In this week’s article, Program Manager Laura Abbruzzese takes us on a deep dive into the world of programmatic monitoring. Laura’s team, who assess home visiting services, recently piloted a strengths-based, reflective feedback model to better engage practitioners and improve outcomes in the field. Here’s what she had to say about the experience, and what the team learned in the process.
As home visiting assessors, we’re charged with observing recorded home visits and scoring them using assessment tools such as the HOVRS. We use our observations to develop detailed feedback reports, highlighting each home visiting practitioner’s strengths and areas for improvement, so they can work with their coaches on professional development goals.
During our first round of virtual feedback conversations for a new client, our assessors took the approach of sharing the home visitor’s report results on-screen, discussing areas of strength, then opportunities for growth, and asking them what they could do differently in the future. Unfortunately, our assessors struggled to engage practitioners in constructive ways. The sequencing of the feedback made the home visitors feel as though they were being judged for poor performance, with the strengths long forgotten by the time our assessors finished describing lower-scoring areas and missed opportunities with families. We knew we needed a different approach, one that didn’t hurt practitioner morale or sour them on the monitoring process, which, after all, is intended to strengthen grant-funded programs.
Developing a New Approach to Feedback Conversations
When our team started brainstorming new ideas, we decided early on to avoid the cliché “feedback sandwich.” While it’s generally considered a more supportive approach to giving feedback, it still doesn’t address the inevitable anxiety of knowing that after hearing about your strengths, you’re going to have to hear about your weaknesses. Additionally, for many home visiting practitioners, the work they do is a deeply personal labor of love, which can give these conversations an emotional weight you don’t find in other fields. For our team to be successful, we knew we needed an approach that took a more optimistic tone overall, something with more structure and less room for both the assessor and the home visitor to flounder when the conversation got tough.
Ultimately, we settled on a strengths-based, reflective feedback model that (1) examines strengths and areas for improvement in tandem, and (2) asks practitioners to engage in reflection that focuses on their past successes, and what they can take from those experiences to enhance their practice moving forward.
Using our recent work with the HOVRS tool as an example, that might look something like this:
1. Describe the metric (or scale, as it’s called in the case of the HOVRS), what it measures, and what the assessor is looking for during their observations.
“The focus of Scale 1 is how you build relationships with the families you work with and see every week. We look at things like showing warmth by smiling, listening, and expressing positive emotions.”
2. Identify and discuss the home visitor’s top area of strength and their top area for
growth. Be specific!
“One of the strengths we observed was your ability to interact sociably with caregivers and make them feel comfortable. You did this during a visit when you remembered to ask about the child’s upcoming birthday party. Showing that you remember things about the family and their child makes everyone feel cared about and fosters trust.”
Area for Growth:
“While you did many things to make the family feel comfortable, there are some additional steps you can take to show your interest in them and to help them see their unique characteristics as strengths. If you observe the caregiver doing something with their child that seems important to them, you can comment on it.”
3. Follow up with a strengths-based, reflective question that aligns with the opportunities for growth, highlighting previous successes they might have had at other times or with other families. Focusing on what they have successfully done at other times with a family keeps the reflection positive, honors their expertise, and prevents the assessor from seeming judgmental or superior.
“Thinking of a family you work with, what is something you noticed that seemed important to them? How did you know? What tipped you off?”
4. At the end of the meeting, provide an overview of the strategies the home visitor can implement or add to their professional development goals.
Outcomes of the Strengths-Based Feedback Pilot
Our new approach has been a huge success. Home visitors who experienced both versions of the feedback meeting overwhelmingly preferred the strengths-based approach and had positive things to say about it. The focus on what went well, and on leveraging existing strengths, made a significant difference in how they felt and their readiness to implement changes in the future. Overall, they reported a greater sense of being heard and confidence that their expertise was respected and valued.
As we move forward using this new model, our team will continue seeking ways to improve the monitoring experience. Since our last round of reviews, we’ve developed a survey that allows home visitors to share important contextual information assessors can review alongside the recording, such as how long they’ve been working with the family. Having this type of background data provides assessors with critical insight into the home visitor’s approach to working with each family and allows them to give more nuanced feedback.
If your monitoring team is struggling to engage in productive, reflective conversations with grantees, I highly recommend trying a strengths-based approach to feedback. Monitoring programs are only as successful as their ability to affect change and improve program outcomes, and they can’t do that alone. With the right tools, monitors and grantees are better prepared to trust one another and work together to ensure that programs—and most importantly, the people they serve—succeed.