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Using the Virtual Lab School to Coach and Train Program Staff

There are two main ways to use the Virtual Lab School: training and coaching new staff and credential candidates and coaching staff for ongoing professional development. This lesson explains how coaching and training are different and similar and how you can utilize coaching strategies in all parts of your work with program staff. You will also learn how relationship-based participation and self-reflection promote caregivers’ growth of knowledge and implementation of best practice.

  • Understand the differences and shared features of coaching and training.
  • Describe relationship-based participation.
  • Reflect on why coaching is an effective strategy to help direct care staff learn.
  • Know the importance of bridging knowledge to practice.



    Now that you have background information on the importance of professional development in child care programs, you may wonder how to implement the Virtual Lab School using the VLS website content and coaching. Today, it has become more common for privately owned and nonprofit child-care programs, with the support of public funding, to have program coaches. These coaches may work directly for a program or for an organization that provides coaching to many child care programs. In some instances, the program administrator dually serves as a coach and trainer. To more fully understand how to implement the VLS, you should reflect on the various parts of your role and the two primary ways to use the VLS: initial training or coaching for staff new to the field or credential training (e.g., to support a staff member in preparing for their Child Development Associate [CDA] credential), and ongoing professional development and coaching for seasoned staff members.

    Coaching and Training: Differences and Shared Features

    What comes to mind when you think of a coach? How is coaching different from training? Though the practice of coaching is commonly associated with athletics, coaching is used in a variety of settings and for many purposes. Corporate executives frequently work with coaches to enhance their leadership skills, and some coaches work with clients to support areas such as financial literacy, personal well-being, and public speaking.

    You may hear the terms coaching and training used interchangeably. While these practices do not have universally agreed upon definitions and have some overlapping qualities, there are some distinct differences. Review the chart below and reflect on these two practices.

    • Based on the learner’s awareness, interests, and discovery within a knowledge base or practice area
    • Evolving goals jointly decided on by the coach and the learner
    • A cyclical process that benefits learners (and coaches) throughout their careers
    • Job-embedded
    Coaching & Training
    • Relationship-based participation
    • Yields growth of knowledge and skills
    • Catered support to meet individual learning needs
    • Based on specific learning objectives developed by the trainer or guided by a curriculum or written set of tasks
    • Clearly defined end result or achievement
    • May end after specific tasks and objectives are complete
    • Job required

    What are your thoughts on the similarities and differences for coaching and training? Depending on your program and your specific duties, you may have a specific role, such as training direct care staff to complete their Child Development Associate (CDA) Credential. Or you may be responsible for both training new staff members, unrelated to CDA or degree completion, and coaching staff members who have finished their initial training requirements. Remember that all staff, regardless of education and years of experience, benefit from ongoing professional development. 

    Relationship-Based Participation

    A core feature of both coaching and training is relationship-based participation. What does this mean to you? Some qualities that promote relationship-based participation include openness, empathy, patience, attentiveness, and dependability. Two-way information sharing is a critical feature of relationship-based participation. Both you and the staff you support should feel a shared responsibility to demonstrate, ask questions, and give feedback—information sharing should go both ways.

    The VLS website contains information on child development and caregiving strategies. As a coach or trainer, you will guide learners’ implementation of this information through objective feedback based on your observations. You should also model best practices in the context of direct care staff members’ work environments. You should also ensure that direct care staff feel comfortable with and have opportunities to share information with you by asking them open-ended reflective questions and responding to any feedback they give you about how you can better help them learn. Through the development of trusting and professional relationships, staff members may directly share with you or you may informally learn information about their individual cultures or the specific culture of their programs. This is especially important if your employer is not the same as the programs where you coach or train. Sensitivity to this information may help you feel less like an outsider.

    Key Differences between Coaching and Training

    Goal-setting differs significantly when you provide coaching versus training to staff members. When training, there is a clearly defined set of objectives which are driven by either you, your program, or a written curriculum. For example, when you train staff on administering medication you likely have several key objectives or goals that you want the staff to learn by the end of the training. The goal is for the staff member to build knowledge on proper administration of medication and also to ensure they have met annual training hours required for this particular topic. Similarly, CDA candidates may set a long-term goal of completing the VLS Foundational Courses to obtain the 120 training hours required to receive their CDA Credential. This training goal is more general and based on the requirements created by the Council for Professional Recognition. On the other hand, the coaching and that you provide, and goals that are set as the candidate progresses through the VLS coursework, will be individualized to the specific practices that the staff member needs to continue to develop. New staff members will likely require more training and intensive coaching than seasoned staff members. New staff members in your program may be required to complete all 15 VLS Foundational Courses within a set time frame. The goals set with new staff may be more training related, such as completing further lessons or courses in a sequence determined by your program. In addition to course completion, coaches need evidence to support competency in course content areas before certifying. Completion of courses and activities should not automatically prompt certification. You will review your observation notes, the staff member’s completed activities, and other performance evidence to determine if a staff member demonstrates minimum competency in this area and can be certified in the course. You may need to provide more intensive support using some coaching strategies to staff who have not yet demonstrated minimum competency within a course content area, despite their completion of all lessons and activities. You will learn ways to support staff who fall into such circumstances as this in Lesson Four.

