Coaching in Early Years


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Over the last few years, Ofsted has begun highlighting the need for managers and leaders to mentor and coach their staff.  If managers and leaders are expected to coach their staff, it is only right that we look at what coaching means and how it impacts our settings.  

There are many examples in Ofsted reports published in 2022 and 2023 that mention coaching. Two are shown below. The first extract is from an outstanding report and reflects the use of coaching in practice whilst the second one is an action to be taken by a manager. 

  • The manager provides staff with supervisions that identify and target weaknesses in their practice, and ensure they receive effective coaching, mentoring and professional development that raises the quality of the provision even further. 
  • Action: strengthen the use of supervision, training and coaching to raise the quality of teaching further. 

From these and other examples, it is clear firstly that coaching is a practice that Ofsted requires. Secondly, it is evident that training, mentoring and coaching are three different practices.  

Most managers and leaders understand what training entails and are familiar with the concept of teaching and mentoring. Managers also know that they are expected to be positive role models for their staff.  

However, coaching is a term that is not too familiar within the early years, so this concept and practice thereof will be explored in this article. 

The most understood definition of coaching with which we are familiar is that which refers to coaching a sports team. At the time of writing, the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 is underway and the brilliant Sarina Wiegman is the Lionesses’ football coach. 

Some aspects of work and life coaching can mirror sports coaching. Certainly, Sarina has the best interests of the team at heart, she is fully supportive and committed to the team’s progress and development and she cheers them on, celebrating every achievement. However, coaching in the context of life and work coaching, including within the early years sector, is significantly different. 

The Coaching Academy defines coaching in the following way. 

“It is about setting and achieving goals… a coach uses insightful questioning to help their clients identify the goals they want to achieve, recognise their current circumstances, consider all the options open to them and choose which actions they will take within a defined timeframe. (Life) coaching centres around the belief that everyone can achieve their goals through acknowledging and using their own resources, rather than being told what to do.”

So, with regard to leaders within early years, coaching has the one key difference to training, teaching, mentoring and modelling; wisdom comes from inside, not from someone else.  

As EnRich coaches, we empower leaders to find the answers themselves, to effectively prioritise tasks, to know their strengths and weaknesses so they can pace themselves accordingly and to develop the ability to accurately reflect in order to find the best ways forward. Embracing a coaching approach in a setting enables a team to grow and thrive in a positive way, to find answers within (developing independent thought and fostering initiative) and enabling them to set achievable goals for themselves, the children and for the setting as a whole. 

If we, as managers and leaders, want to develop our coaching in practice, there are two foundational coaching skills to consider and they are both to do with communication – active listening and effective questioning. 

The VeryWellMind company describes active listening as “a communication skillthat involves going beyond simply hearing the words that another person speaks but also seeking to understand the meaning and intent behind them. It requires being an active participant in the communication process.”   

An active listener is fully present in the conversation, shows interest by practising good eye contact and notices non-verbal cues. They listen before responding, withholding judgement and advice. 

However, there are barriers to active listening and it is important to be mindful of these.  

Barriers can be mental, physical or environmental. One example of a mental barrier is the manager or leader having assumptions or preconceived ideas about the team member. A physical barrier could be as simple as seat placement, or the team member being hungry or thirsty or feeling unwell. Environmental barriers include too much noise nearby or being in a room that is too hot or too cold for comfort. 

Active listening flows into effective questioning.  It’s important to focus on the person with interest and an open mind, reflecting back what is heard at times. This tells the team member they have been heard, and helps the manager or leader move away from making assumptions.  Reflective questions could include: “So what I hear you’re saying is…?”  or  “So, is it true to say your experience has been…?”

Probe a bit deeper, ask questions that clarify answers and encourage further conversation. A helpful way to start the question could be: “Tell me more about that…” or “Help me understand that a bit more…”  

Once we begin to develop our active listening and questioning skills, how do we use coaching effectively within our practice? 

We can do this in two ways, informally and formally. 

Informal coaching happens on the floor, during tea breaks or during walkarounds. By using open-ended questions and phrases we can connect strongly with our team members. Being curious and genuinely wanting to know more encourages them to express their individuality and their ideas.  We could say: “This looks so interesting! What has been the children’s feedback? How could you add even more to this activity?” Or: “I am intrigued…where did you get your inspiration from to set up such a delightful book corner?” Even if an activity is not going as planned, we can come alongside them, jointly assess reasons for this not going well and quickly explore ways in which the situation can be turned around.  

Formal coaching tends to happen at set times in the yearly calendar or at times when urgent action is required. These times can include supervisions, appraisals and professional discussions. 

The manager’s preparation is key for a rich outcome. Ensure a safe, quiet space with comfortable seating has been arranged (a tricky task for some nurseries!) Have water available to drink and pens for note-taking. Be aware of active listening techniques. Ask open-ended, reflective and clarifying questions.  

Always start with a celebratory tone. ”‘What has gone really well for you over the last few weeks?” is a good opening question. Be sure to acknowledge improvement or success. An example of this could be: “At our last supervision, one of your action points was to streamline the lunchtime process. I can see there is a calm, orderly atmosphere now and the children are very familiar with the new routine. How did you achieve this?’ 

Then it’s time to delve into current challenges. Ask questions that invoke a thoughtful response, such as: “What has not gone so well? What do you think are the contributing factors to this situation?”

Allowing time for the team member to talk freely about difficulties without judgement builds trust and lays the foundation for open and frank communication in the future. By exploring ways in which things could have been done differently, the team member begins to see themselves as part of the solution. They start to feel empowered, which boosts their self-belief. They are then able to move on to the next step, setting action points. 

Agreeing on action points together encourages team members to develop a sense of ownership of their own performance and professional growth. Through talking about celebrations and challenges, they know where they are currently. It’s time now to explore where they want to be and what they need to do to get there. 

Action points need to be doable. They need to have a time frame for completion and they need to be relevant. Think SMART. Choose one to three actions to do with this in mind. Provide resources if needed. 

Following the formal meeting, check in with the team member often, encouraging them and celebrating every success. 

It takes time and practice to learn how to coach effectively. Practising active listening and effective questioning is a good start to developing a coaching approach as a leader. 

We’d love to hear your stories so do let us know how using coaching has made a difference in your place of work! 

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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