- Define a strengths-based approach and growth mindset.
- Understand the cyclical process of goal setting and goal achievement.
- Use VLS Tools to help you and staff members set and meet goals.
Use a Strengths-Based Approach & Growth Mindset
In this lesson, you will learn more about the circular process of goal setting and how to use coaching strategies for ongoing professional development for program staff. A key feature of coaching versus supervising or inspecting is that it is non-evaluative. Your role is not to critique learners or to pick apart their practices to find something wrong or find faults. Instead, you function as part of their support system. Do not expect perfection from direct care staff. In coaching, you use a strengths-based approach, meaning you look for what staff members do well and build on these strengths so they gain competence and confidence. Opposite of this is deficit-based learning, where you identify what is wrong and correct it. Keep in mind that there may be times where you will need to quickly identify a caregiver’s unsafe practice with them because it puts a child at risk of harm. If you observe a caregiver serve a young toddler whole grapes, this is an example of when you will immediately address this practice and clearly state why it puts the child at risk and what should be done instead. Other instances that would require immediate feedback include: a caregiver leaving a program out of ratio, not using regular name to face checks at transition times, and a caregiver putting a young infant to sleep on their stomach. Think for a moment about other scenarios that you have faced, where you provided immediate feedback.
Similar to a strengths-based approach, you will use a growth mindset when working with staff. With a growth mindset, you focus on the progress the learner makes over time, rather than on specific achievements. For example, if, on your initial assessment, you rated a staff member as “emerging” in most competencies, but three months later, most of their ratings were “developing,” recognize the extensive growth the staff member has made, rather than focus on what they haven’t yet achieved.
Collaborative Goal Setting
A defining feature of coaching that distinguishes it from training, consulting, or other processes is that the learner, with the thoughtful guidance of a coach, drives the goal-setting process. Collaborative goal setting happens when you and the learner equally contribute to assess competency, establish goals and actions, and implement practices. Steps to carry out collaborative goal setting are: use data, reflect, observe, model, provide feedback.
You and the learner will together assess the learner’s level of competency or particular skills you are targeting. Think about the strategies or tools you both can use to help you assess competency. For example, part of your work as a coach is to observe direct care professionals. After observing, you and direct care staff can use the Virtual Lab School Competency Reflections (or other caregiver observation tools), as a form of data to assess competency and establish goals and actions. There may be times when there are significant gaps between what you and the learner report. This is an opportunity to use open-ended reflective questions to find out more about the learner’s view of their practices.
If a direct care professional consistently rates themselves as “emerging” on a competency reflection when you rate them as “mastered,” you might say, “You are much more advanced than you rated yourself. By your answers on the VLS activities and through observation, I have seen you demonstrate mastery of the practices within this area of your work. Tell me what I can do so you feel more confident in this area.”
When learners overrate their competency, it may feel more difficult to initiate these conversations, but you must address whether the gap is in their knowledge or in their ability to implement practices. Use reflection by asking learners to give you specific examples of how they address competencies that you assessed or observed to be lower than how they rated themselves to help you both determine how to best support competency growth.
If a direct care staff member overrated their competency or is unaware of a critical practice they need to improve, again use an open-ended question to prompt their thinking. “I see you self-rated yourself as “mastered” for the competency, “Follow children’s cues and preferences.” "What are some examples of how you do this?”
When you have previously established goals with a learner, you will use these same strategies and tools (data, observations, reflection, and feedback) to jointly assess their competency on previously stated goals and determine if it is time to develop new goals or modify existing action steps.
Establish Goals and Actions
Once you and the learner have a shared understanding of the learner’s competency level, it is time to establish goals. You and the learner should establish goals together, based on both the staff member’s interests and your observations. It is up to you as the coach to decide if the direct care professional is at a place in their work where you can give them more freedom to decide what they would like to improve upon or learn. Use open-ended questions to help the learner communicate what they are most interested to learn or improve upon next.
“You have a really good handle on all of the practices covered and are always doing what is needed to keep children safe and cared for. What do you want to improve on or learn about to support your work with children and families?”
There may be other times when, based on your observation and data, a direct care professional needs to address a particular habit or practice. For example, if you observe a direct care professional frequently forgetting to wash their hands after diaper changes, this potentially puts children, staff, and families at risk. Provide feedback in a caring but objective way to establish appropriate handwashing as a goal.
“Three out of the five times I’ve seen you change diapers, I have observed you to not follow the CDC’s handwashing procedures. It is very important that you practice proper handwashing at every diaper change so children, families, and staff stay healthy. Also, improper handwashing puts you at increased risk of getting sick. What do you think about making this one of your goals?”
