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Communication: Coaching & Mentoring Staff

How you communicate with staff members has a large impact on your job satisfaction, personal fulfillment, and professional relationships. This lesson will help you understand critical issues in maintaining healthy communication with staff members. It will address understanding staff members’ professional interests, listening actively, providing effective feedback, and preparing for difficult conversations.

  • Describe ways of understanding staff members’ communication and handling disagreements.
  • Describe and use active listening techniques.
  • Define two types of feedback and describe how to provide feedback within reflective conversations.
  • Prepare for difficult conversations.


Take a moment to think about your career to this point. Have colleagues or supervisors helped you get where you are? Have any hindered your efforts? How much can you attribute those supports or hindrances to an individual’s communication style? It’s very likely that people who have helped you on your professional journey have been good listeners. They might have taken the time to understand your goals, your motivation, and your experiences. They likely gave you feedback on your performance which helped you reflect and think about your next steps. They may have been confident enough to have difficult conversations with you. Perhaps they served as role models for you about how to handle conflict in a conciliatory way. This lesson will help you understand the basic elements of communication that made your mentor successful. As you begin thinking about communication with staff members, it can be helpful to think about the reasons you communicate with staff. This lesson is organized around five key reasons for communication: to inform, motivate, understand, coach, and resolve conflict. The lesson concludes with a crucial component of communication: active listening.

Communicating to Inform

The first job of communication is to inform. As a training and curriculum specialist, you work with management to inform staff members about the policies, procedures, roles, and requirements of your workplace. This ensures staff members have the information and skills they need to reach your program’s goals. You can think of this as communicating your program’s “non-negotiables.” These might include essential expectations about the importance of safety, timeliness, respect, and responsibility. You might provide training on the following “non-negotiables”:

  • Arrive to work on time.
  • Dress professionally and/or follow uniform or dress code requirements.
  • Turn in activity plans weekly.
  • Maintain an open-door policy for families in your classroom or program areas.
  • Adhere to posted staff-to-child ratios at all times.
  • Use active supervision strategies at all times.
  • Complete required trainings (e.g., child abuse and prevention, first aid, etc.).

Work with management to make sure that all staff members understand that engaging in unsafe practices, tardiness, excessive absences, and rudeness to colleagues and families are unacceptable in the program. To do so, you will need to communicate expectations in multiple ways and at multiple times. For example, your program’s non-negotiables should be communicated in writing in the staff handbook. You cannot stop there, though. You must also work with management to use some or all of the following strategies:

  • Ensure these expectations are communicated orally and in writing during new staff orientation.
  • Post reminders, when relevant. For example, post a calendar in the staff area that includes deadlines for requesting leave, turning in activity plans, or completing time sheets. Ensure required posters about staff-to-child ratios and maximum group sizes are visible in each classroom or program area.
  • Use written communication such as staff newsletters or emails to remind staff members about changes to program policies or deadlines.
  • Talk directly with staff members about expectations.
  • Ensure that you, management, and relevant staff members are involved in developing professional development plans when staff members are struggling to meet expectations.

Communicating to Motivate

Are you satisfied with staff members who do the minimum and meet basic requirements? The answer is likely, “No.” If everyone in your program did the minimum, it would probably not feel like a very good place for children or staff members. Communication moves you and staff members from “meeting requirements” to “exceeding expectations.” This section will detail how to describe your expectations, how to connect with staff members, and how to recognize excellence.

Going Beyond the Basics

All programs have basic requirements or standard operating procedures that must be communicated to staff. You have the added responsibility of helping staff members understand the additional expectations that make your program great. These expectations set the tone for your program, but they can sometimes seem like unspoken rules. By providing concrete, clear descriptions of your expectations, you set staff members up for success. Let’s consider an example. Your program requires that each infant classroom send home a daily report to families about the child’s meals, diapers, etc. This is a basic expectation that is written into your program’s procedures. If that is the only way staff members communicate with families, though, they are missing the mark. Your job is to help staff members understand what your program values and to help them achieve it.

It is your job to help staff members know and use the “softer” skills that ensure program excellence. Consider a few examples:

Examples of Basic Expectations

Program Expectations that Go Beyond the Basics

Communicate daily with families of infants and toddlers.

  • Greet families by name at pick-up and drop-off.
  • Smile and convey enthusiasm about your work and the child.
  • Understand family's preferences about communication.
  • Share positive information about each child with the family.
  • Welcome families when they drop by to visit, observe, or feed their baby.
  • Take time to respond if family members call for an update.

Arrive to work on time.

