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CASEinPoint: Evidence-Based Definition of Coaching Practices


Dathan D. Rush, Ed.D. and M'Lisa L. Shelden, Ph.D.

INTRODUCTION

The purpose of this CASEinPoint is to describe an operational definition of coaching practices based on current research in the human learning, professional de ­velopment, and helpgiving practices fields. Coaching is an adult learning strategy that is used to build the capac ­ity of a parent or colleague to improve existing abilities, develop new skills, and gain a deeper understanding of his or her practices for use in current and future situa ­tions (Hanft, Rush, & Shelden, 2004; Rush, Shelden, &   Hanft, 2003).

The use of coaching as an adult learning strategy 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 & Pilking ­ton (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 a prac ­titioner-as-coach approach provides the necessary par ­ent supports to improve their child’s skills and abilities rather than work directly with the child. Dinnebeil, Mc ­ Inerney, Roth, & Ramasway (2001) examined the role of itinerant early childhood special education teachers and concluded that 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.

Despite the fact that there have been increased calls for use of coaching as an intervention practice, surpris ­ingly no attempt has been made to define coaching and identify its characteristics. This article includes an opera ­tional definition of coaching and background informa ­tion on the purpose and use of coaching practices. The information illustrates that coaching practices are con ­sistent with research evidence about how people learn (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000; Donovan, Brans ­ford, & Pellegrino, 1999) and that coaching can be used in multiple contexts and settings. The characteristics of coaching practices are also described followed by a brief explanation of how the practices are used.

BACKGROUND
Findings from How People Learn
The National Research Council (NRC) recently published a research synthesis on human learning that included three key findings as well as implications for teaching and the design of adult learning environments (Donovan et al., 1999). The purpose of the NRC’s syn ­thesis of available research on learning was to identify teaching practices and environments that promote suc ­cessful learning (Bransford et al., 2000). The research included in the NRC report indicated that in order for a learner to gain deep knowledge of a particular content area, he or she must develop an understanding of how the knowledge may be used in a specific context and also generalized to other situations (Bransford et al., 2000).

The NRC identified three key findings from the re ­search on human learning. First, the learner enters a learning environment with preconceived ideas about a subject matter. Accordingly, the learner may not develop an understanding of new information and skills being taught if his or her current understanding is not recognized and made explicit. Second, to develop a deeper level of understanding in a particular area, the learner must: (a) have a solid base of factual knowledge, (b) understand these facts within the context of a con ­ceptual framework, and (c) organize the information to facilitate easy recall, use, and transfer to other situations. Third, the learner must acquire a metacognitive approach in which the learner assesses his or her own level of un ­derstanding, establishes learning goals, and measures progress (Bransford et al., 2000; Donovan et al., 1999) . Results of a practice-based research synthesis of coach ­ing as an adult learning strategy (Rush, 2003) indicate that the characteristics of coaching are consistent with the NRC findings, and especially those related to the metacognitive approach to learning and linking informa ­tion back to a conceptual framework.

Overview of Coaching
Historically, coaching has been a term used primar ­ily in athletics. More recently, coaching can be found in the field of business (Doyle, 1999; Flaherty, 1999; Kin ­law, 1999). Coaching emerged as an accepted practice in the development and supervision of educators in the 1980s (Ackland, 1991; Brandt, 1987; Kendall, 1983).
The coaching models that have been used in pro ­fessional development programs have focused on build ­ing collegial relationships, solving specific instructional problems, learning new skills, and refining skills previ ­ously mastered (Joyce & Showers, 1982). Coaching has been used successfully by general educators and admin ­istrators (Delany & Arredondo, 1998; Kohler, Crilley, & Shearer, 1997; Kohler, McCullough, & Buchan, 1995; Munro & Elliott, 1987; Phillips & Glickman, 1991; Rob ­erts, 1991; Sparks, 1996), and special educators (Kohler et al., 1997; Miller, 1994; Miller, Harris, & Watanabe, 1991), and as a strategy to promote collaboration be ­tween special and general educators (Gerston, Morvant, & Brengelman, 1995; Hasbrouck & Christen, 1997; Tschantz & Vail, 2000), Coaching has also been found effective in preservice preparation programs for spe ­cial and general educators (Cegelka, Fitch, & Alvarado, 2001; Kurtts & Levin, 2000; Morgan, Gustafson, Hud ­son, & Salzberg, 1992).

