Coaching practices: Building teacher capability to enhance continuity in the early years

December, 2021

Source: Teaching and Teacher Education, Volume 108

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

A site-specific (situated) teacher coaching program addressing early years continuity in Australia offers insights into promising practices.
Using the theory of practice architectures (Kemmis et al., 2014), this paper examines the role of coaching in teacher capability building to enhance children's continuity from pre-compulsory to compulsory education.

Methodology and methods
A collective case study (Stake, 1995, 2005) was undertaken at three sites to investigate the coaching practices and gain an understanding of how continuity was enacted.
Case study has been used in conjunction with the theory of practice architectures (TPA) (Kemmis et al., 2014).
The three sites were selected because they each adopted different coaching approaches in their respective challenging environments.
The names (Unified, Distributed, Networked) depict fundamental characteristics of the regions and their varied approaches.

The early year coaches (EYCs) at the three sites were nominated by the early childhood education and care (ECEC) director in each region and invited to participate in the project by the research team.
Others were nominated by the EYCs, project managers or the regional ECEC director, and subsequently invited to participate.
Participants were nominated because of their direct connections to the early years coaching role in each region.
They represent the diverse range of personnel involved in the implementation of each approach.

Data collection and data analysis
Two primary data gathering methods were used: audio recorded semi-structured life-world interviews (Brinkmann & Kvale, 2014) and site observations (Silverman, 2015).
These methods provided evidence of the dialectic relationship between site specific practices and arrangements.
The interview transcripts yielded evidence of the lived practices and arrangements at each site.
The site observation provided in situ evidence of practices and arrangements.
Being on site provided an opportunity to observe conditions and engage in conversations with participants about enabling and constraining practices (e.g., the physical set-up of the site; a material-economic arrangement). Twenty-one (21) interviews and twelve (12) site observations were undertaken by the researchers.

Findings and discussion
The findings presented in this section answer the research question: How do coaching practices, initiated and supported by EYCs, enhance continuity and alignment in the context of three K-2 settings?
The discussion focuses on three key points that were evident across the three sites: shared contemporary language and understandings of continuity; effective coaching practices and the influence of enabling arrangements; and constraining factors that indicated opportunities for program adjustment.
Implications are identified and linked to international literature.

Shared language and understandings of continuity
Contemporary understandings of continuity expressed by participants encompassed not only structural and developmental but also contextual aspects, reflecting effective capability growth across sites.
The role of reflective professional cross-sector dialogue in this professional growth supports findings from Germany (Schneider & Kipp, 2015), which identified positive impacts of reflective cross sector dialogue regarding support for children, and shared insights into pedagogic practice.
In this Australian study, continuity themes of preparedness for inevitable change at school entry, building on prior learning, and ensuring gradual change or seamlessness were framed by shared aspirations for children's educational access and positive trajectories.
International evidence shows these shared aspirations are highly relevant to joint transition planning (Dunlop, 2017) and the effective functioning of professional networks or communities of practice (Prenger et al., 2017).
This study reflects the benefits of combining both.
However, the co-existence of two conceptualizations of continuity - school preparedness and building on prior learning - reflects the historical reality of philosophical and institutional distinctions internationally between the two sectors (Dockett & Einarsdottir, 2017; Wilder & Lillvist, 2018).
Structural continuities were prioritized and included strategic alignment, curriculum coherence, and joint application of some support programs strategies (Abecedarian, Berry Street), although pedagogic similarity and ongoing access to support services were also noted.
Participants consistently identified the importance of relational continuities involving teachers, agencies, communities, children, and families; with less focus on links between children that also support transitions.
Pre-compulsory sector participants emphasized practical continuities that addressed the challenge of balancing learning framework requirements with enhancing children's awareness of future changes in structure, child agency, routines, and environments at school entry; thereby reflecting their heightened awareness of the importance of scaffolding children's transitions to school (Dockett & Einarsdottir, 2017).
Developmental continuities focused on children's ongoing progress across long time horizons, with some reference to school readiness during the process of working towards shared contemporary understandings and language.

Effective coaching practices and enabling arrangements
Within an overarching state-wide policy framework and coaching model, the coaching (middle leading) practices adopted for the K-2 program were highly responsive to sites and individuals.
A rich array of coaching practices encompassing sayings, doings, and relating offered flexible guidance in varied modes, which included face-to-face and online discussion, professional development sessions, resources, networking meetings, and communities of practice.
This array reflected a range of avenues for the development of teacher capability that built on other approaches by incorporating site-specific and differentiated teacher guidance such as modeling, collaborative teaching, and reflective dialogue.
Coach effectiveness was based not only on deep knowledge of content and coaching practices (Artman-Meeker et al., 2015), but also on pedagogic and policy knowledge spanning pre-compulsory and compulsory school sectors, personal warmth and credibility, and an appreciation of site-based collaborative ways of working.
The study highlighted the value of coach-teacher collaborative relationships, reflecting insights from Teemant et al. (2011) about professional development and socio-cultural teaching practices.
Further, it reflected the importance of a non-hierarchical style, relational trust, and interactional sensitivity (Knight & van Nieuwerburgh, 2012; Netolicky, 2016), which enabled coaches to influence positive change and broker relationships amongst key stakeholders.
A combination of these factors acting together with positive outcomes is rare in the literature.
A structured coaching model (GROWTH) (Campbell, 2016) framed a coherent process across the three sites.
However, nuanced site-based approaches enabled coaches to be responsive and address emerging challenges and variance in the development of teacher capability.
The importance of differentiating coaching to address each teacher's current understandings (see Teemant et al., 2011) was reinforced, yet significantly, this current study evidenced a greater degree of coaching differentiation related to the range of teaching contexts and teacher experience than the earlier findings by Teemant and colleagues.
Establishing a situated approach was critical in providing an environment endorsing change related specifically to local resources and concerns.
Further, a multi-layered support process for the EYCs adhered to the structured coaching model and offered ongoing support for continuously developing the capabilities of coaches themselves.
These findings have applicability to contexts beyond Australia.
Building on shared language and understandings was important to effect lasting changes in continuity practices.
This aspect was impeded by the knowledge base of teachers, limited understanding of what is meant by continuity in curriculum and pedagogy, sector differences in pedagogies, and differing expectations about the engagement of pre-compulsory ECEC services in preparation for school.
Coach capability and retention of staff were two key components of sustaining ongoing change to develop understandings of continuity and allied practices.
Identifying the role of initial teacher education in addressing teacher retention and cultural capability, this study highlighted the importance of situated learning, professional support networks, and community engagement.
A core element was the capacity of coaches to amplify the effect of the K-2 program by building teacher capability in working beyond compulsory school and pre-compulsory ECEC settings to strengthen the educational support base.

Opportunities for coaching program refinement
Opportunities for refinement of the coaching program emerged from reports on constraining arrangements such as logistical complexity, time frames, and staffing stability.
The logistical challenge of sustaining connections and coordinating strategies across multiple schools and ECEC services within a local area impacted coordination efforts.
Further, the logistical challenge of working across various locations also influenced the effective functioning of professional networks (Prenger et al., 2017).
A clear process for sustaining local leadership and networking is required if the coaching program is time-limited and a coach not available locally.

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Updated: Mar. 09, 2022


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