  • Arrive a few minutes early to account for gate traffic, parking, and arriving in the classroom or program area by the start of your shift.
  • Greet co-workers when you enter a classroom or program area.
  • Maintain a positive attitude.
  • Call ahead if you will be late.

Complete required trainings.

  • Participate actively in trainings (ask questions, take notes, etc.)
  • Be proactive about scheduling required trainings.
  • Be a lifelong learner! Seek out additional opportunities to learn new skills.
  • Use what you've learned at trainings in your work.
  • Talk regularly with your trainer or coach.

As you might have noticed, there might be a fine line between basic requirement on the left and the expectation on the right. Sometimes the expectations might seem like common sense. Whether the expectation is simple or complex, taking the time to communicate it to staff members will help you contribute to a strong workplace environment. This is not always an easy task. Use the following strategies to ensure program excellence:

  • Lead by example. You are a role model for staff. If you want staff members to have friendly interactions with families, for example, you must do this, too. When staff members see you greeting families by name in the hallway or sharing a friendly conversation, they learn about your program’s values.
  • Work with your program’s management. You share the responsibility for staff members’ success. Talk about your shared goals and visions for the program. Make sure you send staff members a consistent message about expectations. Also make sure that you model the kind of confidentiality and privacy practices you want staff members to use. Don’t gossip about staff members or families, and keep your conversations friendly and professional.

Making Connections with Staff Members

How you communicate with staff members can make as large an impact as what you communicate. Watch out for these common communication traps:

  • Phrasing statements as questions. Avoid asking questions when you are actually making a statement. For example, say, “It’s time to start the meeting” instead of asking, “Are you guys ready to get started?” Alternatively, watch out for ending your statements with an uptick like you are asking a question.
  • Apologizing unnecessarily. Effective leaders know how and when to apologize. Consider how a staff member might respond to this statement: “I’m sorry to ask you to finish up the module today. I know you’re really busy.” This statement sends a message that this module might not be worth the staff member’s time. Consider instead this alternative: “Thanks for taking the time to finish your modules today. I appreciate your flexibility.” The second approach sends a confident message and helps the staff member feel positive about her time.
  • Using conversation fillers. Watch out for phrases like, “um”, “uh”, and “like.” A few of these fillers are natural, but too many can make you sound uninformed or insecure.

As a training and curriculum specialist, you also need to think about how you will connect with all staff members. There may be staff members who seem less connected than others. You must work hard to bring these staff members into the community and make sure they feel valued. Consider these strategies for drawing the staff members in:

  • Spark their excitement about the work: “You are so connected with the children. I always leave your room with so many new ideas.”
  • Share your excitement about the work: “The work we do every day has such an impact on families. I’m proud to work with you and all our team.”
  • Ask about their preferences: “What’s the best way to communicate with you?”
  • Ask about their experiences: “Are the staff bulletin boards and emails enough to help you feel in the loop?”
  • Ask for their opinion: “I had an idea for the playground equipment. What do you think about it?”
  • Engage them in problem-solving: “We are a bit behind on the required training modules. What do you think we should do?”

Recognizing Excellence

Everyone wants to work in a program where staff members are excited about their performance and feel appreciated in their day-to-day work. There are many ways to recognize people for their efforts and accomplishments. The most effective ways are during simple, everyday interactions that help staff members feel noticed (Nelson & Schudlich, 2005). Here are a few low-cost or no-cost ways to recognize staff members:

  • Send an email to the staff member to let them know you appreciated something they did. You might say, “Carly, I really appreciated how hard you worked on the school-age theater this week. The youth are so excited about the play, and you are making a huge difference…”
  • Personally congratulate staff members on accomplishments. For example, you might say, “Congratulations on finishing your modules, Saif. It takes a lot of commitment to finish those up, and I see you using what you learned in class.”
  • Gather materials for small goody bags to recognize staff members. A simple paper lunch sack with a note and a tea bag, hot cocoa mix, or snack bag can make a staff member’s day.
  • Work with management to design a “spotlight on staff” area on your program’s website. Use that space to recognize staff achievements.
  • Design a Recognition Board. Post 2-3 staff members’ photos on the board each month, and post nice comments from their co-workers on the board.
  • Bring in a silver dollar on Monday and hand it to one staff member with a few kind words letting them know you appreciate them. Ask the staff member to pass it along to another staff member who is deserving of recognition or praise. If the coin makes its way around your building by the end of the week, have a small celebration with staff.
  • Keep a stack of colorful index cards on your desk. Use the cards to jot quick thank you notes to staff. Set a goal of writing one per day. Better yet, leave a stack of notes in the staff room and encourage them to give notes to one another.
  • For staff members who work in extended care or overnight care, consider sending thank you notes or small tokens of appreciation to the staff members’ families or children.
  • For major accomplishments such as earning degrees or awards, consider putting an acknowledgement in your community newsletter or installation newspaper.