Notice how specific and objective language was used rather than an opinion such as, “I think you need to do a better job with handwashing.” Coaches should give detailed feedback so it is very clear to learners when their caregiving practices meet competencies and when they need support in a particular skill or area.
Once you and the direct care staff are in agreement about a goal, you may need to determine the following action steps: (1) what the direct care professional will do to improve in a competency, (2) how they will do it, (3) when they will do it, (4) what you will do to support the direct care provider, and (5) how you will follow up on the established goal. For the above example, the learner will follow the CDC guidelines for handwashing by using the poster in the classroom as a guide after every single diaper change. As a coach, you will make sure to ask what the learner feels they need from you to implement the practice. Together, you and the learner should determine what resources the learner needs to be successful. If the handwashing poster is missing from the room the staff member works in, you can assist by promptly placing a new poster above the sink. As the coach, you will also observe the staff member in two weeks to determine if handwashing practices have improved.
The above example with handwashing is fairly simple, but some caregiving practices are more likely to be interpreted differently and therefore can be difficult to understand. You, or a coworker who is skilled in this competency, can model what a particular practice looks like. For example, a coach and learner establish that the learner’s goal will be to narrate and respond to toddlers’ gestures. As part of their action plan, they will want to plan a time when the coach can model the skill so the learner can observe and practice with feedback.
Implement the Practice
If you and a direct care professional decide that there are strategies, such as modeling, that need to be completed before the learner can implement the practice, the coach’s role in this step is to carry out that part of the action plan. This ensures that the learner has a clear understanding of what to do and that you have provided needed support. After modeling, follow up using open-ended questions to reflect with the learner. Reflection after modeling allows you to self-assess your ability to coach and model, as well as observe the effect your modeling had on direct care professional’s learning.
“What did you notice when Sammy [a toddler] was reaching toward the upper cabinets?” If Sammy was gesturing for a specific toy, you, as a coach, may have looked at Sammy and responded, “You want the blocks up there. I’ll get them for you,” while retrieving the blocks for the child. When the strategy has been successfully modeled, the staff member will notice that you narrated the child’s intention to have the blocks and responded to the gesture by retrieving them.
Once you have wrapped up follow-up conversations, plan a time for when the direct care professional would like you to observe them implementing the new practice. You should schedule follow-up observations and sessions based on when the staff member expects to have had enough time to practice and show change toward the goals. This may be a week, a month, or longer. When a goal is around a critical skill that when not practiced puts children at risk of harm, you will need to follow up very soon. During this follow-up observation, discuss the improvements in practice that you observed or reflect with the staff member on the differences that you expect to see. Be prepared to readdress resources and supports the learner may need if the goal was not achieved. A follow-up observation allows you to reassess competency and support the circular process for goal setting.
It is natural for individual learners to more easily achieve some concepts and to struggle to learn and implement others, and this is not a bad thing. Some practices are more complex and conceptual while others are very straightforward. For staff who have core knowledge but lack putting concepts into practice, you will want to model so they can observe what the practice looks like in the context of their work. Though planning and face-to-face conversing is very important, all staff members (even those not having challenges) should have opportunities to observe you or other identified coworkers implementing best practices. You may need to arrange for an additional staff member to be present so ratios are maintained and the learner can focus with you. Another way for coaches to model is through “just-in-time” and “on-the-fly” coaching—both concepts coined by Dathan Rush and M’Lisa Shelden that are specific to coaching teachers (2011).
Just-in-time coaching occurs when the coach steps into a naturally occurring situation to model and help out in the moment. For example, if, during a scheduled observation, the coach sees a staff member struggle to help a toddler transition from free play to mealtime (the child kicks, screams, and won’t get up from the floor) the coach can step in to help and model appropriate strategies to meet the objective of safely helping the child transition. Modeling specific practices for staff (whether planned or just-in-time) is an effective coaching strategy that helps bridge knowledge with practice. Modeling is most effective when a coach explicitly communicates with the staff member that they plan to model a practice before doing so. For example, before modeling occurs in the situation above, you could verbally prompt the staff member so that they understand they are about to receive modeling by saying, “I’m noticing Sophie is really struggling with this mealtime transition, I would like to model a strategy that can be really helpful with calming and preparing a toddler for a transition. Watch as I lead Sophie through a deep breathing exercise.”
