- Learn how having a well-supported program staff impacts program quality and improvement.
- Understand how the Training & Curriculum Specialist and Program Administrator work together and separately to support program staff.
- Utilize collaborative goal setting to support direct care professionals’ growth in providing high-quality child care.
- Develop ways to reflect on and self-assess your coaching competency.
"Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much." - Helen Keller
Program administrators and T&Cs are in positions that require them to interact with numerous staff and families. Their work plans can include a variety of tasks, and it can be easy to become overwhelmed by all the moving parts in a child care program. When there is so much to pay attention to, it can be difficult to stay focused on the parts of the work that have the greatest impact on creating and maintaining a high-quality program for children, youth, and their families. This lesson points out ways you can contribute to creating a high-quality program, by fostering program-wide and individual growth.
The Importance of Hiring
T&Cs and program administrators are the recognized leadership team within child and youth programs. Their roles are to support the ongoing work that staff perform every day with children, youth and families. Program staff may have a view of what happens in their own classroom setting, but the leadership team has the responsibility to oversee the quality of all aspects of the program. There are many ways to provide program support for continuous quality improvement, but the most influential is hiring and retaining exceptional staff members. The largest budget line in care and education programs for children and youth is always the staff members, the heart and soul of the program. While hiring is primarily the responsibility of program administrators, you may be asked to provide input on candidates, especially as it relates to their current competency levels and perceived openness to growing their practice and receiving coaching. When a new staff member is hired, you will be an important part of their support as they gain familiarity with program procedures, policies, and practices.
Creating a Welcoming Workplace for All Staff
T&Cs and program administrators are responsible for acclimating new staff to the program and helping all staff succeed in their jobs. Intentionally welcoming new staff when they join the program may influence their desire to remain employed in the program. A new staff orientation, as well as training and coaching, may eliminate future problems where a staff member is unsure of a program rule or procedure. In addition, some of the benefits of a new staff orientation, and a training and coaching process, is that you can highlight from the start, and continually reinforce, your program’s goals, missions, and objectives for serving children, youth and families. These experiences also offer time and structure for you to create trust and professional partnerships that support high-quality care. Staff members know from the beginning that you are there to support their professional development, and that asking questions, seeking support, and learning together is encouraged. Your program may have an excellent formal orientation process for new staff, but you may additionally want to create opportunities to orient new staff within your particular setting. Each workplace has its own culture or way of doing things. These practices help new staff feel like part of the team when they are welcomed and invited to be a part of a workplace’s culture.
The following are some suggestions for welcoming new staff:
- Have current staff create a list of "Things I Wish I Knew When I Started Working Here." Include it in orientation activities and add it to the staff handbook. Include humorous examples (laughter is a great ice-breaker).
- T&Cs and program administrators should intentionally schedule brief check-ins with new staff members to make sure all is going well. T&Cs should provide supportive feedback and help new staff members celebrate successes, as well as provide additional information and clarification of policies or procedures.
- Introduce new staff members to the families of the children they will be caring for. This helps them to understand the importance of supporting families in addition to providing child care.
- Assign a seasoned staff member to be a mentor to the new staff member. Think carefully about this assignment and personally ask staff members if they would be willing to take on this leadership role.
- Leave a brief, descriptive note in the new employee's mailbox describing something you saw them doing well (e.g., "I saw how excited Juan was to see you when you came in this morning, and how happily you greeted one another. I can tell the children and families are beginning to develop strong relationships with you."). Encourage them as they learn their new job responsibilities. Everyone needs recognition from a coach or supervisor, but especially when starting a job in a new setting.
- With permission from the new staff member, introduce them to families through a program newsletter article or a picture and brief biography on the program website or Facebook page.
Watch the video below to hear how staff members create a welcoming and supportive environment for fellow staff members.
Collaborative Goal Setting
As a Training & Curriculum Specialist, your role is to help direct care staff grow their knowledge and practice using both available resources and relationship-based support. Coaching is the relationship-based set of strategies you use to build the capacity of others through shared decision-making. Coaching is different from evaluating or inspecting because your role is not to critique learners. Rather, you function as part of their support system; but it is still important to help learners set goals and measure growth. Collaborative goal setting happens when you and the learner equally contribute to assess competency, establish goals and action, and implement practices. This is a circular process that continues as one makes gains over time. Strategies to carry out collaborative goal setting steps include: use data, reflect, observe, model, and provide feedback. See the image below for a visual of the collaborative goal setting steps and strategies.
1. Assess Competency
Whether you are working with a staff member who is new to the child care profession or a seasoned professional with extensive experience, you and the learner will together assess the individual’s current 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 Training & Curriculum Specialist is to observe direct care professionals. After observing, you and the direct care professionals you support can use the Virtual Lab School Competency Reflections (or other caregiver observation tools), a type of data, to collaboratively assess learners’ competencies. 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 by observing you, I can tell you know a lot about supporting children’s communication and language development. You also show me this through your actions because you routinely label and talk about children’s interests. Tell me what I can do so you feel more confident in this area.”
