Using reflective supervision in early childhood education programs

Early childhood educators can find success using reflective supervision, a concept borrowed from the social work profession.

A recent national trend in education is the development of statewide standards of quality for early childhood education programs. The Michigan Department of Education has developed and refined our own standards of quality, revised 2013. These standards are a comprehensive guideline for quality and provide detailed benchmarks of high expectations for all types of early childhood care and education programs. After a careful survey of the standards, we identified several terms that have not been used previously in many early childhood education texts, and our purpose in this article is to help families and professionals who work with young children to become more knowledgeable about these terms.

Michigan State University Extension will address the term “reflective supervision.” This term is used in the Community Collaboration and Financial Support section of the “Early Childhood Standards of Quality for Infant and Toddler Programs.” It states, “Regardless of the source of the program’s resources, the components of high-quality early childhood programs are well established (e.g., well-qualified staff; evidence-based practices; include a major emphasis on relationships between children and adults in the program; maintain strong family partnerships, reflective supervision, ongoing professional development) and do not differ based on the program’s sources of support.

Reflective supervision is a method of supervision in which an administrator or a mentor supports and guides a staff member through challenges that arise in working with children and their families. It is based on a collaborative relationship and the outcome is professional growth, as explained by Rebecca Shahmoon-Shanok as cited in “A Practical Guide to Reflective Supervision.” Usually, the staff member and the supervisor will meet face-to-face in a confidential setting, however it can also be offered using the telephone or electronic communication. Meetings are scheduled and occur on a regular basis rather than only when a crisis happens.

As opposed to directive supervision, where a supervisor gives a command and an employee is expected to comply, reflective supervision is all about a dialogue between partners. In this situation, the supervisor is not exercising all the power but sharing the power with the employee in the relationship. In order to share power and have a dialogue, there must be a “foundation of trust and honesty,” according to “Three Building Blocks of Reflective Supervision” by Zero to Three.

How can a supervisor create such an atmosphere with an employee that is also the subject of directive supervision? A good place to begin is by asking questions – rather than making statements – and listening carefully to the staff members’ response. It is important to use active listening skills to seek an understanding of how someone is feeling about what they do or what is happening. Using notes or staff journals can be helpful, too.

Jumping right to a solution is not the goal of reflective supervision. Encouraging a staff member to explore the issues, emotional and factual, and identify their own solution allows the staff person to make informed decisions. Avoid being judgmental or negative by asking questions such as “How does this feel to you?” or “What is important to you about this situation?”

Using reflective supervision gives an opportunity for a supervisor and a staff member to work, as a team, through a learning process. The goal is to improve employee performance through strengthening the relationship and contemplation of events and behavior. The ultimate purpose is to improve the entire program.

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