Lessons Learned from Virtual Early Care and Education Coaching During COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted early care and education (ECE) programs across the country in many ways, including changes to enrollment, staffing, and daily operations. Many programs closed or transitioned to providing virtual learning and services in response to state guidance and mandates, especially in the early months of the pandemic. ECE coaches—who provide support, training, and assistance to providers and programs—have responded to these program changes by adjusting both the structure and content of their coaching services to meet programs’ evolving needs. These adjustments have included transitioning from in-person to virtual coaching and covering additional topics, such as identifying and accessing resources related to COVID-19 and developing health and safety processes.
This two-part brief series focuses on the key components of virtual coaching for the Detroit Early Learning Coaching Initiative (DELCI). The first brief presented an overview of the DELCI coaching model and how it was adapted during COVID-19, including the transition to a virtual format. This second brief describes the key activities and components of virtual coaching used in DELCI and highlights lessons learned that may be informative for others interested in the provision of virtual coaching.
In May 2019, Child Trends contracted with the Early Childhood Investment Corporation (ECIC) to evaluate DELCI. Evaluation activities included a literature scan focused on coaching and professional development in ECE settings, interviews and focus groups with DELCI coaches and program staff, observations of DELCI coaches working with participants (in-person and via video), online surveys taken by DELCI participants, analyses of administrative data from ECIC, and meetings with stakeholders and community members in Detroit. The findings in this brief draw on DELCI coach and program staff interviews and focus groups as well as coaching observations.
Overview of DELCI
Through funding support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation as part of the Hope Starts Here Initiative, DELCI was launched in 2018 with two primary goals: 1) to improve the quality of ECE programs in Detroit; and 2) to engage ECE providers in Great Start to Quality (GSQ)—Michigan’s quality rating and improvement system. At the outset, DELCI was especially focused on recruiting both center- and home-based programs who had lower quality ratings (e.g., 3-Star and below) or programs who were not currently participating in GSQ.
The main levers of change for the DELCI approach include 1) instructional coaching for teachers and providers; and 2) state-approved curriculum and assessment resources for programs. For DELCI, these supports are viewed as a way to support positive teaching practices and, as an extension, strengthen program quality and child outcomes.
Coaching before COVID-19
The DELCI approach draws heavily on the locally developed Early Educators Excel Coach-Based Adaptive Learning model (E3), which emphasizes goal-focused, individualized, data-informed, and practice-based coaching. DELCI coaches do not use a set curriculum, but instead draw on specific strategies from the E3 model to guide their work with participants. During in-person coaching sessions before COVID-19, this work included “on-stage” or in-context strategies (e.g., modeling, side-by-side coaching, in-the-moment feedback) and “off-stage” supports (e.g., following up via email, phone, or text to share resources or check in). As of March 2020, DELCI had recruited and provided instructional coaching to 84 programs (48% center-based, 52% home-based). This coaching was delivered primarily to ECE center-based lead and assistant teachers (referred to as teachers) and home- and group-based child care providers (referred to as providers).
Coaching during COVID-19
As a result of COVID-19, all in-person coaching activities were put on hold in early 2020 and DELCI began the transition to virtual coaching. The current DELCI coaching model, which was adapted and revised during this transition, utilizes techniques that are both similar and dissimilar to the in-person DELCI coaching approach. Since June 2020, about 65 teachers and providers have participated in virtual coaching. However, only about 15 are actively receiving instructional coaching, which includes the use of video-taped interactions between teachers, providers, and children and feedback on these interactions from coaches.
While the goals of virtual coaching remain the same as in-person coaching, the key activities and components used in virtual coaching have become more focused, and in some cases have changed. They include:
- Recruitment of teachers and providers into virtual coaching
- Training for coaches, teachers, and providers on how to utilize TORSH, a virtual coaching platform
- Recorded observations of teacher and provider interactions with children
- One-on-one meetings between coaches, teachers, and providers to review teacher, provider, and child interactions and to set quality improvement goals
- Supervision focused on the provision of virtual coaching strategies
DELCI coaches continue to engage with teachers and providers online, and it appears that virtual coaching will remain in place until the COVID-19 pandemic subsides. As coaches become more comfortable and skilled with the provision of virtual coaching, it will be useful for DELCI, and the field in general, to learn about how virtual coaching activities and components were received. This section presents specifics about the implementation of the key activities and components used in DELCI during the COVID-19 pandemic and uses them as a framework to highlight lessons learned regarding the provision of virtual coaching.
Recruitment of teachers and providers
DELCI is unique from many coaching models in that coaches are tasked with recruiting teachers and providers into the initiative. DELCI administrators and a community-based ECE consultant also assist with recruitment efforts. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, coaches used lists of ECE settings to identify eligible sites to contact regarding DELCI participation. Once sites were identified, coaches often made face-to-face-visits, talking directly with program administrators to assess and drum up interest in the initiative. Coaches also leveraged existing relationships with administrators, teachers, and providers who participated in DELCI previously and built on these connections to connect with new programs who might be open to participation.
