Module 6: Coaching (how to be a good coach and why it’s important)

What is coaching?

Coaching is the process of supporting a learner in an individualised context in order to support them to master a new skill. Coaching is important in online therapy because it allows us to support the development of people around the client to become more independent in their support of that person. Rather than a therapist having someone to assist in delivering 1:1 therapy, the therapist coaches the support person, who can then use new skills independently with the client, and build the skills of others who interact with them.

Coaching is different from training because training focuses on delivering a pre-defined collection of information. When we coach, we work together with a person to focus our goals, and we work on the strengths and weaknesses of that particular individual, which means that the person will come out of the coaching sessions with new knowledge and strategies for its implementation that they understanding and feel confident in sharing. The learner is involved in sharing their observations and experiences, and shares iterative two-way feedback with the coach. 

Coaching gives the learner confidence, new skills, and also shows them that they are valued.

Coaching is (not actually) scary!

At our universities, much of our training is focused on 1:1 therapy. We are used to it. We default to it. As a result, we might feel slightly unfamiliar with coaching, or slightly less confident. However, the reality is that the literature that is emerging is showing that it is an incredibly effective way for promoting capacity building and excellent clinical outcomes. Therapy delivered in a 1:1 context is useful in many situations, but we must remember to that just because “we’ve always done it this way” doesn’t mean it’s the best solution for online therapy.

How do I coach?

So you’ve discussed goals with the team, you’ve found an area to focus on, now how do you coach? The tables below show you the steps involved in coaching, followed by an example of how you might implement them.

Step What to do How to do it
1. Description • Describe to the learner(s) what the target behaviour is • Describe how you will teach it and how they will deliver it • Videos are helpful for showing people examples of how they might approach their goal. They can show a model of exactly what the learner will be doing with the focus person • PDFs are handy too – they’re good for background knowledge (e.g. what is this communication strategy and how will it help?)
2. Calibration • Give the learner(s) some curly questions or example scenarios so that you can gauge where their knowledge is following the description stage. We need to “calibrate” our coaching approach. It’s important to know where to start with your coaching, so it’s handy to provide to ask questions like: “You work with client for 5 minutes and they become frustrated and run away. What do you do next?”
3. Observation • Allow the learner to attempt to deliver the new strategy with the client. • Provide verbal feedback online – simple reinforcing statements to shape behaviour (e.g. “that attempt was good, try it quicker this time”) • If your client is moving around, it can be helpful to have a second learner following the client and learner with an iPad or phone so you can see what is happening throughout the environment. • The second learner can relay feedback quietly, or wear earphones if the speaker is too distracting.
4. Debrief • Allow the learner some time to reflect before providing them with any more feedback – this can help shape stronger reflective skills • Provide formative feedback to the learner following their reflection, and remember to be positive! • You could send the learner(s) an email after the session asking for their reflection. You could include questions like: "How did you feel the strategy went? What worked well? What would you improve/do differently next time?"

Online therapy example:

Benny: Benny is 11 and lives in rural WA. He’s really good at painting, but he’s not very interested in other people. His parents and teachers hire a speech pathologist to try to work on getting Benny to engage with people on a more regular basis. Their goal is to for Benny to engage in a meaningful activity with another person for 10 minutes twice a day using intensive interaction.


Description: The SP sends through a video and a PDF to Benny’s parents and teachers. The PDF describes what intensive interaction is, why it works, and how to do it. The video shows an adult using intensive interaction with a child around benny’s age.


Calibration: The team then meets via videoconference and the SP goes over the main points about intensive interaction again. He asks the team “what is the first thing you are going to take when you approach Benny to start trying intensive interaction”. They answer that they “will observe his behaviours – where he’s looking, how his posture is, what he is doing with his hands and facial expression, what objects or sights/smells/sounds he is interested in.”


Observation: The first learner approaches Benny and begins to trial intensive interaction. The second learner follows the pair with an iPad so the SP can observe. The SP relays shaping feedback to the learner through the person holding the iPad.


Debrief: Following the session, the learner is asked to reflect on how she performed. What did she do well? What might she do differently next time? How did the whole experience feel? The SP then gives the learner verbal feedback about her performance, remembering to focus on her strengths. The learners give feedback to the SP about how they felt during the learning process, and what the SP could do to help them better. A follow up session is planned so that the team can implement feedback.