Positive feedback builds trust with those you are coaching and helps them recognize their strengths. 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 what they know. Use reflection by asking learners to give you specific examples of how they address competencies that you rated them lower on to help you both determine how to best support competency growth.
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.
2. Establish Goals & Actions
Once you and the learner have a shared understanding of the learner’s current competency, it is time to establish goals. 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 reflection when you want the learner to take the lead in establishing their goals. If a direct care professional is going above and beyond the basic requirements of caring for children, pose a reflective question to see what it is they are most interested to learn or improve upon next.
“You have a really good handle on all of the courses 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 be detailed in giving 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 of their work.
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, and (3) when they will do it. For the above example, the learner will: (1) follow the CDC guidelines for handwashing by (2) using the poster in the classroom as a guide (3) after every single diaper change. As a coach, you should make sure to ask what the learner feels they need from you in order to implement the practice. 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.
The above example with handwashing is fairly simple, but some caregiving practices are more advanced and difficult to understand. You, or a coworker who is skilled in this particular competency, may need to model what a practice looks like. For example, a coach and learner have established that the learner’s goal will be to narrate and respond to toddler’s gestures. They should plan a time when the coach can come into the room this staff member works to model so the learner can observe, as part of their action plan.
3. Implement the Practice
If you and a direct care professional have decided 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 they should 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-asses your ability to coach and model the practice and the impact your modeling had on direct care professionals’ learning.
“What did you notice when Sammy [a toddler] was reaching towards 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 their gesture by retrieving them.
Once you have wrapped up your reflection, plan a time frame for when the direct care professional would like for you to observe them implementing the new practice. This allows you to re-assess competency, completing the circular process for this goal.
4. Putting it all Together
The above steps and strategies for collaborative goals setting are much easier said than done. Many Training & Curriculum Specialists are very busy, and you may feel stressed in meeting the needs of program staff. You will be most successful in your work as a coach when you support adult learners’ awareness of their actions, growth in knowledge, access of resources, and provide learners opportunities to identify their own goals. Think about how you can use the Virtual Lab School to help you work smarter, not harder or more. For example, it may seem easier to tell staff members what they should be doing, and there may be times when it is appropriate to be directive. However, helping direct care professionals independently find information and develop self-reflective habits is a way to build their capacity as learners and grow their awareness of their practice. If you are coaching a direct care professional who is not familiar with social-emotional milestones and this lack of knowledge impacts their practice, consider having them read or re-read parts of the Social & Emotional Development Course, for example, as part of their action steps. In time, this professional and others you coach will learn to use the VLS on their own to find resources, answer questions, and develop goals.
While coaching and reaching goals is a collaborative effort, be self-aware of your ability to provide support to others. You may find it useful to periodically complete the Training & Curriculum Specialist: Coaching Competency Checklist to reflect on your effectiveness as a coach. Share this information with a colleague to help you work through your own goal setting process.
Connect Individual Staff Performance Evaluations and Goal Setting
In most centers, program administrators are responsible for conducting staff evaluations, but Training & Curriculum Specialists may offer insights and share observations with the program administrator specific to the overall pattern of growth for direct care staff. While there should be clear definitions as to how T&Cs are different from administrators, you may need to communicate with staff members’ administrators if there is a repeated pattern of not following through with agreed-upon action steps that affect their ability to meet goals. For example, a direct care professional you coach has not made progress over the past three months with counting children name-to-face. You have used a variety of strategies to help this staff member meet this competency including: modeling counting name-to-face during several routines (leaving the room, on the playground, in the hallway), posting a visual cue on the door of the room the staff member works in, and with the staff member’s permission, sharing that this is a goal with their teaching team. The team has agreed to support the staff member in carrying out this practice. You have also had a private, reflective conversations with this staff member to assess why this practice has been difficult to implement and what you can do to support the individual, but they provide minimal feedback. The staff member seems annoyed when you follow-up on this goal.
This direct care professional’s lack of growth can impact the safety of children in the program, and it is appropriate in this instance to speak with the administrator. When you communicate to an administrator that a direct care professional is struggling to meet basic competencies, you have a responsibility to communicate necessary information, but respect the privacy of direct care professionals by sharing relevant and objective information. It is also important that you not discuss staff members’ competencies with other program staff, unless you have received permission from the direct care professional.
Enhance Quality Through Professional Development Activities
Learning occurs through a variety of professional development activities, including embedded coaching during daily routines. All program staff, including T&Cs and administrators, are continuously learning. As a program leader, you can model an open attitude toward improving your own knowledge and skills to help direct care professionals grow comfortable with self-assessment. You may want to share your personal goals when coaching others as a way to build trust and show that everyone, regardless of experience, can continually improve.
