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The Virtual Lab School: Partnering with Program Managers to Support Quality Programs

As a coach, you play a significant role in making sure your program provides high-quality child care. To meet this expectation, you collaborate with your Program Manager to ensure that you have a well-supported staff and a systematic way to provide access to essential training on critical practices and ongoing coaching for continued professional growth. In this lesson, you will learn the importance of building partnerships with the Program Manager, and how to use the Virtual Lab School (VLS) as a professional development tool to help your program collect data to support quality program improvement.

  • Understand the importance of process quality.
  • Describe ways to build and maintain strong partnerships with program managers.
  • Use VLS data to inform program-wide goal setting.
  • Collaborate with program managers to implement effective professional development.



The Mission of Child Care Programs

Take a moment to think about the purpose of your program. This may seem like an obvious question, but organizations must have a clearly identified mission if they are to have long-term sustainability and success. Most program leaders and publicly funded child care initiatives identify two main purposes: to provide a safe environment for children while their parents are at work or continue their education and to maximize children’s potential through high-quality learning experiences. If you have worked in this field for a long time, you likely remember when only the first objective was emphasized. As a coach and program leader today, you are acutely aware that there is not only more attention paid to the quality of child care programs but it is the expectation of states and systems that all care is high-quality and positively contributes to children’s development, well-being, and learning.

What defines a high-quality child care program? Your state or system defines quality according to its quality rating and improvement system (QRIS), which outlines the standards of care for child care programs. Licensing regulations, which are intended to protect the health and safety of children, often work in combination with a QRIS. In many systems, licensing regulations are a baseline with additional practices that support children’s learning and development built into higher rating levels. Tiered systems recognize, and often reward, programs for going above and beyond the health and safety components of child care through higher ratings.

How do you create a high-quality child care program? To answer this question, you must think about two components of quality—structure and process. Structural quality refers to the aspects of child care programs that are generally regulated and set by licensing boards or government entities. These include child-to-adult ratio, group size, and the adequacy of the program space. Process quality refers to more difficult-to-measure elements, such as how stimulating an environment and interactions are for children’s learning, the quality of the relationships between staff and children, and the amount of family input. Both components are important, but you likely have little flexibility to change most structural quality aspects: you cannot decide to have a higher child-to-adult ratio, for example. You have the most influence in affecting the process quality in your program and it is the quality interactions between staff and children that have the most impact for children. You do this by creating a program environment that supports staff who are informed and skilled and receive ongoing opportunities for growth. Think of your program’s staff as the most valuable input or asset to achieve high-quality programming—and thus optimal development and learning for children. To create and maintain a well-supported staff, you will need to partner with your program manager to develop an intentional and systematic structure so you can hire, train, coach, and retain staff who are prepared to meet the complex and changing needs of children, families, and systems.

High-Quality Child Care Programming

Systematic Professional Development
Informed & Skilled Staff
Quality Relationships & Learning Experiences for Children
Optimal Development and Learning for Children

Using the Virtual Lab School to Support Quality Programs

The Virtual Lab School (VLS) is an online system of professional development with a unified framework of information, resources, and tools based on research in the fields of child and youth development. The VLS is not a standalone textbook of information; rather VLS content is complemented by and strengthened from the on-the-ground coaching provided by coaches, trainers, and administrators. VLS content provides all staff—whether in program leadership or a direct care role—with the information they need to provide high-quality care. VLS content ensures that direct care staff have an opportunity to gain knowledge on critical competencies needed to fulfill their roles within their program. Coaching is the strategy that bridges knowledge with implementation of best practices. Coaching individualizes the professional development experience for staff and reinforces information learned in the VLS courses. Coaches and program managers should also complete VLS coursework in their respective tracks; this establishes a common and consistent language among all staff in the program.  

