

3. What do you think are the academic challenges for my child?

4. What would you do if my child were struggling academically with something?

5. How is my child doing socially?

6. How do you support kids in their social development? For example, how do you address challenges that happen at recess?

7. Is my child on grade level for reading? What about math, science and writing?

8. How does the school handle standardized testing and prep for those tests?

9. Can we talk more about your homework policy and how my child is doing with homework?

10. What can I do at home to support what you’re doing in the classroom?

If you are concerned about something, start with a positive comment first such as,“Thank you for taking the time to meet with me today.” Then use an “I message” such as, “I’m concerned,” to bring up the topic. Also, be sure to tell the teacher what you’re doing at home to solve the problem. That will show your intent to work with the teacher to find the best solution for your child.

Above all, remember to keep your conference friendly and positive. Just like the old adage says, you’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Be positive and solution-oriented.

You and your child’s teacher can be a strong team of support for your child. Make this checkup a helpful stepping-stone in a successful parent-school partnership.