Communicating to Understand Staff Members

Have you ever been confronted by a staff member who makes what you consider an unreasonable request? Perhaps Kelsie, who already missed one scheduled training, has decided to take leave next week during her child’s spring break—even though you previously scheduled her make-up training during that time. You had gone out of your way to set up opportunities for her to observe in other classrooms, and now you have to cancel with those teachers. Now Kelsie will fall even further behind in her training, and you will be responsible for catching her up. Your manager just asked how Kelsie is doing and why her training files aren’t up to date. You wonder why you are so stressed about Kelsie’s performance when she doesn’t seem to worry at all.

Kelsie has informed you that she is taking leave, and you are upset. How can you address this conflict? A healthy way is to try to understand what is motivating Kelsie’s behavior. This takes a great deal of compassion and the ability to take another person’s perspective. There are often reasons a staff member takes every action or demand. You can begin to communicate by considering what Kelsie’s motivations might be. Beneath Kelsie’s demands might be interests in family safety or care for her own children. She might be concerned about transportation issues. She might simply feel that she needs to spend more time with her children.

You must also recognize that your own interests drive your behavior. You might be motivated by safety (improving Kelsie’s caregiving skills), precedent (everyone would think it’s ok to miss trainings), and schedule (the make-up training was intentionally scheduled at a time that worked for all staff members).

The key to a successful conversation once you understand a person’s motivation is to think positively. With Kelsie’s scenario, you might be tempted to think: Kelsie doesn’t care about her job. Kelsie is irresponsible to demand more leave when she knows she has a responsibility to finish her training. Kelsie just isn’t a team player. She knows how short-staffed we are next week and how hard it was to schedule the training. Everyone wants to be home with their kids. Kelsie is disrespectful to make demands like that.

Here’s what you might think if you take positive point of view: Kelsie is worried about her kids. I can relate to that. Kelsie must have a lot on her plate right now and she’s trying to juggle responsibilities. Kelsie must be under a lot of stress.

At first glance, it might seem like Kelsie’s situation doesn’t provide for much debate. Either she comes to work or she doesn’t. However, digging into the personal motivations behind each side of the scenario can help us see resolutions. For example, perhaps we ask questions and find that Kelsie does need child care. We can help connect Kelsie with resources that might make it possible for her to come to work. If we see Kelsie’s desire to be a good parent and a productive employee, perhaps the manager could help Kelsie find shifts that don’t conflict with her child-care needs.

By finding these shared interests, you can help staff members have conversations about middle ground. You can use phrases like, “How can we best meet both of your (or our) needs?”

Communicating to Coach

One of your key responsibilities is to coach and mentor the staff. Everyone needs coaching and mentoring during different points in their professional careers. Using observation data and personal inventories can help you assess staff members’ strengths and growth opportunities.

Staff development is a collaboration between you and each staff member. Together, you chart a course that meets both your program’s goals and staff member’s individual goals. Here are some strategies for getting the most out of staff development:

  • Create professional development plans with staff members during their orientation process. Identify short- and long-term goals as well as required trainings. A natural time to update professional development plans is in conjunction with your program’s evaluation cycle.
  • Use a system of tracking staff members’ progress to ensure they are compliant with required trainings and making steps towards their identified goals.
  • Professional development can take many forms. Training can come in multiple formats. For example, you might organize small conversation groups around common goals or you might schedule times for staff to observe in other classrooms or programs. The more variety in training, the more active staff members will be in the process. Everyone learns differently.
  • Provide constructive feedback instead of general impressions about performance. Coaching sessions should never be a “gotcha” experience.
  • Acknowledge professional-development accomplishments. All achievements are worthy of recognition.

Coaching through Effective Feedback: Consistent Positive and Constructive Feedback and Reflection

Providing feedback to staff members is one of the essential elements of your job. Feedback is how staff members grow professionally and learn new skills or strategies. When provided skillfully and within a reflective conversation, staff members value and appreciate receiving feedback. There are two types of feedback you should know about: supportive and constructive. Supportive feedback is also known as positive feedback. It encourages and recognizes staff members for the work they have done and the strategies they have used. Constructive feedback is focused on building new skills and identifying ways to continue to grow professionally. Both types of feedback are equally important. Here are some examples of supportive and constructive feedback:

Supportive feedback:

  • “You listened so closely when Tamaya was talking to you this morning. You repeated phrases she said and really expanded her speech.”
  • “When David refused to line up, you stayed calm. You used all the strategies from your plan, and he eventually got in line with his friends.”
  • “You collaborated really well with our community partners planning the spring school-age field day. All your efforts paid off.”