Coaching in Early Childhood Intervention
Coaching in early childhood may be conceptualized as a particular type of helpgiving practice within a capac ­ity building model to support people in using existing abilities and developing new skills to attain desired life circumstances (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 prac ­tices by the practitioner being coached. This results in competence and mastery of desired skills for the early childhood practitioner and both the children and fami ­lies with whom the early childhood practitioner interacts (Doyle, 1999; Dunst, Herter, & Shields, 2000).
Coaching builds the capacity of family members to promote the child’s learning and development. This in ­cludes 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 blend ­ing new or existing knowledge, skills, and experience to interact with a child in everyday situations, and then assess and perhaps improve upon the results (Flaherty, 1999) noted that coaching is “not telling people what to do, [but] giving them a chance to examine what they are doing in light of their intentions” (p. xii). For example, the early childhood practitioner who uses coaching fa ­cilitates a dynamic exchange of information based on the parent’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 et al., 2004).

OPERATIONAL DEFINITION OF COACHING PRACTICES

The definition of coaching described next differs from previous descriptions found in the business and education literature by its focus on the operationalization of the relationship between coaching practices and the intended consequences as well as the processes that are used to produce the observed changes (Dunst, Trivette, & Cutspec, 2002). Based on a synthesis of research on coaching practices (Rush, 2003), coaching may be de ­fined as:

An adult learning strategy in which the coach promotes the learner’s ability to reflect on his or her actions as a means to determine the effectiveness of an ac ­tion or practice and develop a plan for refinement and use of the action in im ­mediate and future situations.

Coaching can be used to improve existing practices, de ­velop new skills, and promote continuous self-assess ­ment and learning. The role of the coach is to provide a supportive and encouraging environment in which the learner (parent, colleague, etc.) and coach jointly exam ­ine and reflect on current practices, apply new skills and competencies with feedback, and problem-solve chal ­lenging situations. The coach’s ultimate goal 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).

Coaching Characteristics

Understanding the characteristics of a practice is important in order to inform a practitioner of what to do in order to achieve the desired effect. The coach ­ing research synthesis by Rush (2003) was guided by a process that focused on the extent to which the specific characteristics of the practices are related to differences in their outcomes or consequences (Dunst, Trivette, & Cutspec, 2002). More specifically, the research synthe ­sis examined the characteristics of coaching that were related to variations in the use of newly learned practices or improvement of existing skills. Although the steps in the coaching process vary (Doyle, 1999; Flaherty, 1999; Hanft et al., 2004; Kinlaw, 1999), the coaching research literature suggests that coaching has five practice char ­acteristics that lead to the intended outcomes: (1) joint planning, (2) observation, (3) action/practice, (4) reflec ­tion, and (5) feedback (see Table 1). The definitions in the table are based on descriptions in the coaching re ­search literature and highlight the characteristics used to improve existing abilities, develop new skills, and deepen the understanding of evidence-based practices of the person being coached.

Joint planning. Joint planning ensures the parent’s active participation in the use of new knowledge and skills between coaching sessions. Joint planning occurs as a part of all coaching conversations, which typically involves discussion of what the parent agrees to do be ­tween coaching interactions to use the information dis ­cussed or skills that were practiced. For example, as a result of the coaching conversation with the practitioner, a parent may decide to offer her child choices during each mealtime.

Observation. Observation does not necessarily oc ­cur during every coaching conversation, but is used over the course of several coaching visits. Observation typi ­cally occurs by the practitioner directly observing an ac ­tion on the part of the parent, which then provides an op ­portunity for later reflection and discussion. An example of observation would be when a practitioner observes the parent reading a book to his child. Observation may also involve modeling by the practitioner for the parent. In this instance, the practitioner may build upon what the parent is already doing and demonstrate additional strategies (e.g., allowing the child to choose a book) and then reflect with the parent how the example matches the parent’s intent and/or what research informs us about child learning.

Action. The characteristic of action provides oppor ­tunities for the learner to use the information discussed with the coach or practice newly learned skills. Action may occur during or between coaching interactions. For example, when a parent reads a book with the child be ­fore bedtime, the parent encourages the child to select the book, describe the pictures as she reads, and then pauses to give her child a turn if he would like to take one.

Table 1
Definitions of the Five Key Characteristics of Coaching


Joint Planning

Agreement by both the coach and learner on the actions to be taken by the coach and/or learner or the opportunities to practice between coaching visits.

Observation

Examination of another person’s actions or practices to be used to develop new skills, strategies or ideas.

Action

Reflection

Spontaneous or planned events that occur within the context of a real-life situation that provide the learner with opportunities to practice, refine, or analyze new or
existing skills.

Analysis of existing strategies to determine how the strategies are consistent with evidence-based practices and may need to be implemented without change or   modified to
modifided to bo

 

Feedback

modified to obtain the intended outcome(s).

Information provided by the coach based on direct observations of the learner by the coach, actions reported by the learner, or information shared by the learner to expand the learner’s current level of understanding about a specific evidence-based practice.

