Coaching Characteristics

Coaching--A helpful tool for teachers

by Karrie Snider

Coaching has been widely used to support professional development initiatives and ongoing teacher support in schools. With widespread use, comes a broad range of interpretations of coaching purposes, actions, as well as coaching models. Based on the work of Dunst & Trivette (2009), Rush & Shelden (2014) describe coaching as relational and participatory helpgiving (p. 27) which means that coaches, through the use of many inter-personal skills (exhibiting empathy, warmth, openness, listening, honesty, and having established trust), work with coachees to co-construct pathways towards coachees' goals. No matter the model or approach, mastering these interpersonal skills is important to becoming an effective coach.

Approaches to coaching. There are many different approaches to coaching in early childhood education settings: peer coaching, expert coaching, cognitive coaching, technical coaching, mentor coaching and many more iterations. Peer coaching (Robbins, 1991) occurs when colleagues work with one another to improve specific practices. Through peer dialogue, colleagues collaborate to review and reflect on their own and their peers' practices. They problem solve and try new teaching strategies to improve children's learning. Expert coaching consists of having "experts" work with classroom teachers to learn new skills and implement specific teaching skills sets. Experts often have specific content knowledge and most often are consulting with classrooms from an agency or group outside of the program. Cognitive coaching (Costa & Garmston, 1994) is a coaching model designed to promote reflective dialogue as the source of building teachers' capacities for thinking about their practices...and ultimately improving those practices. Mentor coaching often reflects a mentor-novice dyad, where the mentor shares their own experiences as means to support the novice in career growth.

Coaching Models. Different coaching models specify different coaching actions. For instance, some coaching models inform specific expectations of the coach--identify an effective way to work with the coachee, select goals for the coachee, model instruction or other aspects of the goal for the coachee, collect data on the coachee's classroom, create reflective dialogue, etc. (Gallucci, DeVoogt Van Lare, Yoon & Boatright, 2010). Project ABC2 utilized an evidence-based coaching model developed by Rush & Shelden (2014), comprised of five coach-actions: observation, action, reflection, feedback, and joint-planning. A cornerstone of this model relies on the earlier mentioned relational and participatory helpgiving. Within participatory helpgiving, coaches and coachees enter into a reciprocal dance--where coaches responsively utilize methodologies (the five effective practices) to support coachees' toward their own goals, all the while helping the coachee to attribute success to their own actions and decisions--rather than to the actions of the coach.


Remaining objective, and working to understand the coachee's point of view is important. Collecting data is an important role of the coach, but can also helps the coach collect specific information the coachee requests and/or is required for the coaching sessions. Classroom data can assist both the coach and the coachee in remaining objective, learning to understand issues and solutions, planning for improved practices for improving children's learning, as well as offering a solid frame of reference for sharing in conversations.

Effective Users of Communication

Effective communication allows the coach to establish strong relationships with the coachee early in the coaching process, and helps support the ongoing work between coach and coachee. It is helpful for the coach to utilize effective communication practices. Effective communication is further explained below.

"Once a human being arrives on this earth, communication is the largest single factor determining what kinds of relationships she or he makes with others and what happens to each in the world. How we manage survival, how we develop intimacy, how productive we are, how we make sense, how we connect with our divinity—all depend on our communication skills." Satir (1988)

Communication Behaviors that Enrich Partnerships

      • Be Approachable!--People feel comfortable and secure with you when they can approach you. Friendliness, warmth and non-judgmental responses contribute to creating an approachable you.
      • Show Sensitivity!--You communicate a desire to understand the other person in positive and supportive ways when you are sensitive and attuned to their needs and goals.
      • Demonstrate Flexibility!--You provide the needed space and security for effective communication when you are flexible to teachers' needs, teachers' immediate concerns, and issues that arise during planned coaching sessions.
      • Always be Dependable!--Others can count on you to follow through when you demonstrate dependability. Keep your word. Keep your appointments. Be on time and stay on task.

(Swick, 2004)

Communication Facilitators

Coaches (and teachers) build stronger relationships with adults when utilizing effective communication. The following elements of communication are presented to help coaches (and teachers) understand what their communication actions are "saying" to others.

