Over the course of the "Power of Reflective Practice in Early Childhood Education" series, we have shared the stories, reflections, and perspectives of an early childhood educator, a mentor, and a parent about their experiences with self-reflection and Reflective Practice. From these experiences, we have compiled some helpful tips to share with you and guide you as you begin your own Reflective Practice journey, whether you are a teacher, school leader, caregiver, or any combination of the three!
Tips for Teachers & Caregivers
- 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 to help ground yourself 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! 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 validates that something happened that affected you, whether you are ready to process it or not. Return out of the heat of the moment and really reflect back on what caused those feelings, how you responded, why this matters, and what you could do differently next time. Look back at the patterns and growth within your reflections — they are probably happening without you even knowing it!
- Set yourself up for success. No two people are the same, and we all have our own strategies, routines, and structures (or lack thereof) that work for us and help us feel in control. Acknowledge when things are going well, identify what is working, and incorporate those strategies into stressful moments. It doesn’t have to work for everyone else; it just has to work for you!
- Honor your boundaries. As educators, it can be so easy to give too much of ourselves — to our job, the children we care for, their parents… and then all of our personal things on top of that. When practicing self-reflection, we may uncover truths about ourselves, our feelings, and even our triggers that we may have never taken the time to acknowledge before. Learning about ourselves and growing can mean making unfamiliar or uncomfortable changes, but identifying and honoring the boundaries we need to set to be our best selves is an integral part of this process.
- 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”?
Tips for Mentors & School Leaders
- Create a consistent Reflective Practice schedule for each teacher. Consistency is key, especially in early childhood education (and not just for children!) Practicing self-reflection can be a vulnerable experience and, at times, requires exploring those imperfect areas of oneself that can be uncomfortable. Meeting regularly for sessions allows teachers and mentors to build a trusting relationship and an environment where the mentee feels safe.
- Support mentees in identifying their goals and reaching them. Whether it’s evident to your mentees or not, any time they relay a challenging experience, there is a goal embedded within it. It is your job as a mentor to draw out that goal and support your mentee in finding ways to achieve it.
- Ask specific, open-ended questions. What value do yes or no questions give you? Not much. Asking your mentees specific, open-ended questions helps them focus and reflect on an area related to a challenging experience that requires support. Each step of a Reflective Practice session has a purpose, and your questions can align with each purpose to help your mentees come to their own conclusion every step of the way.
- Actively listen more than speaking. As Dr. Donna Housman says, “we have two ears and one mouth for a reason.” It is critical that mentors and school leaders actively listen to their mentees as they respond to questions related to their feelings, values, opinions, differences, and experiences. Active listening helps mentees feel heard, valued, and safe and allows mentors to provide more specific support by tailoring their responses and questions to what they are hearing.
- Respond sensitively and with empathy. Regardless of your personal opinion on what your mentees share during Reflective Practice sessions, your job as a mentor is to support and help them come to their own conclusions about an experience. Placing judgment on a mentee’s response, actions, reactions, or experience does not lend to a trusting relationship. Meet your mentees where they are and guide them with empathy.
- Adjust your communication approach to meet the needs of your mentees. Just like no two children are the same, no two mentees are, either. Everyone has their own communication preferences and needs that mentors and school leaders need to be attuned to and aware of. For example, if a mentee has difficulty acknowledging their role in an experience, asking, “How did you contribute to that experience?” might be difficult for them to process. Instead, try to reword the question: “How did you make that experience positive? How could you have made it more successful?” Being able to adjust your communication approach goes back to active listening.
- Provide your insight sensitively and appropriately. It is important not to answer your mentees’ questions for them. This interrupts their ability to reflect and come to their own conclusions relevant to their personal experiences. When asked, provide insight based on their needs and responses. Rather than saying, “I would suggest you try asking your co-teacher how they are feeling,” rephrase your recommendation into a question: “Have you tried asking your co-teacher how they are feeling? If so, what did they say? If not, why?” Insightful questions help your mentees consider all aspects of a challenge with possible solutions specific to their needs.
- Follow-up on challenges or areas requiring support. Follow-up is a key part of Reflective Practice. With a consistent session schedule, you can follow up on the action plans decided upon in your previous session. This allows you to support your mentee’s exploration of what went well and what could still be improved about the strategies used. It also provides continued support and feedback for mentees so they can continue to grow.
Tips for Parents & Guardians
- Consider your day as a whole. What went well during the day with your child(ren)? What didn't go so well? How did you contribute? Considering these questions along with each step of Reflective Practice can help you pinpoint the cause of children’s big feelings. Sometimes the reason can be a lot simpler than you think!
- Reflect on specific situations. Once you are comfortable with Reflective Practice, you can use it to your advantage by immediately self-reflecting on challenges. This strategy can help you, and your child, bounce back from a difficult situation and help calm yourself down so you can have an effective conversation with children.
- Talk to your children. Ask them what they think went well during the day and what could improve. You can learn so much from asking your children the same questions that you are asking yourself. Children can also help you determine an action plan that will help you (and them) in the heat of the moment (for example, bringing a stuffed animal for comfort to the doctor).
- If at first you don't succeed… Sometimes you may realize that an action plan isn't working quite like you had imagined – maybe your child isn't responding well, or you're still feeling frustrated and reacting strongly. Reflect on the situation and consider a different approach for next time. Practice makes perfect!
- Connect and share the concept of Reflective Practice with other parents. As isolating as challenging moments can feel, you are never alone! All families experience difficult situations and behaviors. Connecting with other parents and sharing what has worked for you can help you tailor your positive parenting approach. You may learn from others, and others can learn from you. Consider trying out some ideas and utilizing Reflective Practice to think about what has worked for your family and what hasn’t.
- Give yourself some grace. Parenting doesn't come with a handbook. We all experience challenging behaviors and many big emotions with our children that can be overwhelming and frustrating. But remember, at the end of the day, you are you, and that is enough. Most importantly, remember that you are trying your best!
No matter what your specific roles are, the ones you have in working with and caring for young children are incredibly important. Building your skills of self-reflection through Reflective Practice will provide you with more tools in your tool-kit to grow professionally and personally. We hope you find these tips helpful as you begin to self-reflect and tap into your best self. And remember, Reflective Practice takes practice — allow yourself the time, space, and energy to find what works best for you, and to continue learning, growing, and reflecting.
Revisit the previous posts in "The Power of Reflective Practice in Early Childhood Education" series:
- Part I: Helping Caregivers Tap Into Their Best Selves
- Part II: An Educator's Journey
- Part III: The Importance of Mentor Relationships
- Part IV: Helping Parents Tap into Their Best Selves
Author: Emily Stone, Lauren Sturtz, Sierra Bowling