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A Closer Look at Coaching in Natural Learning Environments

Written by Julie Higginbotham, Senior Case Coordinator, Mecklenburg County CDSA

Here in Mecklenburg County, NC, we have completed the second refresher training in how to coach families in natural learning environments, and we got to spend another day with none other than M’Lisa Shelden, PT, PhD, and Dathan Rush, EdD, CCC-SLP. If you remember, we posted after the first one in the series, where we focused on Playfulness vs. Play.  This time around, we got more into the details around coaching as an interaction style and what that looks like when we’re in-the-moment with families. It was really nice to get to take apart different aspects of coaching to really understand the big picture. Here are some key points that we got to learn…

  • Defining Learning Environments – Well, this was a good place to start. After all, if we’re supposed to be using them to help children learn, we need to know what they are, right? For starters, a natural learning environment is any place that the child would normally be where they could potentially be practicing their skills and/or learning new ones. This can be at home, daycare, the grocery store, anywhere. The key points to consider are making sure that we’re looking at specific activity settings, addressing how the parent is engaged and responding to the child, and including the child’s interests so we can keep them motivated to learn. Easy-peasy.
  • Defining Coaching – This one made sense to review next since we set up the context of our services in natural learning environments. Coaching is a very specific way of interacting with families, and you know you’re doing it if you are observing, asking reflective questions, getting permission to share what you know, and making joint plans with families. You also should be taking action by helping the family learn and practice how they want to be supporting their children, reflecting on how it’s going and how the parents are feeling about the process, and giving/getting feedback to help make support for the family go even better. It is important to start with what the family already knows and build from there – if you feel like you’re being bossy or wagging your finger at the family, you’re probably not coaching.
  • Joint Planning – We got to spend time discussing the importance of making joint plans with families. This should be happening at least twice during visits with families: once at the beginning to recap the last visit and plan for what you’re going to focus on that day, and again at the end to find out what the family wants to be doing until your next visit. We learned about the kinds of questions that we can be asking as coaches, from the grand-tour, general ones to the most specific ones tied to strategies in certain activity settings. We also talked about the importance of the plan in terms of being prepared for visits – if you have a plan, you shouldn’t be scouring the house for something to play with…..since you no longer need your toy bags, of course.  🙂
  • Modeling – The group got some more information about types of modeling during visits, both the hopeful kind (when we are just hoping that the parents pick up something they see us doing directly with their child), and the intentional kind (when we’re actively engaging and teaching the parent so they can do it themselves). In case you’re not sure, hopeful modeling is not what we want to see happening during visits. We also talked about how to actually intentionally model something – did you know that there are some specific steps to this? We need to be explaining what we’re going to be doing, making sure that we talk about our role and the parent’s role, discussing what happened after we model a strategy, and inviting the parents to try it on their own. Don’t stop there, though – it’s important to reflect back on how it went and make a plan for how that’s going to be used in daily activity settings, including a back-up plan in case something goes awry. When you look at it as one big picture, it makes total sense, but if you leave out one of those parts, you’re missing something important that makes it all functional for the family.
  • The Coaching Continuum – This was another cool way to look at how involved we are with coaching and modeling activities with the family, going from most intrusive to least intrusive. It can go anywhere from intentional, hands-on modeling, to reflection in the moment, to reflection over past activities. A good point to remember is that we need to be matching our coaching to the parent’s learning style. Does that mean that everything should be intentional modeling? Not so much. Rather, we need to be thinking about each piece of the continuum and how to match those ideas to how the parent learns best.
  • Questions, Questions, and More Questions – This is a biggie when it comes to figuring out how to interact with families when we’re there for visits. There was very interesting conversation around why we need to ask questions, not to mention how we need to do it. One person asked why we should be asking questions when we already know the answers because it can seem patronizing. Dr. Sheldon felt differently about it, because is it not patronizing to assume that we know the answers and that the parent doesn’t have some great information to share? Whoa, that one stopped me in my tracks. I believe that wholeheartedly, but what a way to lay it out there! Anyway, we got to get more into the details around the different kinds of questions that we need to be asking – you can read up on A Framework for Reflective Questioning When Using a Coaching Interaction Style that Drs. Sheldon and Rush have created that explains the different kinds of questions with examples of each, along with this handy guide that you can reference when needed.  Seriously, click on the links because, let’s face it, there’s no way for me to summarize that in a way that makes sense!  🙂  The takeaway for me regarding how we are asking questions is that we need to genuinely want to know the answers, not ask because we’re told we need to. Furthermore, if we are making an assumption, we need to find out if what we’re thinking is right, rather than take the chance that we might be wrong. Those two tips will take the façade out of it for you.

Here’s my bottom line from this training – I left there feeling so much more confident in my understanding of this whole concept of coaching in natural learning environments, as well as very tired from stretching my brain and trying to think of new ways to incorporate this better understanding with the families I serve. My challenge to you is not to take this information and do a complete 180 in your work, especially if you feel like it’s too much to take in or that you still aren’t sure what it should look like in real life. Instead, I want you to pick one thing. Just one. Maybe you want to try more intentional modeling and help the family do the things you would normally be doing. Perhaps you want to explore how you can ask more questions, or just make a more purposeful plan for your visits. Don’t try to do this all at once. My other challenge to you is to reach out and talk to your peers about what you know and where you are in the process of incorporating these best-practice concepts into your work. Call us at the CDSA, talk to your IFSP team members, or email us here at EI Excellence.  I promise, this is a great standard of practice and one that will make a world of difference for families you serve, as well as for you.

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2 Responses to A Closer Look at Coaching in Natural Learning Environments

  1. Audrey Pearlman March 19, 2015 at 9:10 am #

    The last session of Coaching in The Natural Environments was by far the best one yet. It helped to deepen my understanding of types of questions to practice to help parents and caregivers be truly involved. I feel like I struggle sometimes to keep myself from blurting out what I think should be the “joint plan” for the next session. What suggestions are there for good questioning?

    • EI Excellence March 23, 2015 at 8:14 am #

      We’re so glad it was helpful, Audrey! We all struggle with the urge to say what we think as professionals, rather than letting the parents take on that role as the expert in what they want to see happening next. When you think about questioning, where do you typically start? If you’re going more for yes/no questions, try asking some that are more open-ended so the parent can share more information. That could lead you right into next steps. The other route you can take is to ask what the parent wants to try during the week and if they have ideas about what they want to discuss at the next visit. It may be something different, or it may be to work on the things they have tried since your last visit. Keep in mind that, even with making a joint plan at the end of the visit, your joint plan at the start of the next might take you in a new direction, and it all depends on the priorities of the parents. Good luck, and keep us posted on how it’s going!! 🙂

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