Constructive feedback:

  • “Next time, you might try giving David a personal warning before it’s time to line up.”
  • “What do you think would happen if Tamaya was sitting next to a more talkative peer at breakfast?”

Throughout the Virtual Lab School courses, you have seen examples of ways you can provide feedback to staff members in each content area. Foundational to this feedback, is the concept of reflection. It is natural for you to reflect before providing feedback: you think about what went well, what could have gone differently, and what you might say to the staff member. Do you encourage the staff member to self-reflect, though? Self-reflection is one way adults learn. By thinking about their own behaviors and practices, staff members identify effective teaching practices and areas for growth. You can find a list of reflection starter phrases in the Apply section, but here are a few examples:

  • “How did Marcus respond to the directions you gave him this morning?”
  • “Why do you think Ashley and Judd were fighting today?”
  • “Knowing what you know now, what might you do differently?”
  • “I wonder what the children were thinking during that activity.”
  • “How did today’s activity compare to yesterday’s?”

Communicating through Conflict: Preparing for Difficult Conversations

Every professional occasionally encounters difficult communication situations. Perhaps a staff member is not meeting performance expectations, or a family member is angry about a new policy. You can prepare for these situations and handle them calmly and professionally. To do so, you must plan purposefully, pay attention to nonverbal communication, and focus the content of the talk.

Here are some common approaches to conflict that you may encounter:

Effective Approaches

Collaborating – This approach involves working with another person to find a win-win solution. A collaborating approach may sound like this: “Let’s spend the time to get to the best solution.”

Compromising – This approach involves looking for a quick solution that partially satisfies both parties. A compromising approach may sound like this: “While it’s not the ideal solution, at least we have something we can build from.”

Ineffective Approaches

Forcing – This approach involves pursuing your own concern despite the resistance of another person. A forcing approach may sound like this: “I will win this argument no matter what.”

Avoiding – This approach involves sidestepping the concern. An avoiding approach may sound like this: “It’s not a big problem, why worry?”

Accommodating – This approach involves accommodating the concerns of other people rather than your own. An accommodating approach may sound like this: “Fine, I give up, whatever it takes to end this conflict.”

Planning Purposefully for Difficult Conversations

The first step in planning difficult conversations is to consider the timing and location of the talk. Make sure you give yourself and the staff member enough time to process the conversation. It should occur during a time when the staff member is not responsible for children. It might be best at the end of the day, so the staff member can continue to process the conversation after work. You must also carefully consider the location of your talk. Your office is a private location, but it can also feel formal to the staff member. An empty classroom can feel more approachable and safe. It is important to consider the ways the staff member can feel respected and secure. It is never appropriate to have an important, potentially tense conversation in a hallway, public space, or in front of children, families or colleagues. Great harm can be done by embarrassing a staff member or making them feel defensive.

Using Effective Nonverbal Communication

As you learned in Lesson One, nonverbal communication is an essential component of how we interact with others. It is even more important when entering difficult conversations. How you say your words is often just as important as the words themselves. You should consider your voice, your hands and your eyes.

Your tone of voice and volume convey a great deal of information. You should practice ending your sentences by toning down at the end rather than toning up (as if asking a question). This conveys approachability and credibility. “Up speak” at the end of a sentence can make the speaker seem less knowledgeable and less confident.

Your hands also play a role in nonverbal communication. Pay attention to your palms. Keeping your palms down, on a table for example, indicates the conversation is very serious. Keeping your palms up invites the other person to join the conversation or to talk.

Your eyes also help you during difficult conversations. Eye contact is an important part of communication. When you are uncomfortable or avoiding a conversation, you might feel like avoiding eye contact. However, eye contact connects you to your conversation partner. The level and intensity of eye contact varies across cultures, however, so pay attention to your conversation partner’s comfort. Also, be sure to reflect on how you perceive eye contact. In some cultures, it is disrespectful to make direct eye contact with an authority figure. In other cultures, it is rude to avoid eye contact during a situation. When in doubt, you should assume first that your communication partner’s eye contact is a reflection of culture rather than disrespect.

