On Using Video and Photos to Be a Mirror for Teachers: Strengths-based goal setting

This blog entry is by our friend and colleague, Michael Luft, Associate Director of the Ben Samuels Children Center at Montclair State University.  Michael shares lessons he has recently learned about strengths-based goal setting from teachers he supervises.  Thanks Michael, not only for these rich insights but also for modeling that ongoing learning is key to effectiveness and to keeping ones cup filled – even for those of us who have been in the field for many years.

Amy and Judy



Over the last 12 months, I have been using video and photos to identify moments of effectiveness when working with staff on the goal setting section of our state mandated evaluation tool. It has allowed me to hold up a mirror to who they are, their aspirations and issues they are grappling with. 

As they have developed new insights and skills, so have I. I am honored to be a mirror for these teachers each of whom has taught me something about how to support professional development using a strengths-based stance. 

Here's what I've learned:

Sometimes all it takes to help someone along their path is for them to know that you are willing to see their strengths.

Y is an assistant teacher working in a toddler room - a new classroom for her. The transition has been a challenge. As I reviewed the video of her, I struggled to find a moment of effectiveness and began to doubt if video was the way to go. I kept looking and finally found a short moment of Y matching the excitement of a child as he mastered a gross motor skill. 

I started the conversation with her and invited her to sit beside me at the computer so we could see the video clip together.  Y was a bit nervous and worried about whether I would follow through on my promise to only show her moments of effectiveness.  I played the clip three or four times for her and each time her face broke out into a smile and she sat up straighter.

As we talked, Y shared how these were ‘moments of enchantment’ and spontaneously said she would like to have two or three of these everyday. We thought together about her goals and I let her know I would do all I could to support her in having more of hose moments of enchantment. 

Over the next months, I could see her confidence grow both in the classroom and when talking with me.   Sometimes we could find 10 or 15 examples of‘moments of enchantment’ in one clip.  Including a special moment when Y mirrored a child’s excitement as the toddler mixed yellow and blue paint together – and made green!  In this moment of shared excitement, the child reached out and gave Y a hug.  She beamed.

I marvel how much progress Y has made over the last year.  I know some of it is that she is getting to know her new teaching partner, yet I can’t help to conclude that some of it was taking the time to let her know that I see her and letting her see her own effectiveness.

Take time to savor success and deepen understanding of what someone does well before moving to the person's next goal.

B, a preschool teacher for 25 years, had as her goal to become more skillful in teaching science to preschoolers.  I was very impressed she wanted to push her edge and take on this challenge after being in the field so long. 

The first time I came to observe, B was carrying out an experiment at morning meeting to introduce the concept of absorption. She had prepared her materials ahead of time, prepped her assistant to handle a number of the details and very skillfully led children to predict which materials would absorb water and which wouldn’t.

B is uncomfortable with video so we agreed I would take photos instead. During our annual evaluation conference, we spent a lot of time reflecting on her growing skills in teaching science and factors that contributed to the success of the absorption activity. 

As we planned goals for the next year, I suggested that B reflect on the ingredients that led to such a successful year of science.  My goal doing this was to strengthen our relationship and to promote B’s confidence as we put her strengths into words.  She made a list and decided that one of her new goals would be to focus on math and that she would intentionally address obstacles to her success.

I put together a photo album with 10 photos highlighting her effective strategies so that once again, we could revisit her successes and progress. Overtime, B is more open to my visits to her classroom and together we delight in acknowledging and sharing examples of her progress.  


Be a mirror for your staff as you set goals.  Reflect successes and strengths.  Honor and make a plan to pursue the questions they want to answer.

To create positive change, teachers’ goals should reflect what they are grappling with and areas they hope to in which they hope to make progress.  Not just what I see or think they should be doing.  I believe at times teachers wait for someone to mirror back the worthiness of what they are wrestling with and with R I was finally able to be that mirror. 

