First of all, I have found that communication throughout the year is essential. The more that parents know about what's going on in your classroom, the more smoothly the conference will go. They won't have a zillion questions for you, and they won't feel out of the loop when they arrive. The more that parents know in advance about how their child is doing, the less likely they are to be surprised if and when you have to give them bad news. Also, you can keep your conferences running smoothly because they won't hold you up with a bunch of questions.
Secondly, parents really want to know that you know their child. They are coming to the conference with you, a person who spends many waking hours with the person that they love and care about most in the world! They want to know that you love and care about this person as much as they do. They want to know that you know and appreciate their child's strengths and weaknesses. That is why I always try to come to the conference with some little story or anecdote about their child. It can be something as simple as something funny their child said or did in class one day. You might want to share a story he or she wrote that really made you laugh or impressed you. Anything that will help the parent realize that you really see his or her child as an individual. I like to start with this, because I feel that it makes the rest of the conference go so much more smoothly.
Finally, preparation is key. You want to have something to talk about, and something that the parents can go home with. I always had a printout of the child's current grades to review. This gave me something to look at and something to give them, and it was a good starting off point for our discussion. Of course, you can get more detailed than that. One teacher I knew created a simple one page summary of what the class was doing in each subject. She would then fill in details with that child's contribution in each area ("Johnny is writing a story about ___", etc.). I thought this was a great way to let the parents know what their child is up to! You also may want to have handouts to answer common questions or deal with common concerns parents may have. My pediatrician does this, and it is great! If I bring something up with her, she almost always has a handout that she can hand me that will discuss my issue and/or answer my question. It is so nice to go home with that and not try to remember what she said hours later! Before conference time, think through those questions that you get over and over. Can you summarize your typical response into a handout for parents? They will be so impressed, and appreciative! You could create a list of suggested book titles for independent reading, strategies for memorizing multiplication facts, a list of websites with good parent resources...there are tons of possibilities. You could even list upcoming topics and units for those parents who are always wanting their child to be ready for the next thing. Keep your handouts nearby, and you can pull copies out as you need them.
The most important thing to remember with conferences is to relax. The week goes by quickly, and most of the time the conferences aren't as bad as you think they will be. Take time for yourself at night during that crazy time. That was always my week to eat junk food and watch trash TV at night! It was well-deserved.
How about you? Do you have any tried and true conference week tips?