Having the Difficult Conversation

As you learned in Lesson One, you should begin a difficult conversation with the outcome in mind. Think about the outcomes you want for yourself, your conversation partner, and the program. Then think about any negative thoughts that are getting in your way and try to open your mind for the conversation. As Stephen Covey writes in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, you should, “Seek first to understand, then be understood.” Worry less about getting your own point across, and focus instead on understanding your communication partner’s position and interests. Ask clarifying questions to help guide yourselves to the important issues. If your communication partner becomes emotional or begins to vent, just keep listening. Take a supportive stance throughout the conversation. When handled well, difficult conversations can become safe spaces for adults to learn and grow.

Although your goal is to listen first, it can be helpful to prepare for the conversation. You can script out your initial questions and use the goals you identified to help think of ways to guide the conversation. Sample reflective starter phrases are provided in the Apply section. You can practice in the mirror or with a colleague. It can be helpful to role play difficult conversations with a trusted peer. You can find a few sample role plays in the Explore section of this lesson.

Talking At, To, or With Staff

Throughout your daily interactions with staff members, you must remember the importance of talking with staff members rather than simply at or to them. Here is a brief summary of each style:

  • Talking At staff: This typically occurs when the speaker is angry. You are venting just to be heard. The listeners are not critical to your speech. They are simply an audience.
  • Talking To staff: When you talk to staff, you are typically trying to change their behavior or sway them to your opinion. Talking to staff happens frequently during meetings when you convey information.
  • Talking With staff: Talking with staff enrolls them as equals in the conversation. You ask frequent questions and listen more than you speak. This kind of communication empowers staff and helps build their professionalism.

Learning to Listen

Active listening is a cornerstone of communication. To truly understand an individual’s interests and motivation, you have to listen. These are some strategies for active listening, according to Families, Professionals, and Exceptionality: Positive Outcomes Through Partnerships and Trust (Turnbull et al., 2010):

  • Furthering responses. These are the simple ways you let people know you are listening. Furthering responses include nodding your head, saying “uh huh” or “what happened next?” and using the speaker’s words in brief encouraging statements.
  • Restating the speaker’s message. This is also known as paraphrasing. You might say, “Let me see if I understand correctly” and repeat what you heard in your own words.
  • Reflecting the emotions of the speaker. An important part of communication is reading the emotions of others. You can show staff members you are listening and connecting with them by reflecting those emotions back to them. Simple phrases like, “I can tell that really upset you” or “I bet that was really disappointing” can encourage the speaker to continue sharing.
  • Asking open-ended questions. “What?” and “How?” questions are powerful, nonjudgmental ways to help staff members communicate with you. They show you are engaged and actively listening. They also show that you want to hear the other person’s opinions. You might ask, “What happened with Sasha’s plan yesterday?” or “How is Davon doing with his asthma?”
  • Summarizing the discussion. Any great conversation should end with a summary and a plan. You might say, “So I heard you say …. Let’s review our next steps.”


Building your own conversational skills is good professional practice. Take some time to think about how you would respond during difficult conversations. With a colleague, use the Difficult Conversation Role Play Scenarios to role play how you would engage in the conversations.


It can be helpful to prepare yourself for conversations about classroom observations. Use the Starter Phrases for Reflection as a resource to brainstorm ways to start a variety of conversations with staff about their performance.


As a trainer or coach, which of the following is important for you to consider when a staff member communicates their position on a difficult issue to you?
You are encouraging staff members to implement active listening in their communication with families and coworkers. Which of the following are strategies used in active listening?
Finish this statement: Constructive feedback focuses on …
References & Resources

Abrams, J. (2009). Having Hard Conversations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Arneson, S. (2011). Communicate and Motivate: The School Leader’s Guide to Effective Communication. Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.

Cooper, P. J., & Simonds, C. (1999). Communication for the Classroom Teacher. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc.

Hanft, B. E., Rush, D. D., & Sheldon, M. L. (2004). Coaching Families and Colleagues in Early Childhood. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

Knight, J. (2011). What Good Coaches Do. Educational Leadership, 69, 18-22.

National Association for the Education of Young Children (2014). Principles of Effective Practice: Two Way Communication.

National Center on Dispute Resolution in Special Education (2014). A Tale of Two Conversations Study Guide.

Nemeth, K. M. (2004). Conversation: The common thread in our work. Exchange, 179, 46-50.

Pigeon, Y., & Khan, O. (YEAR). Leadership Lesson: Tools for Effective Team Meetings. Association of American Medical Colleges.

Ramsey, R. D. (2009). How to Say the Right Thing Every Time: Communicating well with students, staff, parents, and the public. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Turnbull, A., Turnbull, R., Erwin, E. J., Soodak, L.C., & Shogren, K. A. (2010). Families, Professionals, and Exceptionality: Positive Outcomes Through Partnerships and Trust. 6th ed. Boston, MA: Pearson.