    When coaching individuals, you and the staff member will more collaboratively set goals together. While you can suggest goals, and you should when a staff member is deficient in a critical competency, in coaching, staff have more autonomy when deciding on the skills or information they want to learn or improve on. More experienced staff members may have already completed all of the VLS foundational courses and perhaps have also completed all of the focused topics courses. It is not beneficial to have them re-cycle through courses unless together you identify that they need to work on specific content areas. For these more seasoned staff members, you will use the VLS content in a very different way compared to new staff who are completing courses for the first time. You will learn more about the specific components of coaching and coaching staff across their careers in Lessons Three and Four.

    Why Use Coaching?

    Over the past decade, coaching has become more widely used in child and family-serving programs, and knowledge about the science of how people learn is the driving force behind coaching as a professional development strategy in child care programming. If you have been coaching for some time, you may have heard some of the following statements from direct care staff or other recipients of coaching:

    • “I’ve already been trained so I don’t need coaching.”
    • “I’ve completed all the VLS courses so I don’t need coaching.”
    • “I already have my CDA/A.A./bachelor’s degree and I don’t need coaching.”
    • “Just tell me what you want me to do, and I’ll do it.”

    Bridge Knowledge to Practice


    The power of coaching is that it bridges knowing with doing. Coaching is how you connect VLS content and past academic learning experiences with individual caregiver’s actions. Collective improvement of individuals’ practices yields quality improvement for programs as a whole. Though direct care staff are responsible for reading lessons and completing activities, your coaching is what helps them use the VLS content to inform and implement practices and behaviors. Read these two examples to see how knowing and doing are different:

    • Example 1 – Providing social-emotional support:
      The importance of providing children responsive emotional support is widely documented in research conducted over several decades, and you will find strategies that support this throughout VLS courses. While many caregivers have read this information and they may know about social-emotional learning, it is common for even seasoned caregivers to inconsistently demonstrate warmth when caring for children and youth. A coach can model responsive interactions, help the staff member reflect on examples of the responsive interactions they provide to children, and provide positive feedback when the caregiver demonstrates this practice.
    • Example 2 – Importance of active supervision and ratios:
      Sadly, you may have heard stories in the news about child care programs losing a child or leaving a child behind. Simply knowing that you must maintain ratio and be accountable for children is not enough. You must demonstrate this by matching names to faces regularly and before and after transitions, communicating with your coworkers about supervision responsibilities, and actively supervising to fully ensure that you are keeping all children safe. Coaches help ensure these standards and practices are being met consistently. Strong coaching can help avoid potential program issues by ensuring the bridge between knowledge and practice is consistently reinforced.

    Self-Reflection Enhances Learning

    Take a moment to look at the quoted comments that are examples of responses to coaching a few paragraphs above, and think about the last statement, “Just tell me what you want me to do, and I’ll do it.”

     Why can’t I tell direct care staff what they should do? After all, I’m in this role because I have more child development and teaching knowledge. It would be so much easier if they just did what I know to be best. They want me to tell them what to do so it’s OK, right?

    These statements describe the thoughts of many coaches who have experienced frustration with learners not being able to come up with ideas, not knowing what to do, and not following through with steps and plans. You may have felt similarly at some point during your work as a coach. Though you must intervene if a staff member abuses or neglects children or violates a program policy, most of the work you do involves meeting adult learners where they are in their professional learning process so they feel motivated to learn new skills that help children grow and develop.

    If you are already familiar with the VLS, then you have done a good deal of reflection. Lesson Five describes how to encourage reflective practice direct care staff; program leaders need to understand why opportunities for reflection are intentionally built in throughout the VLS. Research shows that to gain new knowledge and skills, you must understand your current beliefs and practices and be given the opportunity to analyze or examine these practices in light of new information. The most effective way learners come to understand their beliefs and practices is through their own reflective processes or with open-ended guidance from a trusted individual. Overly directed interactions or telling others what to do limits individuals’ opportunities to understand their thoughts and actions. It also makes them less prepared to consider others’ perspectives, problem-solve, and use their knowledge in new situations. Coaching prompts learners to think about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it. The coaching partnership encourages the learner to choose appropriate goals, develop action plans, monitor their own performance, evaluate their progress on goals, and make adjustments to plans and goals as needed. Intentionally engaging learners in self-reflection within the VLS courses and during coaching interactions is central to changing practices and continuous improvement. It is impossible for a coach to be everywhere and do everything in a program, therefore consistent and effective coaching practices are critical to building the knowledge and capacity of the staff in your program. Coaching builds the capacity of staff members so that they can eventually function optimally without the intensive support of the coach.

