The Power of Reflective Practice in Early Childhood Education - Part II: An Educator's Journey

June 28, 2022

Welcome back! In our first installment on the power of Reflective Practice, we explored the importance of self-reflection and emotional awareness for ourselves as educators, and how Reflective Practice can be utilized within any education community to benefit everyone: teachers, supervisors, and mentors, families, and of course, children. Now, let’s take a look at an early childhood educator’s personal experiences and connections with this process within the begin to ECSEL program and how it has affected her work and her life. How can Reflective Practice shape the way we as educators navigate our relationships with ourselves, the children in our care, and our community?

Lauren’s Story 

Before becoming a begin to ECSEL educator, my time in the classroom was all about the children in my care. Every day, I would come to work and do my best to be present and teach, care for, co-regulate, and support my preschoolers. It’s what was expected of me, but it is also what I loved doing, and that is the most important thing, right? I had always been told to try and “leave everything at the door” before coming into the classroom, and not let my personal life affect the quality of care I would be giving to the children in my class. While I believe that setting this boundary is important, I was never given the tools to do so; how to cope with and manage my feelings whenever they got too overwhelming. As a person who has dealt with anxiety for many, many years, I would often drive to work with a pit in my stomach, try to take a deep breath and push aside whatever was on my mind, and do my best to just be a teacher. But that never really worked, and I always thought it made me “less than” a good teacher. During the day, I would disassociate to try and get some relief from any intrusive thoughts convincing me I wasn’t good at what I was doing. I would be distracted while running circle time or activities and found myself frequently trying to vent to my co-teachers or looking at the clock, just waiting for the day to be over. This wasn’t sustainable and I wasn’t my best self, but it was all that I knew.

While going through my begin to ECSEL training and learning about the ECSEL philosophy, it became so clear to me how important my own emotional well-being and awareness was as an educator in order for me to be my best self for the children in my class. If I wanted to be available to help them with their growth and development emotionally, cognitively, and socially, I needed to be aware of my emotions, responses, and strategies to help me first. The training I went through gave me access to steps and tools that I could use to ground myself if I ever felt anxious or overwhelmed, which was a personal game-changer in more ways than one. Oftentimes, being a model for the children in my class would help me as much as it would help them. I would realize that I may also need to take a step back and ask myself, “Okay, what am I feeling? What could be causing this? Is it okay to just sit with it and let it pass, or can I think of something to help me feel better now? Do I need to talk with someone else or can I handle this on my own for now?”

And the best part? I never felt pressure to “handle it” on my own. 

In addition to training, an important part of the begin to ECSEL program is educator support. Teachers at our lab school were able to meet with mentors who prompted us to share what was on our minds, self-reflect, think critically about what we would do differently, and problem-solve to find reasonable next steps. This process of Reflective Practice helped me exponentially. It gave me a set time each week where I knew I was in a safe space to share what I was feeling and to really reflect on what was causing those feelings so I could be aware of that trigger moving forward. I would leave my Reflective Practice sessions with action plans and strategies not only for myself, but that I could use to support the children in my class and effectively communicate with their families. Everything we do to help the children feel in control of their big feelings or changing emotions helps educators, too. Carrying that messaging with me has impacted the way I navigate the world professionally, but also personally with my family, partner, and friends.

Why Reflective Practice Matters for Educators

The ability to self-reflect and become aware of your own emotions are important skills for anyone, but especially for those of us in caring professions. We are taught that when children are emotionally dysregulated, they are unable to access their executive functions; parts of their brains that allow them to think, process information, listen, learn, and pay attention. Well, the same applies to us. We as educators may often feel that because we are the “adults,” we know better, and have learned to deal with or even ignore our emotions and stressors in ways that allow us to survive the day. But surviving isn’t thriving, and we all deserve to thrive both in and out of the classroom. This is why Reflective Practice matters.

Through Reflective Practice, educators are given the time, space, safety, and support to process moments in their personal lives that may be affecting the way they navigate the day in their classroom, unpack a challenging interaction with a parent or family member, or even strategize with a peer mentor to evaluate what support methods are working or not for the children in their class, and what to do next. Within the process of Reflective Practice, we gain important skills and strategies including self-reflection, emotional awareness, critical thinking, and problem-solving — all of which we can take with us and apply to our teaching and communication with others. Reflective Practice has truly helped me tap into my best self as an educator, and I still carry those skills and strategies that I have learned with me today.  It is my hope that sharing my experience serves as a starting point for you to give yourself permission to focus on you, and that Reflective Practice helps to shift your perspective and guide your approach with your own important and necessary work as an educator.

Reflective Practice Tips

As an early childhood educator, I believe that “sharing is caring,” and as a begin to ECSEL educator,  I want to share what I have discovered to be the most impactful for me both in and out of the classroom. Here are some of the lasting ways that Reflective Practice has changed my professional approach and personal strategies, and the “tools” I carry with me whenever I need:

  • Always remember that whatever feelings you have are real and valid. It is so easy to get caught in a cycle of thinking where we convince ourselves that we are “overreacting,” or tell ourselves, “I’m okay,” when we really are not. Tune into what you are actually feeling and acknowledge it. For me, saying what I am feeling out loud helps me ground myself in reality: I am feeling anxious. I am feeling frustrated. I am feeling sad. And that’s okay. What can I do next?
  • Document your thoughts, feelings, and reflections - they matter! I was hesitant to do this myself at first, but having a place to write down even your most random thoughts, ideas, or feelings can be so helpful for building the skill of self-reflection. Writing something down helped validate that something happened that affected me, whether I was ready to process it or not. I would then return out of the heat of the moment and really reflect back on what caused my feelings, how I responded, why this matters, and what I could do differently next time. I could also look back at the patterns and growth within my reflections that were happening without me even knowing it!
  • Find the “helpers” in your community. This one takes a page out of the Mr. Rogers handbook, but it truly makes all the difference. Beginning to get to know yourself and your feelings can sometimes be an isolating experience, but there are always people around who can help you process. We are constantly learning from others and growing because of their support. We always say that children develop within the context of responsive relationships, but they also continue to thrive when they are consistently present. Who is your “helper”?

 

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