Interview: The Role of Coaching in Helping Head Start Teachers Effectively Serve DLLs

Blog Post
Sept. 19, 2019

Over the past several months, we have been writing about dual language learners (DLLs) in Head Start and how the program’s performance standards are being leveraged to better support multilingual children and their families. We have examined targeted program assessment tools, elevating the value of bilingualism, high-quality instruction and research on Head Start teacher’s perceptions of bilingualism.

Senayet Negusse is a Dual Language Learners coach whose work focuses on supporting teachers to better serve dual language learners and their families in the Puget Sound Educational Service District (PSESD) in Washington State. I recently spoke with her to learn more about the coaching services being offered to Early Head Start and Head Start teachers within PSESD.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Tell me a little bit about yourself and how you got started in this work.

I am the daughter of Ethiopian refugees. As a dual language learner, I grew up speaking Amharic in my household and English at the same time. I was learning two languages simultaneously. I was what they call a simultaneous bilingual. I never really embraced being a bilingual until I was in my junior year of high school. My Spanish teacher really believed in me and thought it was amazing that I spoke another language. She told me that’s why it was so easy for me to pick up Spanish. There were so many positive things that she highlighted for me about being bilingual. It was then that I realized that being bilingual is truly an asset.

I grew up going to a Salvation Army tutoring center. By the time I was 13, I was volunteering there and working with dual language learners [DLLs] and children with challenging behaviors. Once I turned 18, I went off to college. Throughout college, I worked as a preschool teacher. I started out thinking I wanted to be a nurse but what stood out to me what pulled at my heartstrings was child development and speech and language pathology [over time] I learned that early childhood education and working with DLLs are my passion. I went on to graduate school to learn about education policy and looked at the impacts of cultural programming on youth outcomes. In my last month of graduate school, I saw this job at the PSESD, and I thought it was perfect because it was in early learning and working in service of multilingual families. As a former head start student and first-generation graduate, I am both excited and honored to do the work that I do.

Who are the children and families served in the Puget Sound Educational Service District?

Puget Sound ESD covers two counties: King County (which is the largest county in Washington state) and Pierce County. There are over 180 languages spoken over the two counties. We serve and are the largest contractor for both Early Head Start, Head Start and the Early Childhood Education Assistance Program (ECEAP) children in the region. We use a subcontractor model and serve just under 4,000 students in the counties mentioned. We have early programs in about 24 school districts, community based organizations, child care centers and family child care providers. In addition to subcontracting PSESD also provides direct services in our home based Early Head Start program in Pierce County and our three child care center programs Educare Early Learning Center, Heritage Head Start and the Responsible Parenting Program (RPP) that provides home and center based services. Heritage Head Start is a site that is working on building a Spanish/English dual language classroom. The RPP is housed at the Washington Corrections Center for Women and offers Early Head Start services to women who are incarcerated. Most of our programs are operated during the school year, but some operate in the summer as well.

We have some classrooms that are primarily Spanish or English (50/50) and some classrooms with 100 percent DLLs and over 10 languages spoken in that classroom. In total, over 35 percent of the children we serve speak a language other than English at home.

What are the strengths of Head Start’s approach to meeting the needs of DLLs and their families?

There’s a lot in the Head Start Performance Standards, including family engagement, community partnerships, specific activities, and a standard that says that if the majority of the class speaks a language other than English than there must be an adult who speaks that language in the classroom. Unfortunately that’s not always possible. The lack of resources is the number one barrier to meeting this standard. We have over 100 languages spoken in King County and it’s difficult to find bilingual teachers to meet that need. However, we tend to forget about the community resources at our disposal to support the needs of DLLs in our classrooms.

Teachers don’t have to speak Vietnamese or Punjabi to meet the educational needs of children in their classroom, they just need to be aware of and have access to available resources. An asset that already exists in all communities and is underutilized, is families. In addition to families there are several other resources and strategies many early childhood educators don’t know exist or have time to access and that’s where we come in to support them. One of the sources we refer to and use in support of teachers is [Head Start’s] Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Center (ECLKC), which has a whole section on culture and language and toolkit for teachers, caregivers, family service staff and families.

Why should teachers be provided with coaching?

Learning is complex. It has been said that we remember 10 percent of what we read, 20 percent of what we hear and 30 percent of what we see. If we limit professional development opportunities to this, then there is very little chance that teachers will change their practice. But, if we tell them, demonstrate it and give them the chance to perform the strategy there’s a 90 percent chance they will do it. It’s really important that teachers aren’t just given the information, but that they understand the why, learn why it’s effective and then get a chance to do it themselves. We, as coaches can go into classrooms and model strategies and best practices for teachers and eventually they will get to try it and get feedback from us — go through the cycle of observation, feedback and improvement. We know bilingualism has many benefits, but the big question is how do we support that skill in the classroom? It’s about knowing these resources exist, how to access them and how to use them intentionally. What is best practice, how do I implement it, how do I make it real and how do I support my students?