On-the-fly coaching refers to the quick reflection and feedback that occurs when the coach has stepped into model to help the learner. For the example above of a toddler resisting transition to mealtime, once the child is settled in, the coach may ask the staff member, “What helped [child] decide to come over to the table?” This prompts the staff member to become aware of what was either effective or not effective and prompts the coach to give feedback, as appropriate, such as, “When you comforted [child] and talked to her about how she gets to eat her meal like all her friends, she came around to transitioning more easily.” This positive reinforcement helps learners become aware of their strong skill sets and encourages them to continue with these practices.
Use VLS Tools to Support Goal Setting and Achievement
You were introduced to VLS Tools in the Learn section of Lesson Two, and the Competency Reflections are particularly valuable in driving goal setting and improving staff members’ practices. Read how Claire, a coach, uses the Competency Reflection, Course Guide, and End of Course Assessment to support goal setting and succeed in meeting goals for Ryan, a staff member.
Scenario: Claire & Ryan
Claire asks Ryan, a lead teacher in a preschool classroom, to complete the Competency Reflection for the Learning Environments course before he begins the first lesson. This provides Claire a baseline for what Ryan already knows and does within this practice area. Claire and Ryan set a time and date for when Claire will observe Ryan in his program setting, specifically to observe this practice area.
During the observation, Claire takes notes and they follow up later. Claire completes her version of the Safe Environments Competency Reflection for Ryan before they meet. When they meet, they discuss what happened during the observation, Ryan’s self-assessment, and Claire’s assessment. They compare and discuss similarities, differences, and their notes. Together they complete the concluding reflections section at the end of the Competency Reflection, and Claire makes sure to document and point out Ryan’s strengths.
Establish Goals and Actions
Together they develop a goal and write it in the “I want to strengthen my practice in” section. Claire makes sure to shape the goal with Ryan so it is specific, measurable, tied to routine or time of day, realistic, and achievable. The goal is, “By the end of February, using developmentally appropriate guidance, I will remind children of the expectations for what to do each time we transition between the classroom and the playground, and I will provide positive feedback to children when they follow expectations.” This goal came about because Claire and Ryan assessed that this routine needed improvement, and classroom challenges were greater when Claire observed this transition during a fire drill. Claire asks Ryan, “What makes this a difficult transition?” Ryan states that one challenge is that his classroom placement in the building is quite far from the entrance to the playground, making it more difficult for preschoolers. Claire affirms that this makes it difficult, but they both recognize this is an area for Ryan to provide more support. Claire also asks, “What have you already tried so the children are safe and follow expectations during the transition?” Ryan discusses that he hasn’t given it a whole lot of thought but he knows it’s not going well.
In the Competency Reflection under the, “My plans to achieve these goals” section, Ryan and Claire come up with an idea to give the children reminders of what they should do before leaving the classroom and playground. Ryan didn’t do that during the observation, and Claire rated this practice as emerging: “Provide specific, positive feedback when a child or youth navigates a routine successfully” (Direct observation #11, on the Learning Environments Competency Reflection). Claire makes sure to mention that there are other strategies within the Learning Environments course, and she suggests Ryan add to the “My plans to achieve these goals” section as he works through those lessons. They use the Course Guide to review how many lessons there are and how long Ryan thinks it will take him to complete those and all activities. He decides that he needs a month, and Claire agrees this is a good timeframe. The date for which the goal is set, the end of February, is one month away. Ryan feels this is enough time to complete the Learning Environments course and implement new strategies. Claire and Ryan plan to do a mid-cycle follow-up in two weeks, when Claire will observe again.
Implement the Practice
Two weeks later when Claire observes again, she notes definite changes in how Ryan supports this transition. He made sure to tell the children, “We keep our hands to ourselves; we keep our voices quiet; we use walking feet” before the children left the classroom and when coming back inside. Things have definitely improved, but she noted no instances when Ryan provided positive feedback to children during the transition for following the rules, and his demeanor seems a bit unfriendly for preschoolers. However, she does have evidence of Ryan’s growth because she has been requested to review several of his completed Learning Environments course lesson activities through the VLS learning management system. Ryan shows improved understanding of important course objectives through this part of the coursework.
When they meet afterwards, Ryan and Claire are in agreement that things have improved. Claire provides descriptive feedback to Ryan about his consistency in using reminders about transition rules. She asks, “How are the children responding when you provide positive feedback to them for following the rules?” Ryan says, “Oh, I guess I forgot that part.” Claire reassures him that things are going more smoothly and makes sure to reinforce that this is a particularly tricky transition.
Establish Goals and Actions:
Claire says to Ryan, “Leah, one of the other preschool teachers, is particularly effective at helping her class transition, and she is also quite far from the playground. Would you be open to observing Leah before we meet again?” Claire knows that Leah, a very experienced and skilled teacher, is open to having others observe her. Ryan is open to this, and Claire coordinates so Ryan is able to step away from his class and observe Leah before they meet again.
