Mindful and Reflective Early Childhood Educators

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Image source: Vicki Jedlicka

Early childhood educators work with our youngest children, 6 weeks to age 8 and often work with a vulnerable population.  Sometimes, educators are asked to work long days making minimum wage and some have more than one job.   An early childhood educator is consistently busy throughout the day, attending to children’s learning, managing the classroom and managing daily stress.  Educators benefit from practicing mindfulness and reflection.

What is being mindful?

What is being mindful?  The Association for Mindfulness in Education describes mindfulness as “…paying attention here and now with kindness and curiosity.  Mindfulness reconnects students to their five senses, bringing them into a moment to moment awareness of themselves and their surroundings”.  Dr. Amy Saltzman defines mindfulness as paying attention to your life, here and now, with kindness and curiosity. Simply, it is the awareness and acceptance of the things that happen in the present moment.

What is a mindful early childhood educator?  Practicing mindfulness is one way for educators to maintain their well-being while nurturing the children in their care. It is also a way to foster more enjoyment when teaching. Research finds that early childhood educators using mindfulness benefits children by increasing their kindness, enhancing their self-regulation, increasing their working memory, and decreasing their anxiety.

What is Reflection?

Reflection is the capacity to recognize the thoughts, feelings and intentions in ourselves and others.  If we think about this definition, why would it be important for childcare teachers and directors to be reflective?   Jeree Pawl gives us the answer “…it is not possible to work on behalf of human beings to try to help them without having powerful feelings aroused in yourself.”  The work our early childhood educators do naturally elicits many emotions throughout the day.

I was lucky enough to land a spot as a toddler teacher right out of college.  The first emotion I felt daily as I walked into my classroom of ten children 14 months – 24 months was happiness.  Still today, I miss the children racing to hug me and welcome me to the classroom.  I often experienced many other emotions on the job.  Joy, reading a book for the hundredth time to 4 children all scrambling for a spot on my lap.  Sorrow, when I learned a child was leaving our program.  Disappointment, when we could not go outside due to the weather. Frustration, when I was not able to reach a parent of an ill child.  Delight, when a child learned to do something new (like put on their coat or use a cup without a lid).

The bottom line is that without being reflective, I would not have been able to see each situation for what it was – a learning experience.  I learned so much from each interaction I had with my co-workers, the children and their families.  I wanted my classroom and our program to have positive outcomes for the children and families who attended.  The gift of time for reflection is valuable and can help us make better choices if we find ourselves in a similar situation in the future.

Local Management Required Trainings

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Image Source: Jaci Foged

Earlier this spring I had the opportunity to work with 18 childcare directors who were participating in a mandatory management training.  These trainings were delivered twice a month over a period of four months for a total of 45 hours.

I was interested to learn if infusing brief guided reflection discussions and mindfulness meditations into the existing training would be both feasible and accepted.  I decided to reach out to Holly Hatton-Bowers, an Assistant Professor and Early Childhood Extension Specialist and Carrie Gottschalk, an Extension Educator in Early Childhood. Both have experience in mindfulness and reflection. We came together and talked about simple strategies for integrating these practices into the training.

During the first session of the training participants received an overview of reflective practice, mindfulness, the benefits of using mindfulness both personally and professionally, and were invited to participate in a guided meditation.  Participants were also invited to use a mindfulness meditation app (calm app) for at least 10 minutes 5 days a week.

Before and after the training the group of directors were asked to provide their feedback and share their experiences learning about mindfulness, practicing meditations and participating in guided reflection groups. Directors were asked, “What does mindfulness mean to you?” Reflection and being present were the most commonly stated words. (See Figure 1)

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Figure 1. What does mindfulness mean to you?

“Being present” was the second concept most used to describe what mindfulness meant to the group of directors.  When we are working with young children (or parenting children), it can be easy to become distracted with a task you need to complete which may make you miss something wonderful the children are doing.  We need to take time to stop and delight in their learning.  Just the other day my 8 year old was swimming.  We have struggled for several years now to get her to go underwater due to a crazy case of swimmers ear and an aversion to ear drops.  I was elated when she said she wanted to jump in the water.  Then, she started doing cannonballs.  Next, she wanted to dive into the water!  Each time she experienced success she would swim over to me, put her arms around my neck and squeeze so hard.  She whispered, “I love you mom” and then would swim away declaring that this was the “best day ever”.  I was so happy I decided to be present, not only at the pool, but in the water to celebrate in her joy.  I encourage you all to be present; you never know what you might miss.

Although our intervention with the directors consisted of only 20 minutes of the 6-hour training day, I was pleased to learn that 91% of the childcare directors agreed that they liked participating in the mindfulness meditations.  One director stated, “I like relaxing and getting in the moment with my thoughts.”  Another said, “It was hard to meditate.  But I like how mindfulness has made me more aware of the present.”   Eighty-two (82%) percent of the childcare directors agreed the activities for reflecting were helpful.  A director said, “It made me think about the way I feel and emotions and I typically don’t take the time to do that.”  Additionally, 64% of participants reported they use mindfulness in their daily life.  One participant stated, “I’ve always practiced yoga.  But now I take more time for myself and notice the waves of my emotions.”

