5.4 Coaching as a Professional Development Strategy

What Is It?

Coaching is an interactive strategy designed to improve a home visitor’s practice. It involves a coach’s targeted observation of a skill and joint discussion, reflection, and planning for improvement. Coaching also serves as a link to connect training—the knowledge and skills home visitors learn in a professional development session—to practice—how home visitors use what they learn in their work with parents/families and their children.

Coaching is used in three ways:

  • Supporting the home visitor in applying knowledge gained in training to the context of home visits or socializations. For example, if you had a training on infant mental health at last week’s staff meeting, the coach would work with the home visitor on implementing the strategies discussed.
  • “Just-in-time” learning: Coaching is provided on the spot to support needed knowledge and skills. For example, a coach might suggest a strategy for engaging a parent during a group socialization. Think “teachable moment”!
  • Modeling fidelity to practice standards such as implementing curriculum as intended, using evidence-based practices and strategies, and applying the HSPPS. For example, a coach might demonstrate how to use the assessment tool during the course of a home visit.

Coaching has the following elements:

  • Joint planning: What will the coach do and when? What will the home visitor do and when?
  • Observation: The coach observes how the home visitor interacts with parents/family members and children during home visits and socializations. This may be done during a home visit or socialization and through video recording or self-reporting.
  • Feedback: The coach provides constructive comments based on the focus of the observation. The coach might also provide additional information/resources about a particular practice.
  • Reflection: The coach encourages the home visitor to stop and think about what she already knows, what she would like to have happen as a result of coaching, what is working/not working, and ideas for strengthening or changing a strategy or practice.
  • Action/practice: The home visitor tries out a new strategy/practice or a different way to approach a strategy/practice. The coach might also model a strategy or practice for the home visitor.

The cycle starts again for a new approach or next targeted skill, depending on the coaching goals.

The coach/home visitor relationship

To be effective, the coach and home visitor must work in partnership. The coach creates a safe and open “space” for the home visitor to ask questions, discuss concerns, get feedback, strengthen current practices, and try new strategies and practices without fear of failing or negative judgment. This safe space is very similar to the safe space created in reflective supervision! The parallel process is also at work: if the home visitor is coached in a nurturing, constructive way, she can take that experience into her work with parents/families and children.

Who coaches?

  • Staff hired just to do coaching
  • Home-based supervisor
  • In-house staff trainer
  • Other coordinators and supervisors
  • Peers
  • Outside consultants

Characteristics of a good coach 1

  • conscientious
  • attention to detail
  • organized
  • able to help home visitors organize their thoughts and ideas
  • reliable 0 she does what she says she will do when she says she will do it.

Warm and friendly

  • sociable
  • approachable
  • enjoys talking with people
  • open to discussion and ideas
  • others would feel comfortable going to for support


  • not "rubber stamping" what a home visitor thinks or wants to try!
  • flexible
  • respectful
  • trusting
  • promotes the coaching relationship

Open to experience

  • objective
  • not overly critical
  • values the home visitor's experiences and perspectives
  • does not believe her ways of thinking and doing things are the only right ways
  • open to the home visitor's ideas and building on them
  • flexible

Emotionally stable

  • calm and centered
  • able to stay relaxed, especially in situations where the home visitor is highly excited or agitated
  • there to support the home visitor
  • does not have a personal agenda that needs to be met within the coaching relationship.

Practice-Based Coaching

Practice-based coaching (PBC) is an evidence-based form of professional development that is used in HS and EHS programs. “It is a [cyclical] model of coaching that includes three components—planning goals and action steps; engaging in focused observation; and reflecting on and sharing feedback about teaching practices—which are associated with change in teacher practices and associated changes in child outcomes.”2 Although the primary use of PC has been to improve teacher/family child care provider practices related to working directly with children, some programs are extending its use to other staff such as home visitors and family service workers.

  1. Dathan D. Rush and M'Lisa L. Shelden, The Early Childhood Coaching Handbook (Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing, 2011).  

  2. National Center on Quality Teaching and Learning (NCQTL), Practice-Based Coaching (Washington, DC: Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Office of Head Start, 2014), 1, http://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/hslc/tta-system/teaching/docs/practice-based-coaching.pdf 

How To

In addition to coaching characteristics, there are skills and strategies that coaches can use when working with home visitors. These may sound familiar because they are also used in reflective supervision!

Active listening

  • Put external and internal distractions aside to be fully present and tuned in to what the home visitor is saying.
    • External: Turn phone ringer off or put on silence; turn the computer off; face the computer screen away from you.
    • Internal: Let go of other concerns or tasks you have to do during the day.
  • Seek to fully understand the home visitor's experiences, questions, and concerns.

Asking questions

  • Ask open-ended questions that help home visitors explore their practices and figure out what works or does not work. For example, “What are you doing now?” “How do you typically handle…? How is that working?” “What did you notice when…?” “Why do you think the parent did…when you did…?” “How did it feel when you…?” “How might you do this differently? What strategy do you want to try?”
  • Wonder together with the home visitor in a nonjudgmental way. For example, if the home visitor shares something that frustrated her about an interaction with a parent, the coach might say, “I wonder what that means. I wonder why the parent reacted that way.” “Wondering” questions create opportunities for exploring assumptions and making discoveries that can lead to new strategies for interacting with the parent.


  • Put aside one’s own frame of reference to understand the home visitor’s perspective—how she sees the world and feels about her experiences working closely with parents/families and young children.
  • Recognize differences in experiences and feelings.
  • Accept that the strong feelings the home visitor has about her experiences may be positive, negative, and difficult to handle.