As we reviewed a few moments of a well planned and executed activity for her infants, R and I marveled at her ability to be in the moment with children, calmed and focused. R asked, “Why do the children rely on me much more than the other adults in the room?”

R had asked that question in the past. This time I was able to hear it, reflect it back to her and honor what a great question it was to examine.  I asked, “ What would it be like to be able to teach others to be a calm and focused presence for children?’ 

I suggested it could be a great focus of inquiry and a goal for the next year.  Also that she document her journey so that she could identify and build on her insights and successes.  We naturally segued naturally to a third goal: articulating how she could use planning to allow her to be in the moment with her children and to give her teacher assistant and student assistants information they needed to be effective.

©  Luft, M. 2015.  Inspired by Jablon, Dombro and Johnsen, 2015.   Coaching with Powerful Interactions:  A Guide for Partnering with Early Childhood Educators.  Washington, D.C.: NAEYC.

Keeping Your Cup of Energy Filled: A Key to Using Yourself as Your Own Best Resource


Two weeks ago, as July turned to August, we asked on Facebook: “What are you doing to fill your cup of energy?”  We too are pausing to check the level of our cups. Why?  A more full cup makes it more likely any of us can use ourselves as our own best resource.

Imagine that the setting where you work –a family child care home, classroom, a family’s home or an office – can be replicated to include the same furnishings, material – even the same people.  No matter how exact the duplicate, without you, it would never be the same. 

You - your personality, sense of humor, preferences, your knowledge, skills and the decisions you make –create a setting and interactions that are unique because of your influence.  You are the richest and most important element you bring to your work.  Being aware of what you bring and how to use that knowledge about yourself intentionally is what we mean when we say, “you are your own best resource.”  

When you are feeling fueled and nurtured, it is more likely that you can pause to:

·      Quiet your static, that mental noise we all experience when too many people and situations want to be addressed – NOW! 

This makes it possible for you to:

·      See and appreciate yourself - the strengths, knowledge, preferences, past experiences, skills and questions that you bring to your work and interactions.

This makes it possible for you to:

·      See others more clearly – who they are and what they bring to your interactions.

This makes it possible for you to:

·      Make the best decisions possible about what to say and do to connect and extend learning for the other person and yourself.

This makes it possible to:

·      Top off your cup.  And the cycle continues …….

As the new year begins in programs and schools, we encourage you to keep tabs on the level of energy in your cup.  And to invite colleagues – and families-- to do the same.  You might:

·       Take 5 minutes, in a staff, team or meeting with parents to talk about the “Cup of Energy” handout on the Resource page: http://www.powerfulinteractions.com/books/    Invite people to think about and talk together about:

o    what fills your cup?

o    depletes your cup?

o    how can we support one another to keep our cups full?

·      Keep a cup or mug on the counter or other shared adult space.  Keep it filled with pretty stones or chocolates or stickers. Small objects that will make people smile.  Invite colleagues and family members to take one when they feel the level in their cups is falling. 

·      Incorporate “cup filler” ideas into your daily interactions with colleagues and family members.  For example, begin meetings by sharing a child’s quote or drawing or story that made you smile.  Share an “I notice” statement and invite others to do the same so that a strength of everyone is articulated.

·      Share some of your cup-filling strategies with others on the Powerful Interactions Facebook page.  It is energizing to know others can benefit from your experience and wisdom.

©  Dombro and Jablon., 2015.  Based on Dombro, Jablon, & Stetson 2012.   Powerful Interactions. How to Connect with Children to Extend Their Learning. 2011. Washington, D.C.: NAEYC.

Reflections on Strengths-Based Articulation: Part 2 Extending Children's Learning by Extending Our Learning

In our last blog posting we touched upon the idea that learning to use strengths-based articulation requires practice and for many of us – stretching our knowledge and ability to articulate how children develop and learn.

