3 Steps to Strength-Based Coaching

by Shannon Lockhart | May 19, 2021

Classroom observation and evaluation of teachers have become standard requirements in early childhood to show child outcomes and the effectiveness of a program, yet many teachers dread this process. Their fear stems from years of being critically judged on what they are doing in the classroom and being told what they should be doing. This kind of feedback and way of working with teachers demoralizes their character, disrespects who they are, and doesn’t motivate them to change their teaching practices. Research shows that in order to affect change in the classroom, teachers need to be positively involved at every point in the improvement process, which includes building a relationship with them as well as setting and carrying out coaching action plans.

Try these three important steps to establish a strength-based coaching partnership.

Step 1: Build and Deepen the Partnership

The first and most important step in a partnered strength-based coaching process is building and deepening an ongoing, trusting relationship with teachers. Trusting relationships don’t develop from drive-by coaching activities (completing an evaluation tool every once in a while) or inconsistent coaches (changing coaches on teachers during the coaching process). Trusting relationships are built over time through consistent, direct time spent with teachers in and out of the classroom, reflecting on the strengths of what is happening in the classroom and building on opportunities for growth. Research shows that coaches need to spend at least one third of their time directly with teachers, whether that’s through mentoring, feedback sessions, and/or observations via in-person conversations, emails, texts, or phone calls.

Good coaches form relationships with teachers both professionally and personally. Checking in with teachers about an aspect of their personal life shows that the coach is listening and being authentic in their interactions. By taking an interest in their personal daily, you gain insight into ways that may strengthen and/or interfere with the partnership. However, coaches need to be careful about becoming too personal, which can negatively affect the coach/teacher relationship.

The trusting relationship of the coach and teacher(s) begins with shared respect for each other and their roles in the coaching process.

  • Establish roles, transparency, and clear expectations on both sides of the partnership from the start.
  • Respect teachers expertise, knowledge, and understanding of their children and classroom.
  • Coaches need to come to the table with knowledge about child development, the curriculum the teachers are using, and professional learning so that they can collaborate with teachers on areas that align with best practices and their particular curriculum.

When coaches and teachers work together as a team and have respect for and value each other’s role in the coaching process, then teachers are invested in the change process, which results in better outcomes in the classroom.

Step 2: Evaluate From a Strength-Based Focus

To affect change in the classroom, the HighScope coaching process focuses on teachers’ strengths while partnering with teachers to support growth opportunities and set goals for change in the classroom. Teachers using the HighScope Curriculum take a horizontal approach to teaching and children’s learning, which means that teachers meet children where they are developmentally, scaffold those skills, and then build in opportunities for extending to a new skill when children are ready. HighScope coaches take the same approach when working with teachers. Coaches meet teachers where they are on the continuum of their understanding in child development and their curriculum — all teachers fall on this continuum and have strengths no matter what level of implementation. When coaches acknowledge and focus on teachers’ strengths first, teachers are motivated to continue to grow in their roles, which produces positive changes in their teaching practices and classroom.

Open conversational feedback, where coaches respond to teachers’ lead, neither directing nor controlling the conversation but sharing control, also reinforces this strength-based approach. Just like we want teachers to follow children and learn from their lead, coaches follow teachers and share control with them in learning and setting goals, which, in turn, serves as a model. What coaches do or say during any of their coaching actions becomes a model for how coaches want teachers to interact with children and families. All coaching conversations should be reciprocal, respectful, and reflective. It’s also important that teachers see coaches modeling and using the curriculum resources to know where to find information for ongoing learning and implementation.

Try these conversational feedback strategies to create a deeper dialogue with teachers that build on strengths and set the stage for partnering goals.

  • Acknowledge the teachers’ strengths based on the shared focus or data being discussed
  • Communicate openly, where both teachers and coaches contribute their own observations, interpretations, and ideas and voice their own concerns based on the evidence presented
  • Ask reflective questions that help teachers dig deeper into their thinking about how their own teaching practices affect children and develop strategies to use next time (“I see you asking more open-ended questions with children. I’m interested to hear about what you’re noticing when you use this strategy with children during small-group time. How are children reacting?”)
  • Add statements, comments, or questions about what was observed and seen in the classroom (“I noted that Amari was interested in what other children were doing. How does he typically interact with children?”)

Step 3: Establish and Achieve Partnered Goals

Together — coaches and teachers — establish and work toward goals. During small-group times for children, teachers plan activities but children lead their own learning according to their developmental levels while teachers scaffold their learning. Likewise, coaches come to the table knowing what teachers need to work on; however, teachers need to be the ones deciding what they want to work on for them to be invested in the change process. If coaches choose and direct the goals, teachers will less likely be motivated to participate and make changes.

Coaches can use all types of data to help inform them and teachers about what is happening in the classroom (child outcomes data; short, focused classroom observations; quality evaluation tools, curriculum fidelity measures; coaches’/teachers’ anecdotes; video footage). As coaches collect, organize, and interpret the data, conference with teachers to identify their strengths and allow them to take the lead in their own goal setting and learning. Together, coaches and teachers look at opportunities for growth and generate strategies connected to the curriculum or best practice to devise a coaching plan.

Keep these tips in mind when setting goals!

  • Apply a 2:1 ratio, the strengths should always outweigh the opportunities for growth.
  • Too many goals can feel overwhelming and does not set the teacher up for success.
  • Goals focused on adult-child interactions must allow time for the coach to model and for the teacher to experience the modeled way.
  • If the teacher chooses more than one goal, it is always best to have the goal focus on a different area (a learning environment goal and an adult-child interaction goal, or a daily routine goal that includes an adult-child interaction strategy).
  • Whatever the goals that are generated, teachers need to feel in control of what is planned with the coach’s guidance and should receive ongoing support until the goals are achieved.

Five key takeaways to establish a strength-based coaching partnership

  1. lay the foundation for trust
  2. focus on teachers’ strengths
  3. have positive give-and-take feedback
  4. add generated opportunities for growth
  5. partner in setting and achieving goals with ongoing meaningful support


Artman-Meeker, K., Fettig, A., Barton, E. E., Penney, A., & Zeng, S. (2015). Applying an evidence-based framework to the early childhood coaching literature. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 35(3), 183–196. Retrieved from http://www.tecse.sagepub.com

Chu, M. (2014). Developing mentoring and coaching relationships in early care and education: A reflective approach. Boston: Pearson.

Jablon, J., Dombro, A. L., & Johnsen, S. (2016). Coaching with powerful interactions: A guide for partnering with early childhood teachers. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

L’Allier, S. K., & Elish-Piper, L. (2012). Literacy coaching series [DVD]. Elburn, IL: LearnSure, Inc.



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