 

Reflection. Reflection on the part of the person be ­ing coached is what distinguishes coaching from consul ­tation, supervision, and training. Reflection follows an observation or action and provides the parent an oppor ­tunity to analyze current strategies and refine her knowl ­edge and skills. During reflection, the practitioner may ask the parent to describe what worked or did not work during observation and/or action followed by generation of alternatives and actions for continually improving her knowledge and skills.
Feedback. Feedback occurs after the parent has the opportunity to reflect on her observations, actions, or opportunity to practice new skills. Feedback includes statements by the practitioner that affirm the parent’s re ­flections (i.e., I understand what you are saying) or add information to deepen the parent’s understanding of the topic being discussed and jointly develop new ideas and actions. Sharing additional ideas for potty training fol ­lowing the parent’s reflection on what she has tried and found to be either successful or unsuccessful is an ex ­ample

Reflection. Reflection on the part of the person be ­ing coached is what distinguishes coaching from consul ­tation, supervision, and training. Reflection follows an observation or action and provides the parent an oppor ­tunity to analyze current strategies and refine her knowl ­edge and skills. During reflection, the practitioner may ask the parent to describe what worked or did not work during observation and/or action followed by generation of alternatives and actions for continually improving her knowledge and skills.

Feedback. Feedback occurs after the parent has the opportunity to reflect on her observations, actions, or opportunity to practice new skills. Feedback includes statements by the practitioner that affirm the parent’s re ­flections (i.e., I understand what you are saying) or add information to deepen the parent’s understanding of the topic being discussed and jointly develop new ideas and actions. Sharing additional ideas for potty training fol ­lowing the parent’s reflection on what she has tried and found to be either successful or unsuccessful is an ex ­ample of informative feedback.

Use of the Coaching Characteristics
Knowledge and understanding of the characteristics of coaching are useful for any number of purposes. First, the characteristics can help determine the extent to which coaching practices are being used by practitioners. Prac ­titioners can use the characteristics to determine if they are engaged in coaching. In order for a practice to be labeled coaching, all of the characteristics must be used during the course of multiple coaching sessions.

Second, references to coaching in the literature should include these characteristics as descriptors of the practice. In order for a practice to be accurately de ­scribed as coaching, the characteristics must be present. Otherwise, outcomes claimed or refuted as a result of coaching may be attributed to something other than the coaching practices.

Third, the characteristics may be used for research purposes to further examine the conditions under which coaching practices are most effective. The characteris ­tics should be especially helpful in studies for reliability purposes to assist in collecting data regarding adherence to the practice.

CONCLUSION
The coaching characteristics described in this paper are currently being used in a number of studies to investi ­gate the use of coaching as a strategy for supporting par ­ents and other caregivers in early intervention programs in three states. In these same programs, coaching is be ­ing studied as a strategy for practitioners to support each other in a primary coach model of teaming practices. The characteristics of coaching are also being studied in an Early Head Start program to examine teachers’ use of coaching to promote parent competence and confidence in supporting their children’s learning and development.

The purpose of this CASEinPoint was to describe an operational definition of coaching. The characteristics of coaching were also delineated and further establish coaching as a practice to build the capacity of a parent, caregiver, or colleague in developing new skills, refin ­ing existing abilities, and gaining a deeper understanding of their actions. Operationalizing coaching and defining the characteristics further establishes coaching as an evi ­dence-based practice for adult learning.

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AUTHORS

Dathan D. Rush, Ed.D. is Associate Director, Fam ­ily, Infant and Preschool Program and Investigator, Cen ­ter for the Advanced Study of Excellence in Early Child ­hood and Family Support Practices, J. Iverson Riddle Developmental Center, Morganton, North Carolina.
M’Lisa L. Shelden, Ph.D. is Director, Family, Infant and Preschool and Investigator, Center for the Advanced Study of Excellence in Early Childhood and Family Sup ­port Practices, J. Iverson Riddle Developmental Center, Morganton, North Carolina.

CaseinPoint is an electronic publication of the Center for the Advanced Study of Excellence in Early Childhood and Family Support Practices, Family, Infant and Preschool Program, J. Iverson Riddle Development Center, Morganton, NC.   CASE is an applied research center focusing on the characteristics of evidenced-based practices and methods for promoting utilization of practices informed by research.

 ©2005 by the Center for the Advanced Study of Excellence in Early Childhood and Family Support Practices.   All rights reserved.
This article, CaseinPoint, 2005, Volume 1, Number 6, was reprinted with permission from the authors.   It may be accessed from: http://www.fipp.org/case/caseinpoint.html