The Power of Reflective Practice in Early Childhood Education - Part III: The Importance of Mentor Relationships

July 19, 2022

Welcome back to our series on the Power of Reflective Practice. Previously, we explored what Reflective Practice is and learned about one early childhood educator’s personal experiences with Reflective Practice within the begin to ECSEL program and how it affected her work and life. In this segment, we will look at how Reflective Practice can go beyond an individual to instill a system-wide support model for children, educators, and school leadership. Let’s dive into Emily’s story and explore this together. 

Emily’s Story:

At the start of my teaching career, before undergoing my begin to ECSEL training, I didn’t know where to start when it came to practicing self-reflection. I would think, “of course, I self-reflect all the time.” However, in reality, the constant stress, chaos, and dysregulation of my three-year-old students would always take priority. Not only that, but I didn’t know how to actually accomplish the act of self-reflecting. Every evening when I left work, I would think, “what a stressful day,” take a deep breath, and wipe my hands of whatever happened. What I didn’t do was think about or address how that stress was impacting me on a daily basis, both  in and out of the classroom. I wasn’t reflecting on why I reacted the way I did, what was causing me to feel stressed, what strategies weren’t working for me, or what I could do better. I was just trying to survive through another day. 

One day, in particular, stands out to me. To set the scene, my class was fully enrolled with ten threenagers (those who work with three year olds will get this!)  As the lead teacher, I took the primary responsibility of managing it all, every day: their big feelings, their even bigger reactions, their behaviors, and of course, their learning — most importantly, teaching them the fundamental skills to begin to manage and cope with their emotions. It had already been a stressful week — children were pushing boundaries, my curriculum was due for review, parent-teacher conferences were right around the corner, a new child was just enrolled in my classroom, and it felt like every child in my class was starting potty training at the same time – sound familiar? On top of all that, I was in the midst of a personal break-up. I tried to push aside my emotions in hopes that it would make my life easier. I kept myself busy and dove into my classroom responsibilities in a desperate attempt to keep my head above water… until I couldn’t any longer. On this particular day during nap time (which also doubled as my planning time), after I had finally gotten the most stubborn sleeper to rest, another child decided it was time to take off their shoes, throw them across the room, get up, and start running around. If you know three-year-olds, you already know the domino effect that ensued. It wasn’t long before every single child in my class (including the stubborn sleeper who had just dozed off) was running around the room barefoot, their shoes strewn across the classroom. After a few calm attempts to manage the situation, I eventually snapped, which only made everything worse. No doubt you have been there too.

For better or for worse, children are emotional detectives who pick up on everything — our words, tone of voice, facial expressions, body language, and attitude. Although I thought I was doing my best to put on a brave face, hide my stress, and remain calm, it wasn’t really my best because I simply wasn’t at my best. I had focused so much of my energy on bottling my feelings that I had no energy left to self-reflect or practice self-awareness. Without self-reflection and emotional awareness, I had no way to deal with the stress I was experiencing, figure out what wasn’t working, or identify strategies that might work better. Not only had I unknowingly contributed to the problem at hand, but I had magnified it tenfold instead of working towards a solution.

It was not unti  I progressed through my ECSEL training, working closely with my mentor, that I realized I was avoiding the root of the problem —I wasn’t actually practicing self-reflection at all. Instead, I was reacting again and again in the same ways based on my own learned behaviors, and bottling up my emotions until I lost my patience entirely. Through my training, I began recognizing that my actions influenced those of the children in my care. If my frustrations exploded, the children in my class started thinking that exploding was okay to do, too. As an adult, I know that I can reach for something calming when I am stressed— a book, relaxing music, a walk outside— but children need comfort, support, and guidance through their big or stressful feelings. In fact, as educators, we are that “something calming.” When children’s emotions become heightened, they look  to us to figure out how to react and respond. So, when I lost my patience, the children also lost that comfort and guidance. Educators have the essential role of modeling how to effectively express and manage emotions. By losing my patience and avoiding dealing with problem after problem, I was sending the message to my class that this behavior was the solution… and of course, it never is. 