Pointing out the positive

  • Pointing out the positive is a powerful relationship- and capacity-building strategy.
  • Appreciate home visitors for who they are. For example, “Your calmness when the baby was fussing seemed to help the parent manage her frustration with the baby’s behavior.”
  • Appreciate home visitors for what they do. For example, “I’ve noticed you take detailed notes and pay close attention to what we discuss in our coaching sessions. Your learning strategies are paying off—I see positive changes in how you support the parent in reading to his toddler.”

Not knowing

  • Practicing “not knowing” is a way of equalizing power in a relationship and a strategy for looking for answers together.
  • When an answer is not known, say, “ I don’t know, but I’ll look for that information and get back to you,” and then follow through in a timely manner.
  • Hold back from providing an immediate answer or “fixing” a problem. For example, say, “I don’t know. What have you tried? What other ideas do you have?” This approach gives the home visitor a chance to make her own connections and discoveries and suggest strategies and solutions that might be more appropriate than the ones the coach had in mind.


  • Be consistent and reliable.
  • Show up on time for coaching sessions.
  • Follow through.
  • Pursue the coaching plan that was codeveloped with the home visitor.
  • Ask the home visitor for her ideas and input, what her goals are, and what she would find most helpful from the coaching relationship.

Being collegial

  • Identify expectations and boundaries such as limits to privacy and confidentiality (e.g., issues the coach or home visitor is required by law to report). Decide what needs to be communicated or not outside of the coaching relationship.
  • If you are not the coach, make sure that lines of communication—what will be communicated and who will do the communicating—are spelled out among you, the coach, and the home visitors. One program in Maine empowers front-line staff to be the primary communicators of what happens in their work with their supervisor and their coach. Although the supervisor and coach talk to each other, they avoid being the ones to share immediate information. That is the responsibility of the staff member.
  • If you are the coach, communicate expectations for what you will do as a coach versus what you do as a supervisor. The coaching relationship should be a “safe space.” However, home visitors may not want to share concerns, ask questions, or try new strategies and practices if they fear that not knowing something or having an unsuccessful experience with a parent will count against them in their performance evaluation. You have to determine how to balance your responsibilities as a coach with your responsibilities as a supervisor. There is no one right way to do this!

Deciding who gets coached

  • Coaching is meant to build home visitors’ skills and knowledge and help them transfer learning to practice. The amount of time a home visitor receives coaching support will depend on the home visitor’s goals and expected outcomes.
  • Use sources of information such as observations, professional development goals you and the home visitor identify together, and child assessment and family outcome data. Keep in mind that not everyone needs coaching, and that all home visitors do not have to receive coaching at the same time.
  • Establish benchmarks so that you and the home visitor can determine when progress is being made and when the stated goal(s) are reached.
  • If you have administrative issues that need to be addressed with a home visitor, the home visitor may not be a good candidate for coaching. Coaching should be seen as a support measure, not a disciplinary one.

Using practice-based coaching in home-based programs
Practice-based coaching (PBC) has multiple layers in the home-based option. It involves coaching the home visitor’s use of effective practices for promoting parent/family interactions with their children. The home visitor also learns to use PBC practices to coach the family. This parallel process results in increasing home visitors’ knowledge and skills and strengthening parent/family practices that support positive child outcomes.

The three cyclical components of PBC remain the same as for PBC for staff in group-care settings.

  • Coaches engage home visitors in setting goals and creating action plans to reach the goals.
  • Coaches observe home visitors working with families and/or review video that home visitors have taken.
  • Coaches debrief with home visitors and engage them in reflection and problem solving.
  • Coaches provide feedback, materials, and resources. Coaches may also model target practices and engage home visitors in role-play.
  • Coaches review goals with home visitors and update the action plan as needed.

An important consideration is that coaches need to build relationships not only with the home visitor but also with the families the home visitor works with if there will be coaching visits in the home or videotaping for focused observation.

Experience It

Coaching as a Professional Development Strategy Clip 1

Dathan Rush, associate director, Family, Infant and Preschool Program in Morganton, NC, talks about the types and effect of coaching, as well as the research that supports it.

To view the full webinar, go to: Invest in People: The Use of Coaching in Professional Development and Continuous Learning 17th Annual Virtual Birth to Three Institute: Webinar D7 Track D7: Management and Professional Development

Reflection Questions:

  1. How have you used "coaching on the fly" in a group socialization? How could you use it to improve a supervisee's practice?
  2. How could you use "fidelity to practice" with one of your current supervisees?

Coaching as a Professional Development Strategy Clip 2

Nancy Seibel, consultant, Keys to Change, talks about the relationships involved in coaching, including reflecting in, on, and for action.

To view the full webinar, go to: Invest in People: The Use of Coaching in Professional Development and Continuous Learning 17th Annual Virtual Birth to Three Institute: Webinar D7 Track D7: Management and Professional Development

Reflection Questions

  1. Which coaching strategy would you like to enhance in your repertoire of skills?
  2. Discuss a strategy that may be useful for one of your supervisees to use with a family.

Learn More

This session defines and identifies the distinct purposes of reflective supervision and coaching in early childhood programs. See how recent experiences of a Maine EHS program highlight the approaches, successes, and dilemmas in implementing these practices. Participants will gain practical approaches for developing a shared understanding of reflective supervision and early childhood coaching.

This web page contains a variety of resources about practice-based coaching.

This session explores coaching as an effective strategy for developing solid and beneficial professional growth relationships among early childhood practitioners that cultivate continuous learning and improved services for infants and toddlers.