Skip to main content

Coaching Across Careers

In this lesson, you will learn considerations for coaching staff members at various stages of their careers. The staff in your program are as diverse as the children you care for, and you will need to flexibly navigate how you support staff based on their current practices, professional needs, and program standards.

  • Know how to support new staff members.
  • Consider the needs of CDA credential candidates and other learners.
  • Understand strategies to support staff who lack critical competencies.
  • Create a shared responsibility for program professional development.



Considerations for New Staff Members and CDA Candidates

Some staff are new to the child care profession and possibly even new to working. All new staff will complete the VLS Foundational Courses and other program requirements as part of their initial training, regardless of their years of experience in the field or education. Staff who previously worked in programs using the VLS will pick up where they left off if they have not completed all foundational coursework.

Whether new staff members have just graduated high school or are new college grads, individuals with limited work experience may need more guidance, especially if they have not previously worked in a child-care program. They may not generally know what to expect in terms of the day-to-day operations. For example, the hours between 7:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. are typically not ideal times to ask your program’s front desk assistant questions about turning in paperwork or other needs. Those hours are extremely busy, and front office assistants need to focus their attention to greet families and children, ensure everyone who enters the building signs in and out, and, in some programs, take payments. Staff who are new to your program but have worked in child care before likely need less guidance around the day-to-day workflow and expectations. They may more easily step into their roles.

While new staff have a lot of tasks that are nonnegotiable, such as completion of new hire paperwork, you can still embed coaching into your interactions and support of these tasks. For a staff member who has just completed their first few days on the job, a coach might check in and ask, “How are things going? What questions do you have about your training requirements or in general about the program?” Open-ended questions allow the staff member to give feedback on what they need help with or to let you know they’ve got everything under control. Such opportunities are ways to begin partnership-building from the very beginning, which sets the tone for your more practice-based collaboration.

Some new staff members may have no professional experience caring for children, or they may have previously worked in settings where the expectations for caregiver-child interaction were very different. You want to make sure new staff begin their time in your program with a strong understanding of care expectations. To focus on the child care practice aspect of their work, ask new staff members to begin their VLS coursework soon after their first day. As mentioned in Lesson Three, your initial coaching interaction with a new staff member should include an introduction to the VLS including its structure, technical aspects, and expectations for using the VLS system. The Tips for Introducing Staff to the VLS activity in Lesson Three can be used to help to facilitate this initial coaching conversation.

States and systems require individuals working in child care to complete training on child abuse prevention, health, and safety. Depending on your state, system, or program, you may also have other training requirements. New staff are likely required to complete the VLS Child Abuse: Prevention, Child Abuse: Identification & Reporting, Safe Environments, and Healthy Environments courses first. Work with your program administrator to chart out the best sequence to meet requirements. While their initial VLS coursework may focus on these areas, there are elements of more overarching foundational concepts such as developmentally appropriate practice, positive guidance, and promotion of protective factors embedded throughout the VLS, including in these courses. Begin to coach on these key care practices early in your partnership with staff so they understand the importance of these practice that optimize child development outcomes, in addition to more health and safety practices, which are typically the larger focus within licensing regulations. For example, if you observe a staff member whose only communication with the children in care is correction and harsh responses, do not wait until this staff member completes the Positive Guidance, Social & Emotional Development, or the Communication & Language Development courses to address this. Find ways to tie improvement of this part of their work to current coursework and the accompanying Competency Reflections. While some courses more heavily touch on certain foundational practices, all VLS courses stress these important concepts, especially regarding the importance of sensitive and responsive caregiving in which adults read children’s cues and respond to their needs, interests, and unique abilities

As you learned in previous lessons of this course, staff members working on their initial Foundational Courses and CDA candidates may receive more training from their coach than their more seasoned peers. However, you can enrich all new staff members’ experiences and better prepare them to provide high-quality care if you embed coaching into their training process. Before staff begin courses and individual lessons, establish beforehand that your next observation will focus on the key practices discussed in the particular course or lesson they will complete. This reinforces that putting information into practice is how one develops competence in an area. Although it is not formally a VLS activity, you can request that all staff jot down the key practices described in each lesson they complete. You might say something like, “Think about the actions you read about in this lesson and how you might do these things in your work.” This communicates to the staff member that you will look for specific things from them during the next observation. It may even help to eliminate any uncomfortable feelings about being watched.