Conversations with colleagues have led us to want to talk more about what it means to stretch one's knowledge and ability to describe children's development and learning.  It's relatively simple to learn to use the template for strengths-based articulation: “I notice that you ____ . This helps children learn ______ “. However, there's much more to it. Many educators, including some of us who have been in the field for a long time and who are writing this blog about this strategy, are realizing the need to intentionally work on becoming more fluent in describing how a teacher’s words and actions influence a child’s development and learning.

Strengths-based articulation is emerging as an opportunity for all of us – teachers, coaches, directors, agency leaders, writers and others – to extend our learning and ability to articulate how children develop and learn and the specific actions teachers do to promote their learning.  We believe that this in turn will have very strong and positive ripples on extending children’s learning.  

A few years ago, a colleague with courage stood up at a meeting and asked, “If we, leaders and coaches, aren't able to quickly describe what children are learning… how can we help others learn?”  His comment and courage and openness to become a learner stays with us. 

In the spirit of being a learner, and to begin this conversation that we will continue over time, we offer a few tips to increase fluency that have been helpful to us and to colleagues:

·      Work with a learning partner(s). It really helps to look together. In addition to helping you focus on moments of effectiveness, talking to a partner about learning is easier than thinking alone!

·      Pick a focus. Create a plan and tools that you will give you the concepts and language you need.  Examples include:

o   Choose a weekly observing focus. You might decide to observe teaching practices related to math. As you visit classrooms, notice effective practices that you think have a math connection. Look at how materials are organized. Is there a pattern? Do children need to use one-to-one correspondence to put away materials? Are they sorting or matching? Clip a page related to math from the child outcomes assessment used in your program. Link teacher practices to math outcomes. "I notice you as you talked with children in the block area, you used words like rectangular prism, taller than, on top of and next to. Your choice of language increases children's mathematical vocabulary and geometrical thinking. Next week, choose a new focus. 

o   Make 'at a glance' tools to help you observe: outcomes from domains, practices from ECERS or CLASS, or the tools used in your program. Let these tools help you to focus. You'll find that you become much more fluent in both the program outcomes and the child outcomes.

 -  One of our personal favorites:  Keep Powerful Interactions: How to Connect to Extend Learning open to the Extend Learning section so you can easily refer to it to extend your vocabulary about extending learning,

·      Use this as an opportunity to remember that learning –no matter our age– usually happens in small steps and takes time. Recognize the small steps forward in your own learning – and that of others. 

© Dombro & Jablon 2015. Based on Jablon, J., Dombro, A., & Johnsen, S. (2014). Coaching with Powerful Interactions. Washington, D.C.: NAEYC.

Reflections on Strengths-Based Articulation: “I notice that you _______________. This matters because ___________”

No matter your role:  teacher, coach, program director, home visitor, family support specialist, “I notice” statements can help you be more effective as you interact with colleagues and families with the ultimate goal of promoting the wellbeing and learning of young children.

When you provide strengths-based articulation, it is as if you are a mirror, calling attention to moments of effectiveness.  You state the facts, without judgment, and then offer a clear statement about the impact of the other person’s words or actions.

Coach to Teacher: I notice that you said : Let’s think about how you can move the ball down the path when you were in the block corner today. This question encouraged A to think creatively and experiment to think how his idea worked.

Coach to Teacher: I notice that you said : Let’s think about how you can move the ball down the path when you were in the block corner today. This question encouraged A to think creatively and experiment to think how his idea worked.

By calling attention to effective decisions you empower the person you are working with to use these same words and actions with greater intentionality.

It sounds simple.  Yet though we have been writing about and practicing this Powerful Interactions change strategy for many years, we are still honing our skills and deepening our understanding of the impact it has on people’s lives – professionally and personally.   In this blog, we share 5 insights from our work and that of colleagues.  Whether you are considering using “I notice” statements for the first time or like us working on becoming more skillful at “noticing”, we hope you will find these insights helpful:

Teacher to Coach: I noticed that you turned off your phone and put it in the desk when I came into your office to meet. This helps me quiet the static because I know there is time to tell you about a challenge I am facing in my classroom.

