The Power of Reflective Practice in Early Childhood Education - Part I: Helping Caregivers Tap Into Their Best Selves

Reflective Practice ensures that all members working in the educational community get the opportunity to communicate their self-reflections about how their work, their role, their actions, and their words impact others—and how they, in turn, are impacted by their work.

~ Dr. Donna Housman, Founder & CEO of Housman Institute

In an article for Edutopia, clinical social worker Megan Tavares writes, “Self-reflection… can help us figure out if what we’re doing is working. When supporting a learner with self-regulation, one reason that self-reflection is important is the ability to notice our own mood and presentation. Otherwise, we may unknowingly create problems by co-escalating instead of co-regulating.” For all educators and caregivers, there is great value in being able to understand and manage our own feelings through self-reflection. In doing so, we can help children to do the same. As we very well know, children are emotional detectives. They pick up on everything, including the verbal and non-verbal responses and reactions of the important adults in their world. If we as these important adults do not have an awareness of our own emotions, the skills to understand and manage them, or a means to actively practice self-reflection, we may unknowingly contribute to a problem rather than work towards a solution. 

So, how do we collectively tap into our best selves so that we can be our best, not only for the children that we care for and teach but also for ourselves? The answer is Reflective Practice. In this four-part series, we will explore the important impact that self-reflection through Reflective Practice can have on all members of a school community, and hear from teachers, mentors, and parents about the difference that Reflective Practice has made within themselves and their role as key socializers for children. But first, let’s explore the details of this invaluable process together.

What is Reflective Practice?

Reflective Practice is Housman Institute’s adaptation of Reflective Supervision. It is a process that focuses on self-reflection as a means of becoming more emotionally aware, thinking critically, problem-solving, identifying one’s own areas of growth, and meeting those goals in our everyday work. It creates an environment that promotes self-reflection, empathy, understanding, support, and professional and personal growth and development. Reflective Supervision traditionally occurs in structured sessions between a trusted mentor, coach, or supervisor and a mentee, but with Reflective Practice, self-reflection, critical thinking, and problem-solving can also take place less formally between all members of your education community— between educators and children, educators and their co-workers, or educators and families. Reflective Practice allows individuals to become more aware of their emotional triggers and learn how to manage and navigate them with guidance from a mentor. It lays the groundwork for ongoing professional development through consistent self-reflection, community support, and emotional awareness. 

Within Reflective Practice relationships, trust and consistency are key. Opening up and revealing one’s challenges and emotions can make us feel vulnerable. In fact, Reflective Practice sessions can be uncomfortable, at first. This makes the mentor’s job all the more valuable and important. Mentors need to be active and thoughtful listeners who are understanding, accepting, and non-judgmental. Being collaborative, open-minded, solution-driven, and supportive sets the stage for a successful reflective relationship between mentors and mentees.

You may now be wondering, “Okay, so what exactly is included in Reflective Practice? How do I do this? How can I incorporate Reflective Practice into my routine? What difference will Reflective Practice make for me?” These are all valid questions! Let’s walk through them together.

Reflective Practice sessions have six key steps that follow the Gibbs Reflective Cycle. During these sessions, mentors support their mentees in self-reflection by asking open-ended questions to prompt critical thinking, and actively listening to mentees’ responses and contributions.

Step 1: Description

The mentor prompts the mentee to describe a challenging experience or interaction by asking, “What happened?” and participating in active listening. This gives the mentee a safe space to reflect on the experience and describe the details of what happened in their own words.

Step 2: Feelings

The mentor prompts the mentee to connect the challenging experience to their feelings by asking, “What did that make you feel?” and continuing to actively listen. Connecting emotions to a cause not only helps mentees better understand their feelings but can also help bring to light any emotional triggers, which mentors can then support mentees in navigating and managing.

Step 3: Evaluation

The mentor guides the mentee to evaluate how the experience went by asking, “What went well? What didn’t? How did you contribute?” This is an important step, as it takes any judgment away from what happened, and allows mentees to look at their experience through a critical and empathetic lens.

Step 4: Analysis

The mentor supports the mentee in understanding the meaning of the experience by asking, “Why do you think things went well? Why didn’t other things go as planned?” and actively listening before providing their own insight. At this point in the session, mentees are able to reflect on what they have learned, what else could have worked better, and move closer to making a plan.

Step 5: Conclusion

The mentor asks the mentee, “What could you have done differently?” and supports them in concluding their self-reflection and learning. Once again, asking open-ended questions allows most of the critical thinking and planning to come from the mentee’s own ideas, making it more likely that they will follow through with any changes.

Step 6: Action Plan

The mentor prompts the mentee to think about what they would do differently by asking, “What will you do differently if a similar situation arises? What support do you need to accomplish this?” This final step is crucial. Just because a plan is made does not mean the session is over. Mentees need to be assured that there will be follow-through and accountability, as well as support for carrying out their plan of action.

Following each of the steps of Reflective Practice can help us to become more self-reflective and in turn more emotionally aware. Mentors can help prompt this reflection, as well as critical thinking and problem-solving, so we can be more proactive when it comes to our stressors and events that can cause them. The steps of Reflective Practice can also be applied during our daily routines with the children in our care, co-workers, families, and the entire community. 

Why Reflective Practice Matters 

When we are able to take a step back and realize, “This isn’t working,” we end up giving ourselves space to consider what could work better. Whether it’s how we interact with children, support their many emotions and behaviors, or develop engaging curricula or activities, Reflective Practice allows us to look inward so we can show up and be our best selves for children. We can reflect on their needs and adjust our tone of voice, facial expressions, body language, support strategies, and problem-solving, all with their needs in mind to make learning fun. Reflective Practice allows educators and caregivers to use empathy and practice perspective-taking with others— reflecting not only on how we may feel, but how others might feel as well, and actively finding ways to improve communication. We can tune into the emotional responses of others in order to act with compassion and empathy during challenging conversations, creating respectful partnerships rather than confrontations. Reflective Practice also allows mentors and supervisors to welcome others into a safe environment to identify their areas of growth, goals, and how to accomplish them. 

The act of self-reflection through Reflective Practice allows all caregivers to tap into their best selves both personally and professionally, which can help to strengthen the entire school community. We have seen firsthand how improving self-reflection has benefitted us as teachers in the classroom with students, as human beings at home with family and friends, and as mentors who continue to follow the steps of Reflective Practice to be our best selves and support mentees to do the same. 

Up Next: 

In our next segment, we will explore the impact that Reflective Practice can have on educators specifically. We will learn from a teacher’s personal experiences and connections to this process, how it has affected her work and her life, and how Reflective Practice can shape the way we navigate our relationships with ourselves, the children in our care, and our community.

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