Although new staff may have less autonomy around goal setting, think about how you can use coaching strategies (use data, reflect, give feedback, model, and observe) to reinforce that practice, not just completion of coursework, is what shows progress toward a CDA credential or completion of initial training. When you have face-to-face time to converse with staff, use open-ended questions to drive these conversations. “How did the information in the lesson you completed affect your actions in the classroom today?” “Tell me about some of the practices I observed from you today?” “How do you feel you’re progressing with your goals?” In addition, before you conduct an observation, you can ask the staff member if there are particular practices or parts of the Competency Reflection that they would like you to focus on. These are all examples of reflective questions that are great ways to begin coaching conversations with a staff member that encourage two-way information sharing and emphasize the practice component of professional development. Responses to these questions provide insight for staff’s awareness and analysis of their current practices and the depth to which they are learning the information in the coursework and from you. Asking about where to focus the observation helps to establish the staff members’ agency within the coach-staff member partnership. When using the Competency Reflection, you will be looking at competency, or growth, across the key practices identified for that Foundational Course; however, knowing that a staff member wants feedback on particular practices can help focus your note-taking and feedback conversations.

Considerations for Experienced Staff Who Lack Critical Competencies

While years of experience alone does not make one skilled, consider that the time someone has invested in caring for children holds value. Longtime employees have perspectives that you may lack, especially if you are newer to the field or newer to your program. However, staff who have worked in child care for several years may lack critical competencies or may have slid backward. This is of great concern and the reasons are likely complex. Just like your program’s staff are at differing points in their careers, programs and leaders also develop differently. Your program has perhaps shifted its expectations over time or new leaders may have changed the culture. For example, some staff in your program may have begun their role under a previous leader who had more of a no-tolerance attitude toward children’s behavior and teacher practices. This is not the recommended approach of child care programs today, but not all staff may have been adequately prepared to shift their mindsets and practices.

There is increased pressure for child care programs to provide high-quality care, and coaching is one avenue to create accountability for this. Coaching for professional development may be new to your program, and some staff members may not see the value in this investment. This may be a change some staff members are not used to, and they may be resistant to change, especially when things have been conducted a certain way or under a particular leader for a long time. Keep in mind that staff members who lack critical competencies may have had minimal opportunities to improve their practices over time. Or their performance may have been considered acceptable before now. Understand that you cannot change previous program expectations or norms, but you can support staff in moving forward now, wherever they are in their professional learning experience.

Use Goal Setting

When you coach experienced staff who lack critical competencies, the strategies you use are no different from those with any other staff member. Follow the goal-setting to goal-achievement process described in Lesson Four, and use the VLS program tools to collect objective data. You will want to be particularly sensitive to making sure the staff member is given the opportunity to drive this process. If you hear comments like, “I don’t want to set any goals” or “I don’t need PD,” the staff member is choosing to not better themselves as a professional. In this case, you and your program administrator need to discuss the performance of this staff member. You can read more about hiring staff who fit the expectations of your program in Lesson Six.

Highlight New Research

One strategy that can be helpful in this situation is to introduce the idea of new research and practices. This frames the goal-setting process around what is new rather than what the staff member lacks or doesn’t do. The VLS publishes Focused Topics courses, and this information aligns with many of the foundational practices discussed throughout, such as positive guidance, developmentally appropriate practice, and protective factors. For example, the Supporting Children with Challenging Behaviors and Sexual Development and Behavior in Children and Youth courses (released in 2020) have information and strategies that are new to the VLS audience, but these courses still emphasize social-emotional development, responsive interactions, and active supervision—all concepts discussed throughout the Foundational Courses. Encourage staff members who lack critical competencies to complete new coursework to provide them a chance to review concepts they learned in the past or don’t demonstrate today. Sometimes, reviewing these practices under a new lens can help staff members better translate the information to their practice.

Let Data Drive New Practices

Another strategy is to use combined program data to help drive goal setting for specific staff members. Your program’s inspection or licensing reports are excellent data to use. The feedback from these reports can help you introduce an idea for a goal for a staff member who needs support in this area. If you know that your program received a noncompliance for storage of breastmilk during the last annual inspection and you also know that an experienced staff member needs support in this practice, use this data point to remark on this situation. You might say, “Our last inspection report revealed we could improve our breastmilk storage practices, so I’m making sure that all infant caregivers have opportunities for professional development in this area.” Or, "Take some time over the next week to review the material in Lesson 5 of the Healthy Environments course. I would love to get your thoughts on strategies that the program could implement to improve our current practices.” This takes the emphasis off what the individual staff member does wrong and instead frames the issues around what the entire program can do better.