    Coaching All Learners

    Though there are some differences in using the VLS to provide ongoing coaching support to seasoned professionals versus providing training and coaching to new staff members, coaching strategies such as self-reflection, observation, and modeling are beneficial to all learners regardless of the nature of your support for them. The Key Differences between Coaching and Training section describes a situation where, despite a direct care staff member’s completion of a course and required activities, thecoach does not have evidence to support certifying the course. Have you experienced this before? What did you do to help this individual so you could eventually, in good faith, certify their completion of the course? Even if your main role is to help staff complete their CDA certification or support staff to obtain foundational knowledge during their initial training period, you can still be helpful to learners who are struggling by using coaching to help them determine why there is a disconnect and how you can remedy the situation together. Though most of this course uses the terms coach and coaching, know that regardless of your role in child care programming, you can embed elements of coaching into your support of all adult learners.


    Listen as experienced coaches discuss the characteristics of strong coaching partnerships and the importance of coaching practices that are aligned to principles of adult learning.

    Foundations of a Strong Coaching Partnership

    Listen as coaches discuss characteristics of successful coaching partnerships.

    Adult Learning Principles

    Listen as experts discuss principles of adult learning.


    Build Trust and Respect

    It takes time to develop trusting relationships with the staff you support, and you may more quickly get to know and feel comfortable with some staff members more than others. A collaborative, trusting partnership is essential for effective delivery of feedback and coaching. You must establish trust and create a safe, nonjudgmental space so that you can deliver feedback that is understood and valued. Remember that you can cater your support to each individual’s learning needs, and doing this shows that you are flexible, nonjudgmental, and have their best interest in mind. It may be helpful to do periodic check-ins and ask direct care staff how they are feeling about the process and your support. Establish that you are open to their feedback early in the relationship; this will go a long way in earning their trust and respect. Here are some ways you can begin a check-in conversation:

    • “How are you feeling about the coaching support I’ve provided?”
    • “Is there anything I could do differently to better help you?”
    • “How are you feeling about your progress toward your goals?”
    •  “What parts of the VLS are most helpful? Least helpful?”
    • “Do you have feedback on anything related to the support I’ve provided or the program you’d like to share?”


    The primary goal of your work as a coach is to bridge knowledge to practice, and demonstration of best practice is key to high-quality caregiving. Complete the Knowledge to Practice activity to exercise your ability to support best practice in direct care staff.


    What characteristics or attributes make a coach successful? Make a learner successful? First review the Successful Coaching Partnerships and Characteristics of Coaching activities. Then complete the Goal Setting for Coaches activity to identify a characteristic you would like to improve on, and create an action plan to achieve your goal.


    The ability to understand and share the feelings of others
    Awareness or familiarity of facts
    Use of an idea, belief, or method


    Which statement does not describe coaching?
    True or false?  Coaching and training are the same thing.
    Choose the statement that reflects a caregiving practice.
    References & Resources

    Ackland, R. (1991). A Review of the Peer Coaching Literature. Journal of Staff Development, 12(1), 22-27. 

    Dunst, C. J. (2009). Implications of Evidence-Based Practices for Personnel Preparation Development in Early Childhood Development. Infants and Young Children, 22(1), 44-53. 

    First 5 Alameda County. (n.d.). Effective Coaching in Early Care and Education: Training Manual. Alameda County, CA: First 5 Alameda County. 

    Jablon, J., Dombor, A.L., & Johnsen, S. (2016). Coaching with Powerful Interactions: A Guide to Partnering with Early Childhood Teachers. Washington, DC: NAEYC. 

    Joyce, B.  & Showers, B. (2002). Student Achievement through Staff Development. Fundamentals of school renewal. White Plains, NY: Longman. 

    National Association for the Education of Young Children & National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies. (2011). Early Childhood Education Professional Development: Training and Technical Assistance Glossary.

    National Research Council. (2015). Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. 

    Ochshorn, S. (2011). Forging a New Framework for Professional Development: A Report on “The Science of Professional Development in Early Childhood Education: A Summit.” Washington, DC: Zero to Three.

    Rush, D. & Shelden, M. (2011). The Early Childhood Coaching Handbook. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing.

    Trivette, C.M., Dunst, C.J., Hamby, D.W., & O’Herin, C.E. (2009). Characteristics and Consequences of Adult Learning Methods and Strategies. Practical Evaluation Reports, 2(1).