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The 5 Features of Successful Coaching

Coaching techniques are increasingly being used by early childhood programs to strengthen professional learning initiatives and better support families and children.

A coach’s job is to work with the coachee to evaluate their current practices, set appropriate goals, process feedback, and then integrate and master new skills. In an early childhood setting, this coaching approach can benefit everyone. It can be a great professional development method for teachers, OTs, PTs, SLPs, psychologists, social workers, and other service providers. And for parents and caregivers, coaching can help them gain the confidence and skills they need to help nurture their child’s healthy development.

In the new edition of The Early Childhood Coaching Handbook, authors Dathan Rush, Ed.D., and M’Lisa Shelden, Ph.D., identify five key characteristics of successful early childhood coaching. This article, adapted from their book, will take you through these important features of coaching and give you examples that illustrate all five traits in action.

Feature What it is What it might look like
Joint Planning A joint plan is an agreement—either written or verbal—between the coach and coachee. This plan should include the specific actions the coachee will take between coaching sessions to develop important new skills or knowledge. Joint planning isn’t just “homework” assigned by the coach—rather, it allows the coachee to take an active role in deciding what skills and strategies to focus on. At the end of a visit, a practitioner (coach) talks to the parent/provider (coachee) about a child who is disruptive during mealtimes. The coach says, “Considering what we’ve talked about today, what would you like to focus on between now and your next visit?” As a result of the discussion that follows, they mutually decide that the parent should offer their child more choices during meals over the next week.
Observation Observation is when one person carefully watches another person’s actions with the goal of evaluating existing skills and generating new ideas and strategies. This can refer to the coach observing the coachee as they practice a skill or strategy, or the coachee observing the coach as they model a specific skill. An SLP watches as a child care provider and child play with toy cars, with the goals of getting the child more engaged in play and expanding his language skills. After reflecting together on which practices worked and which were less effective, they switch roles. This time, the provider observes as the SLP models an additional strategy: responding to the child’s one-word utterances (“Go!”) with two-word utterances (Go car!”). The provider then has the opportunity to emulate this new skill while the SLP returns to the observer role.
Action/Practice Action/Practice opportunities allow the coachee to try out new strategies and refine them over time.
  • Opportunities for action usually take place between coaching sessions, and allow the coachee to work on skills and strategies they’ve learned from the coach.

  • Action items are added to the joint plan at the end of one coaching session and reviewed at the beginning of the next.

  • Practice occurs in the presence of the coach, who models a strategy for the coachee (if necessary) and then observes the coachee using the technique. Afterward, they reflect together on what worked, what didn’t work, and why.
A parent who wants to make the most of bedtime reading discusses and practices some new strategies with the coach. That night, the parent encourages her child to pick out a book, talks about the pictures as they read, and then stops to allow the child a chance to describe what they see on each page.
Reflection Reflection is an essential part of the coaching process and naturally follows a period of observation or action/practice. These discussions allow the coach and coachee to analyze existing strategies together and refine them if they’re not achieving the desired outcome. Asking open-ended reflective questions is an essential component of this step. A practitioner is working with a father on ways to promote his son’s positive behavior by encouraging the boy’s interest in drawing. She stimulates discussion by asking the dad reflective questions such as:
  • How have you used drawing as a way for the two of you to spend quality time together? What are some things you could try to keep a drawing activity going for a while?

  • How could you encourage your son’s drawing with other things besides a magnetic drawing board?

  • What are you going to try this week, and what should our plan be for our next visit?
Feedback Feedback is critical information the coach supplies the coachee, based on the coach’s direct observations or on reflections shared by the coachee. Effective coaching primarily uses two types of feedback: informative (sharing knowledge and information with the coachee) and affirmative (offering noncommittal perceptions and acknowledgments that are free of judgment).
  • A coach working with a parent who uses time-outs with her child might choose to provide informative feedback about this method. The coach might explain that current research about brain development indicates that time-outs are isolating for very young children and often turn into a power struggle.

  • A coach working with a teacher might provide affirmative feedback throughout the day with comments like, “Billy really calms down when you talk to him in a soft voice,” or “When you turned on the music, I noticed the children all put away materials and came over for circle time without any protest.”

The 5 Characteristics in Action

It’s important to note that the coaching steps outlined above probably won’t follow the same fixed sequence every time. When you’re coaching, view the five key features not as a linear progression, but as a loose framework that allows you to follow the natural contours of your interactions with the coachee. Here’s an example of how this fluid approach might play out in practice:

A practitioner, Maria, is conducting a home visit with a young mother, Nicki, and her son Leo. Nicki asks Maria for ideas about helping Leo stay interested in book reading for longer periods of time. Maria prompts Nicki to talk about what she is currently doing (reflection). After Nicki describes their usual routine, Maria shares information about ways a parent might follow a child’s lead and build on his interests during the book-reading activity (informative feedback). Maria asks Nicki how the book-reading activity might look if she tried these strategies, and encourages her to think about how she might modify the ideas to make them her own (reflection).

Nicki agrees to try the strategies she discussed with Maria. While Maria watches, she reads the book to Leo, asking him questions about the illustrations and allowing him to turn the pages of the book (action/practice by the parent; observation by the coach). Afterward, Maria asks Nicki whether the book-reading experience matched her expectations and helped sustain Leo’s attention to the book (reflection). Maria points out that what Nicki did matched what they had discussed and appeared to help Leo interact for a longer period with both his mother and the book (affirmative feedback). Together, Maria and Nicki discuss which strategies worked well, which additional strategies Nicki might try, and which ones Nicki will continue using during book-reading time with Leo over the next week (joint planning).

Interested in learning more about coaching and how it can help your program?

Join authors Dathan Rush and M’Lisa Shelden on Sept. 25th at 2 pm for the free Early Childhood Investigations webinar Coaching in Early Childhood. You’ll get expert insight into the five key characteristics of successful coaching, as well as a look at the extensive research on the effectiveness of coaching in early childhood environments. Sign up for the webinar, and explore the upcoming new edition of Rush and Shelden’s The Early Childhood Coaching Handbook.

Register for the Webinar