Pay Attention

"You'd be amazed just how often parents take a cell-phone call in the middle of a conference," says Kennedy. "Or they show up late or leave early to catch a train or make an appointment."

Your focus -- or lack of it -- will trickle down to your child. "I might be more patient with a child if the parents are wonderful," says Stanton. So turn off the cell phone, schedule extra time for the meeting, and put personal problems aside for half an hour. Think of it as a study break.

Force the Issue

Say you've listened, been open to constructive criticism, and paid close attention, and you still don't feel you have a clear picture of your little Tommy at school. It's time to start asking questions, the kind that reveal both the teacher's understanding of your child and the specifics about his progress. In the early elementary years, seeking particulars about academics is fine, but it's just as important to ask about social and concentration skills (see "7 Crucial Questions," on page 73).

If the teacher uses vague words like "inattentive" or "sloppy," ask for examples. It could be a small matter of forgetting to put the date on a homework assignment. You have to get a sense of what the teacher means when she uses words you don't find clear or helpful.

Don't be alarmed if the teacher asks you some questions about your child's eating and sleeping habits, or even suggests you have your child's vision or hearing tested. "We're not prying or suggesting that parents are falling down on the job," says Stanton. "But remember, we see your child every day next to twenty or so other children. We can tell pretty quickly which one is overtired, skipping meals, or having trouble seeing the board. He may just need glasses. Or often, if a child can't concentrate or has low energy, the solution is as simple as putting him to bed an hour earlier at night or making sure he eats a solid breakfast every morning before school."

That's the kind of advice all families can benefit from.