Passive Listening (Silence)

      • Encourages others to talk once they have started, but does not meet the need for two-way communication. Coaches should facilitate conversations by being interactive in the dialogue and responsive to the coachee.
      • Passive listening however does not always tell others you are paying attention, nor do others get anything in return to know that you understand them

Acknowledgment Responses

      • Better than silence in that it is demonstrated that you are paying attention
      • Facilitates further communication, but only weakly
      • Communicates acceptance to some degree but does not prove acceptance
      • Does not prove that you really understand

Door Openers, Invitations to Talk

      • Door openers show others you are listening
      • They can assist others when getting stuck while sharing a problem,, but are ineffective in demonstrating acceptance, understanding, or warmth.
      • Remember: Invitations open the door, but do not keep the door open

Active Listening (Giving Feedback)

Active listening consists of attentive body position, appropriate eye contact, authentic facial expression, appropriate body positions and touch, as well as meaningful verbal responses

      • When you use active listening, you are helping others feel that their ideas and feelings are respected, understood, and accepted
      • Active listening fosters further communication, defuses feelings, and provides therapeutic release
      • It facilitates the identification of underlying issues
      • Active listening can begin the problem-solving process while empowering the other person to be their own problem solver

Communication Roadblocks

Experts recommend that teachers (and coaches) consider certain communication behaviors that may impede the development of relationships, conversations, and/or collaboration. Some of these include: ordering, commanding, making threats, preaching, giving advice, lecturing, stereotyping, diagnosing, consoling, and praising. Some of these bring up feelings of guilt, while others feelings of submissiveness, uncertainty, negative vibes, misunderstanding or judgment (whether positive or negative).

(Gordon & Birch, 2004)


Coaches who are foster collaboration embody many characteristics of effective coaching. For instance, it is important to choose "relationship over control" within the coach--coachee dyad (Rush & Shelden, 2014). This means that coaches collaborate with coachees about the goals of the coachee and work to understand their perspective. This is in opposition to coaches taking on a role or attitude of "I know best" or "You really need to do this". Further, through the use of the five coaching practices, coaches collaborate with coachees to support coachee's progress toward goals. Use of these practices does assist movement toward mutually established goals.

Interpersonal Skills

In addition to effective communication, coaches utilize other skills that help them build trust with their coachee--honesty, caring, empathy and openness. They must work to create a safe environment, where teachers trust conversations are confidential and non-evaluative (Burkins, 2007; Dozier, 2006; as cited in Heineke, 2013). Coaches refrain from passing judgment--both mentally and verbally in order to keep an open mind about the coachee's point of view. But most importantly, by refraining from making judgmental statements within coaching conversations, the coach demonstrates the aspects of caring and empathy which is important for building trust.

Focused Thinking

Researchers also suggest that coaches (and teachers) must be certain to stay focused! In one study that examined the discourse that takes place between coaches and teachers, the researcher observed that coaches in her study reflected the often "fracturing" of their time and focus, that may sometime impede the coach--resulting in minimized time spent coaching (Heineke, 2013). The reality is that teachers and coaches have many demands placed on them. Because teaching is complex, it is easy for daily tasks to take over coaching time. Therefore, focused effort, focused thinking, and creative solutions are important for coaches to offer during interruptions to coaching sessions. Above all however, maintaining focused goal-oriented actions helps teachers and coaches work together in a targeted manner and spend time in coaching on the agreed-upon actions they have determined, which ultimately helps foster success for all.


Heineke, S. (2013). Coaching discourse: Supporting teachers' professional learning. The Elementary School Journal, 113 (3), 409-433.

Gordon, T., & Burch, N. (2003). Teacher effectiveness training: The program proven to help teachers bring out the best in students of all ages. Three Rivers Press (CA).

Satir, V. (1988). The new peoplemaking. Mountain View, CA: Science and Behavior Books.

Swick, K. J. (2004). Empowering parents, families, schools, and communities during the early childhood years. Stipes.