Though it may sometimes be appropriate for experienced staff members to recomplete specific activities or lessons, this can feel punitive, especially if the staff member is asked to recomplete activities or lessons that do not directly connect to a goal, or if the recomplete is framed in a way that highlights deficiency. The activity or lesson by itself is likely an ineffective way to promote change in behavior. You can suggest this idea, but you are more likely to be successful if you pair this with modeling and practice with feedback. This shows the staff member that you’re willing to step in and do what you discuss in your one-to-one conversations. This also gives them the chance to demonstrate key practices with positive feedback. Afterward, your one-to-one conversations will want to focus on creating awareness of the staff member’s current practice, analyzing the effect this has on children, problem-solving alternatives, and determining action steps. Think about how the goal-setting process and VLS tools can guide this process to help set up staff members for success.

Considerations for Highly Skilled and Experienced Staff

Highly skilled and experienced staff are likely the most independent, motivated, and growth-driven people in your program. They are likely very open to and easy to coach because they value continual improvement and lifelong learning. How do you coach a staff member who demonstrates mastery of nearly all competencies? You may be tempted to be nitpicky about what these individuals do wrong, but you should instead think about how to develop their sense of shared responsibility for the professional development in your program.

Some highly skilled and experienced staff may have knowledge within certain practice areas beyond yours, and that’s OK. Encourage them to use their knowledge to be a point-person for other staff to observe or problem-solve with. You may ask these staff members to do a lunch-and-learn or formal professional development presentation on their topic of expertise.

Think back to Lesson Four when Claire asked Ryan if he was open to observing how Leah transitions with her classroom. Claire showed resourcefulness by allowing another skilled staff member to model. Such opportunities give staff members like Leah the chance to mentor and informally coach colleagues. These opportunities to mentor and model for other staff should not be a surprise, instead, the coach and staff member should engage in a dialogue around whether they feel comfortable modeling and peer coaching another staff member. For example, Claire might engage in this conversation with Leah by saying “Leah, recently we have been talking a lot about your professional development and ways that you can grow in the program. I’m wondering if you would be interested in modeling some best practices for your peers? I think others could really learn a lot about successful transition strategies from you. Would you be open to setting up a time for Ryan to observe how you transition with your classroom?”

If you are the only coach in your program, you alone cannot be responsible for making sure all staff members get the support they need. While highly skilled and experienced staff members are primarily in direct care roles, give them opportunities to model and problem-solve with other colleagues, especially if they are co-teaching with lesser skilled staff. Increased frequency of intentional observation and practice helps staff more quickly develop high-quality practices. This creates a program environment where staff have more frequent (not just when you are around) access to modeling and practice with feedback, which are essential for adult learning.

Considerations for Coaching Using Alternative Models

Coaching Teams

In some programs, coaching occurs with the entire teaching team or groups of staff with similar goals. Instead of individuals setting goals, teaching team members set goals together and are collectively observed by the coach. In this model, coaches should facilitate the team members working together to determine what they as a group want to improve on and how they will do it. When meeting with a team, ideally you strategically pose questions to encourage team members to do most of the talking, goal setting, and planning. Your role as the coach is to act as a resource to the group and keep these conversations going. Through your open-ended questions, you can highlight situations in which one team member is particularly strong at a practice to encourage the entire teaching team to also implement the practice in a high-quality way. If Sam, a staff member in a school-age program, is great at encouraging children to cooperate during group activities and you want to nudge other staff toward his style of interaction with children, you might say, “I’ve noticed that Sam is very effective with getting the kids to work out conflicts with an appropriate amount of independence. How do you think he does this?” The coach in this situation prompts Sam’s coworkers to think about and recognize that Sam knows when to interject during conflicts, sets up activities to encourage cooperation, and always makes the expectations for what children are to do during activities very clear before they begin. When everyone is carrying out these practices, the entire teaching team’s competency increases. In this model, it is important that the coach is highlighting the individual strengths of each of the staff members in the group so that all staff members feel valued and competent.