New Childcare Program Focuses on Mindfulness and Reflection

The integration of guided reflection, learning about mindfulness and practicing guided meditations was well-received by the childcare directors. I am excited to now be piloting a program with Hatton-Bowers and Gottschalk termed Cultivating Healthy Intentional Mindful Educators (CHIME) with approximately 40 early childhood teachers. This twelve-week program meets every other week for an hour in small groups where we practice guided reflections, meditations, and learn different strategies for practicing mindfulness in the early childhood classroom. One week we practiced mindful listening while listening to sounds of different items being shaken in a plastic egg.

Moving Forward

So, where do we go from here?  How do we develop more mindful early childhood educators?

Let’s start by setting a goal for being intentional.  An intention is a guide for how one wants to live.  For example, “Today I intend to be more positive” or “Today I intend to be more present during drop off” You can set your intention at any time throughout the day, just be sure to check in with yourself and reflect on if you are following through with your intention.

I think we can all agree that we want mindful educators working with our youngest population.

JACI FOGED, EXTENSION EDUCATOR | THE LEARNING CHILD

Peer Reviewed by Dr. Holly Hatton-Bowers, Assistant Professor in Child, Youth, and Family Studies and Early Childhood Extension Specialist , The Learning Child and Carrie Gottschalk, Extension Educator, The Learning Child

Make sure to follow The Learning Child on social media for more research-based early childhood education resources!

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Grape play dough made me want to become an early childhood teacher

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Have you ever heard this statement “So, I have a silly question.”

As an early childhood specialist, I listened to teachers ask this question only for it to lead into a richer discussion regarding their classrooms.  For many years, I coached infant and toddler teachers, and I used this statement as an opportunity to introduce the importance of responding to young children’s curiosity.  Whenever a teacher led with that comment, I would either start the coaching conversation or end the conversation sharing the following story…

When I was three years old, my mother attended ESL classes at the county’s local community college.  Adjacent to the college was a small childcare lab school that I attended for preschool.  It was an incredible program. Well-defined learning centers with warm, patient, and interactive teachers.  Now knowing what I know, the program was certainly a high-quality early childhood program.  I am confident my preschool experiences reinforced my aspiration to become an early childhood professional.

One day, I asked my preschool teacher if she was a magician.  Every day, my preschool teacher offered in the art center a fruit-scented play dough. I was perplexed by the possibility that play dough could smell sweet like grape juice, or citrusy like lemons. It was beyond my imagination.  I remember her response, and all these years I have carried it with me.  She said, “What a silly question, and I am so glad you asked it. Tomorrow you can help me make it, and I will show you the magical powder that goes into it.”  My preschool teacher met my curiosity responsively instead of dismissing it.  She relished in my joy; I can still hear her laughter as I helped her make the play dough.  That day my teacher taught me that play dough was not just pliable dough; it could be so much more.  It was beyond anything I could have imagined.  My teacher recognized this question as a teachable moment and an opportunity to strengthen our relationship by affirming my question instead of dismissing it.  This experience inspired the creation of my twitter handle @beyondplaydough (I invite you to follow me).

Have you ever wondered what it is like for young children when they ask adults questions? 

If we are hoping to instill a sense of joy in learning, it is up to us as early childhood educators to respond authentically to young children’s bids and questions, no matter how silly they may seem.

As the mother of a preschooler who is currently in this state, I can relate to my teacher’s delight many years ago.  The other night, while reading Duck on Bike by author David Shannon I paused on the hilarious page when all of the animals hop on the bicycles.  I wanted to focus on defining new words by using what he already knew about bikes and then conceptually map the different types of bikes while introducing new vocabulary.  As I pointed to each bike, I explained how Chicken was actually on a tricycle because it had three wheels.  I noted that Pig and Pig were on a tandem bike built for two!  Then, our son noticed one of the bicycles had a different shaped seat.  He pointed at it and I told him it was called a banana seat, and immediately giggling ensued.  He turned his head to look up at me and said, “You cannot sit on a banana Mama, it would be all mushy, that is just so silly. Why would anyone be so silly Mama and sit on a banana?”

Right on little guy, why would anyone be so silly?

What is the silliest question a child has asked you?  Did the question delve into a deeper level of learning? Were you able to use it to further a child’s understanding of a particular concept, if so how?

Comment below!

Source: Linda Reddish, personal image

Linda Reddish, EXTENSION EDUCATOR | THE LEARNING CHILD

Peer Reviewed by Lynn DeVries, Extension Educator, The Learning Child and

John Porter, Urban Agriculture Program Coordinator

Make sure to follow The Learning Child on social media for more research-based early childhood education resources!

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