Tell me more about your role and how you determine what to cover in your coaching?

This is a newer role. We are still in the process of developing it, but our role is really to work in collaboration with education coaches, family coaches, health coaches — a whole interdisciplinary team to ensure that teachers have support to make content comprehensible for our DLLs. Our [coaching] caseloads are large — I have over 100 classrooms that I am supporting in my role, 45 of them have 40 percent or more DLLs.

I go into a class and observe the environment and interactions. We have a tool that we created using the Head Start Performance Standards, the Dual Language Learners Program Assessment (DLLPA), the CLASS observation tool, and the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale (ECERS). We pulled out different things from these tools and used what we know are best practice to create an observation checklist. After my observation, I make a determination on whether the teacher could benefit from coaching, if the program overall needs professional development or if there is a child that could benefit from having a one-on-one bilingual instructional assistant who can help the child develop both in their home language and English language.

What are some of the greatest areas of need in terms of the content and strategies that teachers are eager to learn for supporting DLLs in their classroom?

Some teachers need support in things like using visuals to support DLLs’ learning or on building a culturally responsive environment. And some need training in second language acquisition and understanding how to support a child move through the stages. Others need coaching on how to involve families. It’s really different.

One thing myself and the other two DLL coaches are currently working on is becoming GLAD certified. [Guided Language Acquisition Design (GLAD) is a model of professional development focused on helping teachers learn strategies for promoting DLLs’ academic language development and literacy skills]. Some of our teachers are already trained and using it effectively, but most are not. We would like for them to GLAD-ify and use those strategies to enhance instruction and the curriculum we use. We want teachers to understand the “why” behind the strategy and how it’s benefiting their students. It’s not enough to show them a word or just to say it. We want students to use the word, feel ownership of the word, and use it throughout the day so that they truly learn it. If we give teachers the tools and help them understand the “why” behind the strategy, whether it’s around environment or family engagement, they are more likely to use it.

Tell me more about what you are learning about GLAD strategies.

What I love most about GLAD is that all of the strategies are woven together. They work together seamlessly. You can use the strategies independently, but once you see the big picture, you begin weaving them together. As a teacher you get to create the songs and stories that are related to your unit of study. The strategies work and they are fun! Something unique about GLAD is that the child takes on a persona — if you are doing a farm unit, the child takes on the persona of a farmer or if you are learning about insects, the child is taking on the persona of an entomologist. That’s a really big word, right? But children learn it and use it! You are learning about how insects live, their habitats, what they eat. You are becoming an expert — both teacher and the children. As a teacher you have so much power to do more and make the curriculum more accessible and engaging. This is not extra work. It’s going to support you. Once you do it one time, the next time will be seamless, and you can share the resources with other teachers.

What are some strategies teachers can use to support DLLs home languages in the classroom?

Some teachers who have not engaged with a DLL are afraid or don’t know how to engage with them. I always say just play with them — play is the universal language in preschool. I also tell teachers to use a lot of the language, gestures, and pictures (real photographs, not clip art). In addition, we provide teachers with key words in a variety of languages as a resource. You don’t have to know a child’s home language to build a relationship with them. I tell teachers to meet the child where they are at, to start slow and see how they respond. If you see that the child every single day goes to the block area, join them. I ask teachers, If you already know something that interests that child, how are you going to engage them? Talk about a sport or activity? Parallel talk? Even if the child isn’t speaking to you, you can speak to them. Use repetitive language and build on the child’s interest. Asking kids to say words in their home languages, playing music, having books in other languages are all strategies to help.

A few months ago, a teacher told me that there was a student who had never said a word in her classroom. I went in there and played with the girl and by the end of the day, the girl wouldn’t stop talking. All it took was for me to tell her it was okay for her to speak Spanish and English. I had one other child tell me not to speak to the girl because she didn’t speak English. The environment and how we engage children really matters and it makes a difference. Other kids start to see things in the classroom and start saying things like that. I turned it around and told the kids that it was really cool that their classmate could speak another language. I gave the teacher a few strategies and helped her understand where the student was in her language development, that she was going through the “preproduction stage” (home language stage) and may have been experiencing what is known as “the silent period.” By the end of the month, the teacher reported a positive change in the child’s behavior and language development. This is the kind of change we want to see in our classrooms.

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Related Topics
Dual Language Learners Early Head Start Head Start