As a coach, one of your primary roles is to directly interact with staff regarding coursework completion, and to provide ongoing professional development and job-embedded coaching support. You also support your staff and program when you use data to promote continuous quality improvement. After VLS tools and activities are completed, your accompanying coaching documentation becomes a rich source of data for your program. The data acquired from using the VLS can be used to set goals and individualize your coaching efforts with staff members. You can also collaborate with your program manager to use this data to set goals and action steps, and implement policies and procedures for program-wide improvement. You can think of this process as a larger scale version of the goal-setting cycle that coaches use with individual staff members. T&CSs and program managers can use VLS data to answer the following questions:

  • What are the strengths of the staff? Based on coaching documentation, what has been done to help them excel in those areas?
  • What coaching strategies are being used? Are they working? Which strategies are most effective?
  • Are there practices that staff generally need to improve on? What are we doing to help them now? How else can we support this area of their work? 
  • Are there critical deficits that we must address immediately? How will we go about doing this? 
  • What are the program’s hiring priorities? Do we need staff who have experience or competence working with specific age groups or program needs? 
  • What are our program’s training expectations? How do we make sure new staff members have the support needed to fulfill their roles? 
  • How do we support staff who have worked in the program or in the field for a long time? How are their needs different from less experienced staff members? Are experienced staff still growing? 
  • How does data from the VLS align or not align with licensing reports?

Although data such as licensing reports can inform program goals, VLS activities and tools are types of data related to process quality that more specifically help you assess the overall strengths and needs of staff. It is primarily the coach’s responsibility to collect data—observe staff, review coursework, and give feedback. However, you can collaborate with your program manager to analyze this data as well. You and your program manager should work together to create a system to periodically review data from competency reflections, End of Course Assessments (EOCA), lesson activities, and coaching documentation on a program-wide level. Sharing information about the day-to-day happenings and needs of the program will help you collaboratively identify program-wide goals and action steps to achieve these goals. Communication and analysis of the data from VLS tools and coursework helps you and your program manager prioritize areas where your program may need to do program-wide professional development, provide more resources, and make staffing considerations. Data also helps your program manager quantify the benefits of coaching as a cost-effective mode of professional development that helps the program meet goals and standards. This is especially important if your program provides a limited amount of coaching or does not have a coach permanently built into the budget and you are trying to make the case for continued or expanded funding.

The Coach-Program Manager Partnership

Think for a moment about the ways that you currently collaborate with your program manager. What systems, structures, and practices do you put into place to build and maintain your partnership? How do you work together to support program staff and each other? In high quality programs, coaches and program managers work collaboratively as partners to achieve the same goal: continuous program improvement. The partnership you have with your program manager will vary depending on the structure of your program. In some programs, coaches may dually serve as an assistant director or also be the program director. In other programs, the individuals who provide coaching are employed by an outside agency; this can be particularly challenging because the coach likely has a very specific objective and isn’t part of your program’s leadership or decision-making. Fortunately, in military child care programs there are dedicated personnel that fulfill the role of T&CS. Program manager’s and T&CS’s roles are considered equal and supportive roles. Both are essential to caring out the vision and mission of military child care. While the roles and responsibilities of a coach may differ from those of a program manager, it is important that you remember that you are still teammates with a shared goal. Review the chart below and reflect on the shared responsibilities that you have with your program manager, T&CS or coach.

T&CS or Coach Responsibilities
  • Provides training & professional development
  • Provides coaching support to staff
  • Models best practices
  • Provides supportive & constructive feedback
  • Provides reflective feedback
Common Responsibilities
  • Develops relationships
  • Observes
  • Analyzes data
  • Provides resources
  • Mentors
  • Participates in goal setting
  • Strengthens the community of learners
  • Motivates and inspires
Program Manager Responsibilities
  • Coordinates scheduling & timing for professional development
  • Manages budget, staffing, and scheduling
  • Evaluates performance
  • Provides summative feedback
  • Provides reflective supervision

T&CSs and program managers have some responsibilities and duties that are distinct to their role in the program; however, they also have many responsibilities in common too. Both roles develop relationships with staff, analyze data and use data to inform practice, set goals for improvement, motivate staff, create a culture of support, mentor, and create and strengthen the community of learners in their program. The role of the coach and program manager is complimentary and interdependent. Your actions and approaches complement one another and depend on one another to fully support staff and program wide improvement efforts.