Implement the Practice
About a month after Claire’s initial observation, and also after Ryan observed Leah, Claire observes Ryan again during a scheduled observation. Claire notices significant changes in how Ryan supports the children during this transition. He uses the fun jingle Leah sings with her class to help them learn the rules in a more child-friendly way. Ryan also walks most of the way facing the children, rather than with his back to them. He stops midway during the long walk from the classroom to the playground for a check in with the children and tells the class how safe and respectful they are being by using their walking feet, inside voices, and bubble space. When speaking to specific children, Ryan makes sure to use each of their first names. He implements these same practices when the class walks back into the building from the playground.
Ryan and Claire agree to both complete the Learning Environments Competency Reflection again after the observation but before they meet again. They both assess that Ryan has made significant growth, and Claire assessed him to improve by one level on over half of the competencies. They also conclude that Ryan has met his goal of, “By the end of February, using developmentally appropriate guidance, I will remind children of the expectations for what to do each time we transition from the classroom to the playground, and will provide positive feedback to children when they follow expectations.” They now decide that Ryan, who has completed all lessons and activities, is ready for the End of Course Assessment (EOCA) for Learning Environments. Claire recognizes that Ryan has shown growth, which is what matters most. Staff members are not expected to have mastered every competency before they are ready to complete the EOCA, and she encourages Ryan to continue to set goals for practice areas, even after he has been certified.
The scenario with Claire and Ryan highlights the circular nature of goal setting and goal achievement and the need to be flexible depending on where the learner is in the process. Notice how Claire primarily used reflective, open-ended questions to prompt Ryan to think about his actions rather than accusatory statements such as, “You didn’t give specific positive feedback to the children.” This coaching strategy helps learners become more aware of their practices and instills independence for growth in their work.
There is no magic formula to determine when to schedule a follow-up observation, when to meet next, and how much time a staff member needs to show progress with a goal. This will be individualized; use your judgment to determine if more frequent follow-up is needed, such as instances where you observe very concerning practices or breaking program policies. For staff in training, use the Course Guides to help you plot out how quickly coursework should be completed, especially if your program has a specific timeframe in which all orientation or training requirements must be complete. Building on previous lessons, develop trust with staff so they can openly share if there is an issue with the expectations placed on them—or even if they don’t find your coaching helpful.
Remember, goal setting is a cyclical process, a continuous cycle of improvement. The learner will feel invested in this process if you acknowledge the hard work and effort they have put toward changing practices. As a coach, you should determine how you will celebrate goal achievement. Even when goals have not been fully achieved, you can still recognize and celebrate milestones and accomplishments.
You may have already experienced instances where a staff member is slow to show growth or is not getting it. These are sometimes difficult and uncomfortable situations, and your role is to create an environment that allows staff to grow and learn over time. However, ultimately staff choose whether or not they will take advantage of these opportunities and to what extent they benefit. A staff member with a pattern of choosing to not fully participate in your program’s professional development warrants a conversation with your program administrator.
Some common challenges coaches observe include:
- A staff member whose lesson activities do not reflect understanding of content
- A staff member who does not demonstrate practices despite acceptable lesson activities or course completion
- A staff member who consistently struggles to complete coursework or follow through with identified action steps
The reasons these occur are varied, but some common factors are: (1) the staff member didn’t thoroughly read and complete the coursework, (2) the staff member does not comprehend course content, (3) the staff member understands the content but does not translate this to their own practice, (4) the staff member does not have sufficient time or access to complete activities or actional steps, (5) the staff member does not have enough input in the goal-setting and action-planning process, (6) the staff member generally feels undervalued and underappreciated.
If a staff member flat out tells you they didn’t read or spend much time doing lessons, they need to reread and recomplete coursework. Give guidance on how their work should be different this time, and make sure they actually have time allotted in their work schedule to do it.
If the staff member has sincerely put the time and effort into coursework completion but still does not comprehend or put this knowledge into practice, you need to model what these practices look like. Arrange for this to happen and consider just-in-time and on-the-fly coaching during your next observation. If, despite modeling and practice with feedback, the staff member still shows little or no growth, have an honest conversation with them. Your goal isn’t to accuse them or make them feel bad. Think of it as an opportunity to get to know their learning style better and importantly, ask for feedback about your coaching. It is sometimes easier to initiate these conversations when you say things like, “I feel like I haven’t helped you. What can I do differently?” or “I feel like I’m unsure of your learning style. What helps you most?” Err on the side of empathy in such situations in the event the staff member has a learning disability they have not disclosed, difficult personal circumstances that may be affect their work, or other challenges. Though they do not have to share such information with you, this approach lets them know you are in this together and willing to be flexible. If a staff member discloses a learning disability or need for accommodations, work with your administrator. If the staff member has constructive feedback regarding your helpfulness as a coach, work with them to learn what you can both do to better help them meet their goals.
