Coaching in Early Childhood


The use of coaching has been described by early childhood special educators, occupational therapists, physical therapists, and speech-language pathologists as a practice to support families of children with disabilities as well as practitioners in early childhood programs. Campbell (1997) defined the role of the early intervention practitioner as that of a coach rather than a direct therapy provider. Hanft and Pilkington (2000) encouraged early childhood practitioners to reconsider their role "to move to a different position alongside a parent as a coach rather than lead player" (p. 2) since this allows for more opportunities to promote development and learning than direct intervention by the therapist or educator. Rush (2000) noted that the practitioner-as-coach provides support to parents to improve their child's skills and abilities rather than work directly with the child. Dinnebeil et al. (2001) examined the role of itinerant early childhood special education teachers and reported that these teachers "should be prepared to act not simply as consultants to early childhood teachers but as coaches" (p. 42) because this offers a more structured system for jointly planning new learning and engaging in feedback as well as modeling by a coach.


 Overview of Coaching  

Historically, coaching has been a term and process used primarily in athletics. More recently, coaching can be found in the field of business. Coaching emerged as an accepted practice in the development and supervision of educators in the 1980s (Mid-continent Regional Educational Laboratory, 1983; Brandt, 1987; Ackland, 1991). The coaching models used in professional development programs focused on building collegial relationships, resolving specific instructional problems, learning new skills, and refining skills previously mastered (Costa & Garmston, 1986; Joyce & Showers, 1982; Mello, 1984; Robbins, 1991). Coaching has been used successfully by general educators and administrators (Delany & Arredondo, 1998; Guiney, 2001; Kohler, Crilley, Shearer, & Good, 1997; Kohler, McCullough, & Buchan, 1995; Munro & Elliott, 1987; Phillips & Glickman, 1991; Roberts, 1991; Sparks, 1996), special educators (Kohler, Crilley, Shearer & Good, 1997; Miller, 1994; Miller, Harris, Watanabe, 1991), and as a strategy to promote collaboration between special and general educators (Gersten, Morvant & Brengelman, 1995; Hasbrouck & Christen, 1997; Pugach & Johnson, 1995; Tschantz & Vail, 2000). Coaching has also been found effective in preservice preparation programs for special and general educators (Cegelka, Fitch & Alvarado, 2001; Kurts & Levin, 2000; Morgan, Gustafson, Hudson, & Salzberg, 1992).


Coaching in Early Childhood Intervention

Coaching in early childhood may be conceptualized as a particular type of helpgiving practice within a capacity building model to support people in using existing abilities and developing new skills (Dunst & Trivette, 1996; Dunst, Trivette, & LaPointe, 1992; Rappaport, 1981; Trivette & Dunst, 1998). As part of early childhood practices, coaching promotes self-reflection and refinement of current practices on the part of the person being coached. This results in competence and mastery of desired skills for the early childhood practitioner and both the children and families with whom the early childhood practitioner interacts (Doyle, 1999; Dunst, Herter, & Shields, 2000).

Coaching also builds the capacity of family members to promote the child's learning and development. This includes being with the people the child wants and needs to be with and doing what the child likes and needs to do (Shelden & Rush, 2001). The key people in a child's life gain competence when a coach supports them in blending new or existing knowledge, skills, and experience to interact with a child in daily situations, and then assess and perhaps improve upon the results (Fenichel & Eggbeer, 1990). Flaherty (1999) defines coaching as "not telling people what to do, [but] giving them a chance to examine what they are doing in light of their intentions" (p. xii). The early childhood practitioner who uses coaching facilitates a dynamic exchange of information based on the learner's intentions and current level of skills necessary to promote the child's participation in family, community, and early childhood settings (Bruder & Dunst, 1999; Hanft, Rush, & Shelden, 2004).

Coaching may be used to improve existing practices, develop new skills, and promote continuous self-assessment and learning. The role of the coach is to provide a supportive and encouraging environment in which the learner and coach can jointly reflect on current practices, apply new skills and competencies with feedback, and problem-solve challenging situations. The coach's ultimate goal for the learner is sustained performance in which the learner has the competence and confidence to engage in self reflection, self correction, and generalization of new skills and strategies to other situations as appropriate (Flaherty, 1999; Kinlaw, 1999).