Teacher to Coach: I noticed that you turned off your phone and put it in the desk when I came into your office to meet. This helps me quiet the static because I know there is time to tell you about a challenge I am facing in my classroom.

  • “I notice” statements focus your attention on looking for and identifying strengths.  Strengths aren’t always easy to see.  Especially in settings where you walk in and immediately see changes to be made.  If safety is an issue, that needs to be addressed.  If not, we encourage you to take a breath, be present and look carefully until you find a strength, even it if is what Diana Courson, associate director of Childhood Services at Arkansas State University, calls a “sliver” of effectiveness be it a labeled container of markers on an art table so crammed with stuff there is no room to work or a “Welcome” sign for families in a program where the adults are so busy they do not stop to say “good morning” at arrival time.
  • When you notice, the person you are observing feels seen.  This is fueling in itself in our field where people often work in isolation from peers, whether that be in a classroom, family child care home or office.  As Catharina Oerlemans, Family Support Supervisor at FirstStepNYC . who was leery of “I notice statements” thinking they sounded hokey, explains, “When someone says, “I notice” you can take a breath, you feel highlighted and seen. And when someone tells you what you did well, it makes you want to do it more often.  How could you now want to give that to someone else?”
  • As our work evolves, we are discovering that being seen allows people to see themselves.  This in turn makes it possible to see others, a prerequisite to building trusting relationships, getting to know and appreciate another person and extend learning.
  • “I notice statements” create opportunities for a person to use themselves as their own best resource – to see themselves as a decision-maker whose decisions about what to say and do matter. The behaviors you highlight  -- or that someone highlights for you – become strategies to add to one’s tool kit inviting a person to begin seeing themselves as their own best resource. It is as if you are putting actions and words out on the table where people can see, think and talk about them together which can then motivate people to think more deeply about their work and can motivate them to explore new ideas and approaches (Anning & Edwards, 2006[1]).
  • Photos and video clips that y capture a moment (or sliver) of effectiveness can help others identify their strengths.  They ensure specificity and focus and keep the conversation factual.  As you look at a photo or video together and “name” the behavior/strength (articulation) and why it is important, the other person can see it, own it and intentionally repeat it.
  • Articulating the “why” words and actions matter is a skill that takes time and practice to develop.  We are wondering if there are developmental steps to becoming effective.  Margie Brickey, who directs the Infant and Family Development and Early Intervention Program at Bank Street College, shared that when she started using “I notice” statements, she often found herself saying things like , “You decided to read a book, or set up the sand table or …..  That is important because it is fun.” It took time before she could give reasons that pertained to social-emotional or cognitive or physical development.  Now sometimes she decides to point out that a teacher’s words and actions are important because they are fun – and as Margie says, “fun is important.”
Coordinator to Program Director: I notice that you set up the table with flowers and snacks for today’s staff meeting. This is important because it helps teachers feel respected which in turn helps quiet the static and allows people to focus on the topics of today’s meeting.

Coordinator to Program Director: I notice that you set up the table with flowers and snacks for today’s staff meeting. This is important because it helps teachers feel respected which in turn helps quiet the static and allows people to focus on the topics of today’s meeting.

We invite you to experiment with "I notice statements." We believe that using Powerful Interactions strengths-based articulation begins to make ripples of positive change in programs. A few days after her first experiment with using "I notice" statements, one director said: I have already begun to write and say, "I notice" statements and it encourages me to be more specific.  What's more, I am getting such appreciation back from teachers.  We all want positive encouragement.  I feel energized and ready to keep doing this work."

© Dombro & Jablon 2015.  Based on Jablon, J., Dombro, A. & Johnsen, S. (2014). Coaching With Powerful Interactions. Washington, D.C.: NAEYC.





[1] Anning, A., & Edwards, A. (2006). Promoting children’s learning from birth to five: Developing the new early years professional. 2nd ed. Maidenhead: Open University press.