The main steps of virtual coaching (Phase 4) include: teachers and providers recording and uploading a video observation to the TORSH platform; coaches independently reviewing and preparing feedback and discussion topics related to the video recordings; and coaches, providers, and teachers participating in a virtual coaching session. During the virtual coaching session, the coach encourages the teacher or provider to reflect on their instructional practices, and shares their feedback on the video. The coach and teacher or provider then set goals, using the CLASS dimensions as a guideline. Teachers and providers can also upload an “artifact” to TORSH for the coach to review, such as a lesson plan or notes.
The schedule for virtual coaching is more reliant on teachers and providers. While the DELCI coaching model is structured and follows a set format, the schedule for virtual coaching differs from face-to-face coaching where coaching interactions were initiated by the coach. With virtual coaching, opportunities for coaching are heavily dependent on how often a teacher or provider uploads a recording. For this reason, the timing of observations or coaching sessions may not be as consistent as when coaching was provided in-person.
Despite these changes, coaches have indicated that the shift to virtual coaching allows for deeper exploration and understanding of topics and more active participation by teachers and providers in the process of coaching. In person, teachers and providers were navigating various activities and monitoring children. This left very little uninterrupted time for reflection and debriefing. In the virtual context, coaches, teachers, and providers meet when it is convenient for them and conversations can be had with minimal interruptions and more depth. In addition, coaches are not able to “take over” interactions between children and teachers or providers, which coaches indicate has resulted in more active utilization and implementation of instructional strategies. Coaches also report that teachers and providers are more open to strengthening their skills. This openness comes in part because teachers and providers feel that video footage is a more objective and unbiased account of their interactions with children than coach feedback, which could be subject to interpretation based on a coach’s viewpoint or lens.
With the shift to online coaching, DELCI coaches need to be well-versed in instructional coaching and understand how to transfer that knowledge in a virtual space. Supervision was reported by coaches to be particularly helpful with strengthening this skill. As mentioned previously, a key change in the switch from in-person to virtual coaching is the inability to hold more fluid or natural conversations with teachers and providers in the moment. Coaches are now responsible for creating the conditions for conversations to occur. Notably, both coaches and supervisors have shared that the issue is more about the lack of familiarity with facilitating online conversations than the virtual environment itself. Regular supervision–both individually and in groups–has been key to meeting this challenge..
In recognition that virtual conversations differ from in person ones, supervision focuses more on developing coaches’ inquiry skills and learning how to ask more open-ended questions to facilitate better understanding about what is happening with teachers and providers. Moving toward a question-based approach to coaching puts teachers and providers in control of their work. This approach facilitates the sharing of experiences that enables teachers and providers to fully engage in and own the solution process (see Table 2 for a list of questions used by coaches). The coaching team also mentioned that similar questions were often used between coaches and DELCI supervisors, with the end result being that the supervisors’ work with the coaches mirrors the coaching that occurs with the teachers and providers—in essence, “a parallel process.”
Source: Detroit Early Learning Coaching Initiative, 2021
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on ECE settings, and coaching has not been immune to these changes. Over the course of the past year, DELCI coaches and supervisors have incorporated and experimented with new platforms, coaching, and supervision strategies, and are continuing to innovate and discover what works best for teachers, providers, and coaches. Other stakeholders involved in or considering a switch to virtual coaching can use the considerations and lessons learned in this brief and apply them to their own contexts. These insights can help strengthen the skills and capacity of ECE teachers and providers so they are better able to support children’s growth and development.
 All licensed programs and providers in Michigan are part of Great Start to Quality. Programs who choose to participate in the GSQ rating process are rated on a one- to five-star scale. Licensed programs and providers who do not participate in the rating process still have a profile in the GSQ system and appear as an Empty Star.
 In Michigan, a licensed home-based provider can care for a maximum of six children. A group provider can care for up to 12 children but must have an assistant if there are more than six children or more than two infants and/or four toddlers.
 A detailed description of the transition to virtual coaching in DELCI, as well as an overview of what coaching looked like during the initial months can be found in the first brief in this series.
 The CLASS tool measures the quality of teacher-child interactions and is correlated to educational outcomes for preschool age children. CLASS has not been designed for use in home-based settings.
 With the closure of many K-12 schools due to COVID-19 (and the subsequent shift to remote learning), many child care programs expanded their enrollment to include school age children.
 In DELCI, individual supervision entails a single supervisor interacting with a single coach to focus on coach, teacher, and provider concerns. Group supervision includes more than one coach and uses the power of the group to brainstorm, problem solve, and provide support to each other about coaching activities.