Seeking out face-to-face professional communities of practice, working with a mentor, or scheduling conference calls with other T&Cs and program administrators can be helpful in your growth as a leader. Continuously learning new skills and knowledge is part of being a professional; it is important for staff to see leaders who are not perfect and who show a personal commitment to expanding their knowledge and skills.
In addition to job-embedded learning opportunities, there are many other ways T&Cs, program administrators, and staff members can engage in learning. Educator and author Gigi Schweikert (2012) offers these sources for further learning:
- Colleges and universities (face to face and online)
- Formal courses and webinars
- Other people (mentors, communities of practice, professional book groups)
- Staff trainings
- Performance appraisals
- Visits to other programs
- Membership in professional organizations (e.g., Zero to Three; National Association for the Education of Young Children; National After School Association)
Based on your observations when coaching direct care professionals, you may suggest to a program administrator ideas for professional development topics.. Here are a few web-based options that you and program staff may find useful:
- Early Childhood Investigations Webinars
- Early Language and Literacy Series
- Hatch Early Learning Webinars
- IRIS Module: Early Childhood Environments
The Process of Creating Collaborative Teams
In addition to the professional development resources and practices highlighted above, you should encourage shared ownership and foster collaborative teams. Like everything else we do, learning to work with others is a skill that does not develop overnight. You must invest time and effort to develop effective teams and respect your own and others’ uniqueness as people and learners in the process. The interests, personalities, temperaments, experiences, and special abilities and talents of team members contribute to diversity, which supports having a wide range of ideas and perspectives.
Two of the country's leading experts on building collaborative teams, Jacqueline Thousand and Richard Villa, identify five elements as critically important in creating a collaborative process. (Johnson & Johnson, 1997; Thousand & Villa, 1990, 2000, p. 258). As you read these, think about how they reflect your experiences with collaboration in your program:
- Face-to-face interaction among team members on a frequent basis
- A mutual "we are all in this together" feeling of positive interdependence
- A focus on the development of small-group interpersonal skills in trust building, communication, leadership, creative problem solving, decision making, and conflict management
- Regular assessments and discussion of the team's functioning in setting goals for improving relationships and effectively accomplishing tasks
- Methods for holding one another accountable for agreed-on responsibilities and commitments
In your daily work, you make conscious, intentional decisions about how to interact with colleagues, family members, and program staff, and indeed, you are a model that others look to for how collaboration happens in your program. Being part of a team requires that you enter partnerships with a positive attitude and commitment to ethical behavior. No matter how experienced you are, being part of a collaborative workplace should be central to your practice as a T&C or program administrator. Child care settings are primarily people-centric workplaces, and people are its most valuable resources. The outcomes should be happy, secure children, youth and families.
Reflecting on your Own Experiences and Practices
High-quality environments for children cannot be created unless these environments are also good for the adults who work in them. Education professor Lilian Katz, in Talks with Teachers of Young Children (1995) urges professionals to ask themselves the questions below. As you read each of these questions, think about how things are in your own work environment.
On the whole, are relationships with the program staff, your T&Cs or program administrators:
- Supportive rather than contentious?
- Cooperative rather than competitive?
- Accepting rather than adversarial?
- Trusting rather than suspicious?
- Respectful rather than controlling?
If you think the relationships in your program can be improved, reflect on how you can contribute to this process. While working with others is one of the most rewarding parts of your job, it requires dedication, problem-solving, and a willingness to learn and change in order to address the multiple and often complex needs of those in your program. Staff will look to you when they need help dealing with a challenging situation or a difficult relationship, and you should be willing to facilitate these processes. A strong support system helps retain high-quality staff members and encourages investment in your program’s goals, missions, and objectives. T&Cs and program administrators help create and sustain quality programs when they value what each person brings to the team and uphold their roles and responsibilities in modeling and supporting collaborative teamwork.
Use the Training & Curriculum Specialist: Coaching Competency Reflection to self-assess your ability to support direct care professionals through coaching. You may find it helpful to use this tool when establishing goals and assessing your professional growth.
Many books and articles on the topic of leadership discuss the importance of creating a positive workplace climate—one that demonstrates how valuable employees are to the mission of the organization. Leaders need to use communication and shared decision-making to facilitate a sense of ownership. Leaders are models that demonstrate how to live with integrity, handle errors, commit to the program’s goals, and focus on supporting others in their work. Use the Apply section handout to think about and write down your thoughts and ideas.
Great Schools Partnership. (2013). The glossary of education reform for journalists, parents, and community members. Retrieved from https://www.edglossary.org/protocols/
Jablon, J., Dombro, A. L., & Johnsen, S. (2014). Coaching with Powerful Interactions: A guide for partnering with early childhood teachers. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Schweikert, G. (2012). Winning Ways for Early Childhood Professionals: Being a professional. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.
Schweikert, G. (2014). Winning Ways for Early Childhood Professionals: Being a supervisor. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.