As a child I remember my mother coming home from my brothers' parent conferences. (Since my brothers are five years younger than I am her experiences at their conferences stuck with me for longer than whatever happened at my conferences. I don't think anyone ever told me the difference between 'sister' and 'mother' and I really felt like I was responsible for them as well) She was usually glowing and always shared with us how much my brothers' teachers loved them. She would almost always have some small story to share that the teacher had told her- something one of them had done or said or read that my mom didn't know before.
My mother and brothers' pride and happiness from these conversations has stuck with me. My mom left the meetings knowing the teachers loved my brothers and when she shared these stories and comments with my brothers they were reminded that their teachers loved them. I try to send the same message when working with parents. I want to share stories with them about their children that convey how much I love and know their children, and also give the parents a window into their child's day when they are away from home.
One of the best ways I've found to do this is to share a picture with parents of their child happily engaged in a school activity. I find this extremely valuable for numerous reasons. It is just great to be able to give the parent a picture of the child, particularily when the child is happy in school. Now that I'm a parent I appreciate this even more- I love when my daycare providers share snapshots with me. I get to see my child happy and comfortable when I'm away.
Photographs also serve as a reminder to the entire team that we are talking about a child. When IEPs get tense it's important for everyone- the parents and the school team- to remember that the reason we are having the conversation is because everyone at the table wants what is best for the child. It helps keep it from getting personal. Nobody in the room is there to get their way just to prove themselves right- everyone is (or should be) there for the child.
If you're really on top of it you can have a picture of the child and the parent together at one of your activities- the happy family on a field trip, sharing cupcakes over a writing celebration, reading books together. Many of the parents I work with don't have many pictures of their children. While camera phones are becoming more and more popular, many parents don't have the resources to print out hard copies.
I don't avoid hard topics with parents and I don't shy away from addressing a child's significant needs. That wouldn't be fair to the child. But regardless of what serious issues we need to talk about I try to stress how much I truly enjoy the child. If the parents and I can look at the situation from a shared perspective of "this kid is great, now let's look at how to best serve the child's needs" we usually have more productive discussions.