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Coaching model aims to enhance services for Nebraska infants, toddlers

Lisa Knoche, CYFS co-director, is leading a project to explore ways to enhance coaching of state early intervention personnel who work with infants and toddlers with disabilities and their families. Learn more in the CYFS Research Network.

In the United States, almost 400,000 infants and toddlers who are not developing typically receive services through the federal Early Intervention Program for Infants and Toddlers with Disabilities.

Because these children and their families rely on early intervention services for optimal developmental outcomes, evidence-based solutions are crucial.

Thanks to a $1.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs, University of Nebraska–Lincoln researchers are exploring ways to enhance the services provided by state early intervention personnel who work directly with infants and toddlers with disabilities and their families.

The CYFS-housed project is a collaboration among the research team and the Nebraska Early Development Network, which operates the state’s early intervention services; the Nebraska Department of Education; and the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.

The team will support providers’ professional development by creating and evaluating a systematic, sustainable model to guide coaches who work with early intervention providers. Coaching in Early Intervention (CEI) is expected to launch in in early 2021.

“We know what works in the field, but getting people to use what works is the hard part,” said Principal Investigator Lisa Knoche, director of the Nebraska Academy for Early Childhood Research and CYFS co-director. “That’s where the coaching framework comes in. We’re implementing a structure that helps early intervention professionals use the evidence-based practices with families.”

That professional development, Knoche said, will ensure ongoing, high-quality services for children and their families — and help develop and retain coaches.

Rachel Schachter, assistant professor of child, youth and family studies

Using the CEI model, a master coach will support site-based coaches with one-on-one instruction, including virtual learning. This professional development includes evidence-based coaching practices such as relationship‐building, observation, planning and goal-setting, feedback, reflection and modeling, and will enhance site-based coaches’ ability to tailor their coaching to individual providers’ needs.

Researchers will use the CEI model to identify and evaluate strategies to improve professional development for early intervention programs throughout Nebraska, and to ensure personnel in the field have a sustainable support system.

“What’s exciting about this project is the opportunity to help service providers ensure their learning experiences are optimal, and that they’re getting what they need to make this work,” said Co-PI Rachel Schachter, assistant professor of child, youth and family studies.

The pilot implementation of the four-year project will include 10 site-based coaches, 40 early intervention personnel and 160 infants or toddlers with disabilities and their families, who will participate in activities that will evaluate the model.

The project’s professional development framework aims to help develop and retain coaches — and ensure ongoing, high-quality services for children and families.

“Often, we send coaches out and say, ‘Go coach,’” Schachter said. “But we don’t necessarily provide them a structure to do that. This project develops a system of support for coaches, providing guidance and direction so they can do their best work.”

Along with Knoche and Schachter, the research team also includes Gwen Nugent, CYFS research professor, and Sue Sheridan, CYFS director.

The project will use multiple strategies to deliver coaching services — both in-person and virtual — that have helped researchers sidestep obstacles created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Services look very different during the pandemic,” Knoche said. “But we have a virtual coaching platform in place based on the needs of the communities, so we’re well positioned to make things work with social distancing.”

She also noted the importance of collaboration in providing effective early childhood intervention.

“Strong research practice partnerships are born out of sustained, long-term relationships,” Knoche said. “You forge mutual trust and understand one another’s priorities and needs, and that paves the way for the continued collaborations.”

Learn more about this project in the CYFS Research Network.