Practices that Support Collaboration and Partnership

Regardless of the nature of your partnership with the program manager, you should be supportive of each other’s responsibilities and objectives. The coach and the program manager should discuss the mission of the program and work toward a shared vision of how the program should look and feel. When your program has a shared vision and both parties understand how each contribute to the program mission, it communicates to staff that you work as a team to ensure the success of your program. You should also hold each other accountable for meeting the mission of the program, particularly the commitments to high-quality care and ongoing growth for staff.

You and your program manager should work to build a partnership in which you can openly communicate with one another. This means you will express your concerns to your program manager and listen to your program manager’s concerns. Creating systems for regular communication allows you to connect with one another about training needs, trends on inspection or licensing reports, staff member’s progress in coursework, difficulties with staff members, or scheduling and staffing issues. An environment that values communication, collaboration, and shared decision making is important for your relationship with the program manager and the coaching partnerships you have with staff.

As a coach, you are part of the direct care staff’s support system. You will develop partnerships over time with staff so they are comfortable expressing, without fear of judgment, what they aren’t sure about, what they feel they need to improve, and what factors might hold them back from making progress in their work. The coaching partnership should uplift staff members so they can honestly share their goals, their self-assessed improvement, and how they feel they contribute to the children in their care. There is a fine line between strengths-based support provided by a coach and the performance evaluation conducted by an administrator. You should have an open dialogue with staff members about your partnership with the program manager. It’s important to communicate to staff members that your role is to support their professional growth and practice but that you and the program manager work together to support staff. Sharing upfront that you and the program manager communicate regularly about staff members’ strengths and professional development helps staff know and trust that some coaching observations will remain private and others will be shared with the program manager. As a coach, you need to be intentional when discussing information about staff with the program manager. For example, you may share goals for staff members or program trends and challenges that staff members are consistently facing as a way to improve program practices. A surefire way to create a negative culture in your program is for staff to perceive that you and the program manager unconstructively talk about staff members. Some examples of when it is appropriate for a coach to discuss their observations about staff include:

  • Staff member shows consistent strengths in particular areas and ways they may take on more leadership responsibility (I.e., mentoring other staff)
  • Staff member has a consistent pattern of nonparticipation in coaching or professional development.
  • Staff member abuses or neglects a child or breaks a program policy.
  • Staff member, despite effort and support from the coach, is not able to meet the basic responsibilities of their position.
  • Staff member requests a workplace accommodation.
  • Staff members strengths are highlighted so that coach and program manager can discuss ways to empower staff

You and the program manager should work together to establish and implement systems that allow coaching to thrive. When you work together to develop systems for implementing coaching across a program, you ensure that your time is well spent and impactful. As a coach, you need an environment that allows you to be flexible and meet the needs of staff. Overly prescriptive models that mandate a specific number of coaching observations and sessions do not individualize the professional development experience and often set unrealistic expectations for the coach and staff. Work together with your program manager to create expectations that provide some checks and balances (for example, all staff must have a minimum number of observations with coaching per year) that are also flexible so the coach’s valuable time can be spent supporting the program in ways that best meet goals. The frequency of coaching should be individualized to the staff member’s needs, experience, and level of foundational training. In an individualized and flexible model, the frequency of coaching visits may be determined together by the coach and staff member or visits may be more frequent and structured based on where the staff member is in their foundational training and the amount of support needed. As you begin to discuss and establish these systems with your program manager, you and the program manager should consider some of the following questions: 

  • What does the coach spend the most time doing?
  • How many coaching observations and sessions can a coach complete during a day’s work?
  • How many staff members does the coach support? 
  • How many staff members are in their initial training period?
  • Who is responsible for providing program wide in-service? 
  • What is the program’s retention rate?
  • What other administrative duties does the coach have? 
  • Is the coach responsible for filling in when the administrator is away?