The Coaching Process

Coaching requires a "specialized set of learned skills" ( Doyle, 1999) to "develop people on purpose" (p.4). The five components of the coaching process include 1) initiation, 2) observation, 3) action, 4) reflection, and 5) evaluation. Coaching is a nonlinear process. Each individual situation determines the order in which the coaching components unfold; however, during the coaching relationship, the coach and parents or other care providers will move through each of the components. Throughout the coaching relationship and even specific coaching conversations, the coach and person being coached are likely to move in and out of these components a number of times.

 Initiation. During the initiation component of the coaching process, either the coach identifies an opportunity for coaching and invites the other individual into a coaching relationship, or the person seeks the experience of the coach and opens the door for a coaching conversation. Regardless of the circumstances, as part of initiation, the coach and parent jointly develop a plan that includes the purpose and specific outcomes of the coaching process. For example, the purpose of most coaching with families and caregivers is to support the child's participation and development in ordinary family and community life.

 Observation. The coach may observe the parent use an existing strategy or practice a new skill that was just discussed or which the person had been trying between coaching visits. On occasion, the coach may observe the parent or other care provider demonstrate knowledge and understanding of a skill as part of a coaching conversation rather than direct observation of the learner's use of the skill in the context of a real-life activity. The coach may also observe an unplanned activity and use this as an opening to then initiate a spontaneous coaching conversation. The observation component may be used as well when the parent wants to share a particular challenge with the coach; therefore, the coach observes the particular difficulty prior to further discussion. The purpose of these observations is to assist in building the competence and confidence of the person being coaching in promoting child participation in everyday activities when the coach is not present. The observation component may also be used as an opportunity for the care provider to observe the coach demonstrate or model a particular skill, technique, or strategy prior to using it himself or herself. This action by the coach and observation by the parent allows him or her to see the skill or strategy as modeled by the coach, then reflect on how the task might need to be adjusted for himself, herself, another adult, or the child.

 Action. Actions are events or experiences that are planned or spontaneous, occur in the context of a real-life activity, and may take place when the coach is or is not present. Action demonstrates the family member's or care provider's use of new skills and information discussed during the coaching interaction. This type of active participation is a key characteristic of effective helpgiving and is an essential component for building the capacity of the person being coached.

Reflection. Reflection (Fenichel, 1991; Gallacher, 1997) is the most important component of the coaching process and is what differentiates coaching from typical problem solving, consultation, and information sharing between the practitioner or service coordinator and the family. The reflection component consists of the coach asking questions to cause the person being coached to think about what is happening now, what he or she wants to have happen, and what he or she can do to bridge the gap. Following reflection on the part of the person being coached, the coach may provide feedback and/or new information. The goal of this component is to promote continuous improvement by assisting the family member or care provider to analyze his or her practices and behavior through the use of a reflective discussion with the coach (Gallacher). As part of this process, the person being coached recognizes existing strategies and discovers potential ideas to build upon current strengths to address identified questions, priorities, and interests.

 Evaluation of the coaching process. The purpose of the evaluation component is to review the effectiveness of the coaching process, rather than evaluating the person being coached. The coach should self-reflect as part of the coaching process evaluation after every coaching conversation regarding changes needed in the coaching process, continuing as the coach, and helping the family member or care provider progress toward the intended outcomes. As part of the evaluation of the coaching process, the coach and family member or care provider must decide whether to continue with coaching conversations (continuation) or if the intended outcomes of the coaching relationship have been achieved (resolution).



Use of the coaching process as a strategy to mediate another person's ability to generate ideas, refine existing skills, and develop new abilities is a different way of thinking about the role of practitioners and service coordinators in early intervention. As a coach, the commitment to building the capacity of others is essential. Our previous role, however, has been as an expert who either makes recommendations for what the parents or other care providers should do or reserves the most highly technical tasks (typically non-evidence based) to be performed by himself or herself. Building another person's capacity is intentional, planful, and ongoing. The coach must be cognizant of and seize opportunities for coaching conversations to occur. Coaching, therefore, occurs as part of a planned series of conversations or spontaneously as a result of an observation, shared experience, or question posed to the coach. Effective coaching conversations result in the following actions by the person being coached: 1) active participation as a result of joint planning; 2) self-reflection that leads to refinement of knowledge and skills; and 3) use of current as well as new knowledge and skills as part of everyday interactions with the child.



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