The steps of Reflective Practice made an immense impact on my life, both professionally and personally. They helped me realize what didn’t work—bottling up my emotions until I lost my patience entirely—so that I could adjust my approach and implement changes, like becoming aware of when a feeling was present (that icky, tightening feeling in the pit of my stomach), accepting it in the present moment, identifying that I was feeling anxious, reflecting on what caused that feeling, and taking the appropriate steps to mitigate the feeling so I could move forward.  Effectively managing and communicating my emotions became a skill and a part of my everyday practice, rather than something I would try to avoid. 

After a few years, I transitioned into a new role as program manager. I knew that I could support the teachers I supervised in learning the skills of Reflective Practice so they too could become their best selves. Through weekly Reflective Practice sessions with each of my mentees, I applied the knowledge that I gained and internalized during my sessions when I was a mentee to create a community of  support. I navigated these sessions by asking specific, open-ended questions to guide my mentees in self-reflecting and developing that ever-so-important emotional awareness. Just like I was the model and guide for the children in my class, I was now a model and guide for other teachers. Being open and honest with my mentees about my journey and the impact that Reflective Practice had on me and my work helped them realize how it could make a difference for them personally and professionally too. All of our past experiences contribute to our growth, so when teachers came to me with the types of challenges I used to feel anxious about – children demonstrating dysregulated behaviors, misunderstandings with family members, or issues with co-teachers – I would use my learned experiences to help them  navigate these challenges with the same support that helped me.  

When I think about my Reflective Practice journey as a manager and mentor, one specific mentee-teacher comes to mind – meet Rachel. Rachel was a preschool teacher who, due to staffing issues, was the primary teacher in a fully enrolled classroom of 3.5-4-year-olds. The children in her class were all on emotional rollercoasters, and she had difficulty keeping them cognitively engaged while supporting their emotional regulation. During one notable Reflective Practice session, Rachel told me that she felt like she was constantly putting out fires of dysregulation and couldn’t actually teach. She was exhausted, stressed, unmotivated and didn’t get much support from her assistant teacher. In our weekly sessions, I worked with Rachel to guide her reflection on specific experiences. I would prompt her to describe an experience, her feelings, what went well, what didn’t, and why, what she could have done differently, and what she wanted to do moving forward. With continued follow-up and consistency, I supported Rachel in moving forward with her action plan and discussing what changed as a result. 

Before long, Rachel began coming to our sessions with specific goals that she had identified for herself:

  1. I want to get better at developing ECSEL-integrated emergent curriculum
  2. I want to improve my communication with my assistant teacher.

With these specific goals in mind, I was able to help Rachel come to her own conclusions about what she needed to do to meet them. What has been challenging about the curriculum you’re currently using? What do children gravitate towards in the classroom? How can you integrate more of that into your next curriculum?  How do you communicate with your assistant teacher now? What goes well about your communication? What is less effective? What can you do to change that?

The difference that Reflective Practice made in Rachel’s teaching practice was visible to everyone – to me as her mentor, to the children she taught who grew more in control of their emotions, to families who praised her daily on the changes they saw in their children, and to co-workers who asked her for advice on developing their own curriculum. At the end of the school year, Rachel approached me and shared that our continued Reflective Practice sessions not only allowed her to achieve her goals and grow professionally, but also shaped her personally. She shared that she no longer felt that she was putting out fires of dysregulation but was realigning with her passion for teaching and the reason why she chose this career path to begin with. Rachel explained that she felt more able to communicate effectively with children, families, and co-workers and felt confident in proactively addressing challenges with others. On a personal level, Rachel said that she had never felt more in control of her emotions in the face of stress or a challenge – she was a better communicator with her friends, family members, and partner and was less stressed and more motivated to continue growing. 

These outcomes resonated with me in such a way as they were the same ones that I experienced as a teacher and mentee. Not only had I benefited from Reflective Practice both personally and professionally, but I was supporting others in doing the same. This was truly the passion in my work, and you can do the same for the mentee-teachers you support.

Reflective Practice might sound daunting at first, but with continued practice comes mastery. In time, you can begin being your best self while supporting your mentees in doing the same. 

Up Next: 

We will continue our look at the importance of mentor relationships in developing Reflective Practice and share some important tips to help mentors and school leaders build these relationships to best foster the skills of Reflective Practice.

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