To determine if you provide the right balance of autonomy and more directive guidance, be reflective and evaluate your own work. Do the staff members you coach generally make good progress and feel happy to have your help? Or is there a pattern of staff in your program not meeting expectations and demonstrating poor follow-through? Staff members can lack motivation if you are too directive and do not provide enough autonomy. The remedy is improvement of your own coaching practices, especially when staff generally show commitment to their work, but show little interest in having your support. Thoroughly reflect on the information in this course and, though it may be uncomfortable, honestly complete the Coaching Competency Reflection in the Apply section to help identify your action steps for improvement. You can also speak to your administrator for feedback. If a staff member chronically shows minimal interest in their work, not just in their collaboration with you, you and the program administrator need to discuss what steps to take to create an atmosphere of success for the staff member.
When an entire program’s staff generally feel undervalued and underappreciated, this means there are more program-wide concerns to address. When this is the case, there is likely a lot of turnover, burnout, and generally a negative feeling among staff members. These issues should be discussed with your program administrator. While there are many parts of employee happiness you cannot change, as a program leader you can directly advocate for reasonable changes to support staff in providing high-quality care. When there are problems, present these to your administrator with doable solutions or a willingness to create improvements together.
Listen as coaching experts describe how the Virtual Lab School can be used to support the goal setting process.
One challenge many coaches face is being the only person in a program in that role. If you work in a program where there is a separate administrator, that person is likely someone who can empathize with your responsibilities and challenges. But many coaches work independently and will need to utilize all available resources to support their work. You previously read that one key difference between the VLS Direct Care and Training and Curriculum Specialist lessons is the format. While all lessons, regardless of track, follow the LEAD (Learn, Explore, Apply, and Demonstrate) structure, the coaches’ lessons use a Teach-Model-Observe framework. Review how the Teach-Model-Observe framework and the VLS learning management system supports coaches, and use these parts of T&CS lessons to guide your work with staff.
- Use the Teach parts of lessons to know the most important concepts and practices you should use to support staff.
- Refer to the Model section for ideas on how to role model for staff so they learn the key practices discussed in the Teach sections. In our previous example, Claire had Leah model for Ryan. This is a good way to support direct care staff and help them network with other colleagues who can help them. Utilize other team members with proven competence to help provide learners more opportunities to observe others.
- Review the Observe sections to watch videos of scenarios, some demonstrating best practices, and some where you are asked to problem-solve how to handle less-than-ideal situations. Some lessons have a See-Say-Do table in the Observe section. These are mini scenarios where you can review examples of staff practices (See), examples of how you would initiate a coaching conversation (Say), and actions both you and staff members can take to improve a practice or belief (Do).
- Use the VLS learning management system to assess how staff members are progressing in their lessons and to give feedback on activities, as appropriate. Completion alone does not mean that staff members are progressing in the coursework. Schedule time with staff members if you see concerning activities that indicate they did not learn key concepts for particular lessons or if they are not completing coursework in a timely manner.
Think back to Ryan’s goal in the lesson scenario. It was important that Claire help Ryan formulate a goal that was specific, measurable, tied to routine or time of day, realistic, and achievable. When goals have these attributes, it makes it clear to both the coach and learner that expectations for actions support goal achievement and also include specific indicators when a goal has been met. Use the Action Plan Quality Checklist and explore how the checklist can help you create goals with staff.
You will inevitably face difficult situations in your role as a coach in helping staff members improve practices and meet goals. While staff members need to be accountable for doing their part in the process, coaches must also be realistic and honest about how well they do their jobs. Use the Coaching Competency Reflection, which is also in Lesson Two of the Program Management course, to self-assess your skills as a coach and to develop your own professional development goals.
|Growth mindset||Focus on the belief that abilities can develop or improve over time|
|Just-in-time coaching||Concept that emphasizes coaching that occurs during organic or naturally occurring events; for example, a coach steps in to help while observing a staff member struggling in the classroom|
|On-the-fly coaching||Concept that emphasizes the quick reflection and feedback that occurs when a coach steps into the classroom to model a practice to help the learner|
|Strengths-based approach||Policies, practice methods, and strategies that identify and draw upon the strengths of individuals|
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.
Rush, D. & Shelden, M. (2011). The Early Childhood Coaching Handbook. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing.