Clayton Early Learning

Coaching to Improve Quality – in Search of the Evidence

Lynn Andrews

Here at Clayton, we always strive to use “evidence-based” practice, whether we are teaching children, supporting families, training teachers, or developing programs and policy with community partners.  Sometimes, the evidence-base doesn’t yet exist in current research findings and we are helping to create it.  An example of this is our coaching work.  We have been privileged to engage in a number of research projects that use coaching as a key professional development strategy.

To some extent, our coaching work is still an act of faith.  There is a small body of research on coaching in early childhood education that is beginning to shed light on whether it is effective in helping teachers make sustained changes in their practice (generally, so far the answer is yes) but there are still many unanswered questions. Is there a minimum “dosage” to be effective?  How should coaching hours be distributed over time?  Is on-line coaching as effective as face-to-face coaching?  Is there a difference between coaching in a supervisory relationship and coaching from a peer? Is time for shared reflection between the coach and teacher important or is simply giving teachers feedback and recommendations enough? Do the answers to these questions vary depending on what skills or dispositions you are trying to teach?  And of course, the million dollar question, does an approach that works in one situation – teaching specific content related to a specific knowledge and skill base, such as language and literacy, using specific incentives for participants – transfer to a different situation?

These are not just important questions for those of us who are on the giving and the receiving end of coaching, they have important policy implications.  Compared to other forms of professional development and supports to improve teacher practice, coaching is expensive.  Funders and policy makers want to know where they can get the best return on their investment.  At the same time, the randomized control trial studies that are the standard for providing evidence of what works and what doesn’t are also quite expensive and the results often take years to reach publication. So as much as I wish we had the answers to these questions about coaching now, in trying to make a difference for teachers and children now, I have to ask – what are we willing to accept as “evidence”?  Where does our experience – carefully documented and examined – fit in?  And what does it tell us? At Clayton we have been using coaching as a professional development strategy for over 10 years, working with more than 200 programs.  Here are a few things that we believe are true based on our particular experience that I suspect eventually will be supported by further research:

  1. Coaching combined with training is more effective in changing practice than training alone.
  2. It’s important for the “coachee” to trust the coach.
  3. Coaching should focus on specific, well-defined changes in practice, not global concepts.
  4. Coachees need to see examples of effective practice and have opportunities to practice with feedback AND opportunities to reflect on their efforts to implement new practice.
  5. Given the realities of teaching schedules and limited planning time, accomplishing #2-4 requires more than a few hours of coaching over a couple of months time.
  6. What the teacher believes about her work is as important as what she does – changing practice based on values (such as behavior management) takes more time than changing practice based on knowledge (bleach sanitizes better than soap).
  7. The coaching time required to help teachers achieve a desired level of proficiency depends on her starting point and the level of cognitive processing required – supporting children in math reasoning is more complex than figuring out a daily schedule.
  8. If coaching isn’t voluntary on the teacher’s part, creating change will take longer or may not happen at all.

As you can see, these are not sweeping generalizations – our sense is that the answer to the questions about coaching is often “it depends”.

Many states and communities now include coaching in their early childhood Quality Rating and Improvement Systems, and there are numerous, smaller professional development initiatives using coaching paired with training.  If we can gather what is learned from the experience of all these efforts, we will make a huge contribution to the evidence-base for coaching to accompany emerging research findings.  Formal research may be able to inform future professional development efforts with some broad principles for coaching, but I believe we will always need to rely on the evidence of our experience in real-time, in continuously evolving environments, to guide us in deciding how to design effective coaching interventions.  If you have been involved with coaching, what insights can you add from your experience bank?

Lynn Andrews

About Lynn Andrews

Lynn Andrews is responsible for leadership development and coaching services to community early childhood education programs seeking to improve their quality, and for oversight of the Colorado Parent Information Resource Center. She has more than 30 years experience in early childhood education and primary prevention program development and administration in Colorado and Connecticut. Lynn has developed and taught curricula on diverse topics such as outcomes-based coaching, creating effective teams, action research, and strengthening parent involvement. She currently serves as co-faculty and is on the program design team for the Buell Early Childhood Leadership Program, a graduate level certificate program at the University of Denver. As a Clayton staff member assigned to Educare Colorado, she had a lead role in developing the Qualistar Rating system and quality improvement model now being used statewide in Colorado to support children's school readiness. Lynn holds a Masters of Science in School Psychology with an emphasis in early childhood from the University of Bridgeport.
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