These questions can help you and the program manager determine how best to use your time and set attainable expectations. Some programs may only be able to fund a part-time coach or may have a very large staff. In this situation, you will want to think carefully about the goals of this position and whether a comprehensive model, where all staff receive coaching, makes sense. If you and the program manager determine that there is a gap between the coaching resources available and the expectations and deliverables of the coach, you may want to consider alternative coaching programs. These programs may provide targeted coaching to new hires, staff without credentials, or those identified as needing remediation, for example. This decision should be driven by your program-wide goals, data, and resources. Refer to your program-specific policies regarding coaching methods and requirements before making any decisions regarding alternative coaching methods.

Program managers and T&CSs should work together to build a partnership in which you can engage in open and honest communication. This means you should express your concerns to the T&CS and listen to the T&CS’s concerns with an open mind. Creating systems for regular communication allows you to connect with one another about training needs, trends on inspection or licensing reports, staff member’s progress, and difficulties with staff members, or scheduling and staffing issues.

How Program Managers and Training and Curriculum Specialists Form a Strong Team

A Program Manager and Training & Curriculum Specialist share how they helped to support each other’s role and form a strong cohesive team.

The Coach's Role in Hiring, Training, and Retaining Staff

Coaches and program managers should discuss and work closely on the hiring of new staff. Potential employees’ experience and education are important, but equally important for programs using the VLS is that staff members are open to and understand the value of professional development and coaching. When you collaborate with program managers on the hiring process, you can have upfront conversations about these expectations in the interview process and will also be more likely to hire staff that will uphold these expectations and weed out candidates who may not want to engage in this part of the work. If, during an interview, an experienced candidate with significant training indicates they don’t need coaching, this should be a red flag that this person’s professional values do not align with your program expectations. At the very least, it could warrant a follow-up question during the interview.

As a coach, you likely have an in-depth understanding of the dynamics of teaching teams and classroom-specific needs. For example, if your program is hiring for a position in a particular classroom that has two existing teaching assistants who are newer to the field, an administrator who is more removed from the day-to-day dynamics may assume they need a more senior person in this position. As the coach in this scenario, you might point out that the two teaching assistants are very competent and quick learners, thereby changing how the program manager thinks about the specific needs of the classroom and the best-fit hire for the position.

You likely have a set of requirements that are part of new-hire training. As the program’s coach, you are likely responsible for training all new hires and documenting that they have received all required trainings. One critical way to collaborate with program managers is to offer your input on current training requirements, and to share whether the training requirements adequately support new staff. Do most staff members have the necessary skills they need once their formal training is complete? Do staff members generally struggle to complete all training requirements in a prescribed amount of time? In addition to initial training, annual training may be dictated by your state or system. Work with your program manager to determine the best method to meet training requirements and, more importantly, get the support you need to help staff members use this information to inform their practice.

You should collaborate with your program manager to make sure staff members have time to complete VLS coursework and meet with their coach. It is one thing to say your program provides coaching and professional development, but creating a workplace in which these best practices actually happen takes intentional effort. Discuss with your program manager expectations around time for coursework, workstation setup, and maintaining professional development documentation. You and the program manager should work together to identify when and how coursework and coaching will be completed, and how it will be documented. You and the program manager need to have the same understanding about these procedures so that correct information is communicated to existing staff and new hires. If staff are able to complete coursework during paid time, where will they work? Can they use their own laptops? Who is responsible for maintaining their professional development records, which are often necessary for licensing or accreditation? These are a few examples of logistical questions you and your program manager need to be on the same page about. Clearly defined roles for direct care staff, coaches, and administrators minimize confusion and finger-pointing during unforeseen or unpleasant circumstances and prevent such instances in the first place.