Distance Coaching

Did you know that some public and private sector programs have coaches that rarely or never step foot into the programs where learners work? They rely solely on technology as their mode of support. In these models, coaches may review filmed video footage of staff members and provide feedback through a learning management system. Or they may use email for written work and video chat with learners during sessions. Although distance or virtual coaching is a potentially cost-saving way to provide professional development, the downside is that learners do not have direct access to modeling from the coach. On the plus side, learners could have their own video footage to review. Reviewing film of yourself in practice is a very powerful tool to objectively assess baseline practices and change over time. However, in programs that have security cameras, coaches are strongly discouraged from using security camera footage in place of scheduled observations. Learners should view observation time as supportive assessment and not a caught-you-in-the-act method. 

Although to ensure compliance, your program may occasionally review security camera footage, it’s important to distinguish between compliance and coaching. This lesson introduces you to the concept of distance coaching as an alternative coaching model if or when in-person coaching is not feasible for a program.

Tiered Coaching

Some programs may provide prioritized coaching, meaning that identified staff receive additional support and the frequency of support provided is based on a tiered model. For example, staff who are new or demonstrate lack of critical competence may be required to meet with their coach at least once a month, whereas more skilled staff may only be required to meet with the coach once a quarter. In these programs, you will want to carefully facilitate goals based on the frequency of your interaction with the learner. Goals for a staff member you will not see for another three months will look very different from goals for a staff member you’ll visit again in two weeks. In pared-down or tiered programs, work with the program administrator and possibly the state, system, or funder of your work to more specifically determine the purpose of your coaching. Simply checking off a box that you provided coaching does not benefit the staff member or the children in care. You will learn more about how coaching fits into the larger picture of quality improvement in child care programs in Lesson Six.


Listen as experts discuss the importance of individualizing coaching support so that it meets the needs of new and more experienced professionals.

Coaching Support for New Staff

Listen how to use the VLS to support new staff.

Coaching Support for Seasoned Professionals

Listen how to use the VLS to support seasoned staff.


As you think about the diverse needs of the staff in your program and about the different points they are at along their careers, consider these practices:

  • Have empathy for new staff members who have never worked in child care or are new to working. They will need time and your help to learn the day-to-day flow.
  • Make sure all staff members are introduced to the VLS and understand how to complete coursework. You should also provide clear expectations for the staff member’s role and the coach’s role.
  • For all staff, stick to the foundations of coaching. Focus on objective practices, their understanding and awareness of their practices, staff-led goal setting, and modeling and practice with feedback.
  • Understand that experienced staff who lack critical competencies may not have had ample opportunities to improve over their careers. Give them the chance to do that now.
  • Create a shared sense of professional development throughout your program. Encourage collaboration within teaching teams and capitalize on skilled staff members’ abilities to model and informally mentor others.


You will want to encourage all staff, regardless of their stage in career and competency, to become more independent with awareness of their practices, thinking about why their practices lead to desired outcomes or not, problem-solving solutions, and determining action steps. Coaches facilitate this through carefully crafted open-ended questions. Review the Reflective Questioning handout for examples of how you can promote this in the staff you coach.


In this lesson under the Considerations for New Staff Members and CDA Candidates section, you learned that if you observe a concerning practice that is primarily covered in a course a staff member has not yet completed, you will still want to provide coaching around this practice. In this lesson, the example was a staff member whose only communication with the children in care was correction and harsh responses. In the Connecting Foundational Care Practices activity, you will have an opportunity to think about how you can use a Competency Reflection to connect more supportive communication and guidance to the staff member’s practice.

The Competency Reflections associated with each direct care Foundational Course are tools that are especially helpful in identifying new staff member’s strengths and goals within a particular domain or functional area of practice. The Caregiving Observation and Reflection Tool (CORT) is a comprehensive tool that can be used to identify strengths and areas of growth for caregivers that have already completed their foundational training. You can complete a comprehensive observation by using the entire CORT, or you can choose to observe staff members in specific domains of the CORT. Use the instructions and guidance in the CORT to observe staff members in your program. As you use this tool, document your notes and rate staff member’s observed practices on the full CORT Observation Sheet or one of the domain specific observation sheets listed below. You can then use the CORT: Action Plan document to review your observations and set strong, collaborative goals for growth with each staff member.


For experienced staff members who lack critical competencies, the best way to support them is to:
True or false? All staff members should have a session with their coach every other week.
Which does not describe a recommended way to support highly skilled and experienced staff:
References & Resources

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Random House.

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.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2020.) Are generational categories meaningful distinctions for workforce management?. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

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.