Consistent caregiving is important for children of all families, and high turnover is costly to programs. If there is higher than expected turnover or a negative sentiment among staff in your program, discuss these issues with your program manager so you understand the causes and can work together to create realistic steps to remedy them. High turnover increases the workload of the coach, especially if the coach is expected to provide significant support to new hires. Negative sentiment affects the engagement of staff in the work they do with children, families, and co-workers. As the person who works closely with staff, you may have insight into why there is high turnover or negative sentiment and may be able to work with your program manager to come up with practical solutions. Additionally, you and the program manager should proactively work together to create a space that values reflection, growth, teamwork, collaboration, and shared decision-making. Together you can create a space where staff feel safe to talk about challenges and brainstorm solutions. In this environment, leadership actively looks for ways to empower staff and show that they value staffs’ contributions, and where staff feel connected to each other, to you, and to the program manager. When the program environment and leadership meet staff members’ need for competence, autonomy, and connection, they are more likely to feel supported and remain a part of the program.

Partnering with Families to Support Quality Programs

The coach and program manager work together to establish high-quality programs that support the diverse needs of children and families. You do this by creating a program environment that invests in its staff, supports their ongoing professional development, and is committed to continuous quality improvement. You and the program manager work together to ensure that staff are informed and skilled at implementing the high quality practices that are critical to the development of relationships, interactions and learning experiences that support children’s optimal development. The support that you provide to staff is critical to the program’s mission and should be communicated to the families your program serves. You and the program manager should collaborate with one another to inform families about the ways in which you support staff members’ skills and professional development and why this is so critical. You can also collaborate on ways that families can be involved in supporting staff’s professional growth or overall program improvement. For example, you and the program manager can brainstorm ways that families can show appreciation for staff members or encourage staff members to continue working toward their goals. You can also work together to brainstorm creative ways to gather feedback from families on the ways in which the program could be improved. Gathering this information from families gives them a voice and demonstrates that program leadership values their opinions. It also provides you and the program manager with another piece of data to make informed decisions about the program.


Listen as a coach and Program Manager describe how a supportive relationship between program leaders is critical to program quality.

Essential Relationships for Program Wide Improvements

Listen as program leaders discuss the critical relationship between Coaches and Program Managers.


As a coach using the VLS in your program, there are fundamental steps you can take so that you optimize your investment in the VLS content and coaching:

  • Be familiar with and implement structural quality elements dictated by your state or system. The VLS Training & Curriculum Specialist and Management tracks provide general guidance for what to consider, but defer to your state or system for specific recommendations. 
  • Focus on process-quality elements through coaching support and professional development. 
  • Build a strong partnership with the program manager so there are clearly defined roles, open communication, and a shared vision for goals.
  • Share objective feedback based on your observation or staff input with the program manager. 
  • Organize and utilize VLS data (coursework activities, Competency Reflections, EOCAs, coaching documentation) to understand staff’s strengths, areas of need, and to set program-wide goals.
  • Work with the program manager during the hiring process to emphasize your program’s expectations for professional development and coaching.
  • Understand how coaching support and performance evaluation are different.
  • Communicate to families how you support staff and provide professional development.


Whether you’ve used the VLS in your program for some time or are just beginning, there are many logistical aspects to consider when creating systems for effective coaching. Review the questions about Coaching Design and Implementation and discuss with your program manager how coaching will look in your program. 


Though it is extremely important that you meet your state or system’s requirements for quality, it is equally important that you inform and communicate to families ways in which your program is high quality. Distribute this Family Checklist from Child Care Aware to guide conversations with families about your program and to help you and your program manager create program-wide goals.


Which of the following describes how to implement the VLS in a child-care program?
True or false? It is only the coach’s responsibility to review staff members’ coursework and data.
True or false? The coach and program manager should work together to determine a prescribed number of coaching visits that each staff member should receive.
References & Resources

Administration for Children & Families, Office of Child Care. (2014). Comparison of State Licensing and QRIS Standards for Infants and Toddlers in Child Care Centers: Learning Environment, Developmental Domains, and Assessment.

Boneti, S. & Brown, K. (2018). Structural Elements of Quality Early Years Provision: A review of the evidence. Education Policy Institute.

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

Institute of Medicine. (2000). From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

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.

O’Keefe, B. (2017). Primetime for Coaching: Improving instructional coaching in early childhood education. Bellwether Education Partners.

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).