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The Importance of Self-Reflection: A Q&A with Dana C. Childress

Dana C. Childress, Ph.D.

Self-Reflection for Professional Development

It’s long been accepted wisdom that highly trained professionals like doctors, lawyers, and engineers must adopt a lifelong learner mindset and be mindful of what they do, how they do it, and why. In her upcoming book Pause and Reflect: Your Guide to a Deeper Understanding of Early Intervention Practice, Dana Childress, Ph.D. reminds us that early childhood professionals should hold themselves to the same rigorous standards to do their jobs most effectively. Dr. Childress joins us this month to discuss why regular self-reflection is such an important part of effective professional development for early childhood practitioners, the benefits of moving toward family-centered practices, and much more.

Q. Your book stresses the importance of early childhood professionals pausing and reflecting on what they do, how they do it, and why. Why is this kind of intentional reflection such an integral part of effective early childhood practice?

A. We commonly think that, as professionals, we can change our practices by attending a workshop or webinar. We squeeze in a training a few times a year to meet our certification or licensure requirements, but do we really learn anything that makes us better practitioners? Maybe, or maybe not.

While these activities can be helpful for building awareness of content, it’s really the time we take to reflect on our practices and how what we “learned” compares to what we know and do that leads to real learning and change. This comparison helps us be active participants in our learning, which makes it more likely that we will integrate what we’re learning into what we do. Adult learning theory suggests that reflection is a key component of learning because adults bring their prior knowledge and experience to any learning opportunity.

Reflection helps us notice what we’re already doing and be more mindful about the practices we use with families and young children to make sure that what we do is aligned with best practices. In the book, I discuss adult learning theory and how it applies to supporting caregiver learning, but it also applies to the early childhood professional. If we want to grow as professionals, we have to make time for reflection, time to think about what we know and do and where we need to grow. That is where the pause comes in.

Q. Early childhood professionals might be concerned that self-reflection is “one more thing” to add to their day. How can a professional fit reflection into their already busy schedules?

A. This is such a good question because early childhood professionals are already busy. We are also committed, and within this commitment lies a responsibility to grow our practices. Self-reflection is so important because if we don’t think about what we do, and why and how we do it, we won’t be able to grow our current practices.

Self-reflection comes naturally to many of us when we leave an intervention visit or interaction with a family and digest what happened while driving back to the office or writing up the contact note. We naturally think about what we did, what the child and caregiver did, and how all of that relates to the outcomes we’re all working on. Some of us, however, tend to spend more time thinking about what the child did or what the child and family did and take less time for self-reflection. For either practitioner, I’d recommend using the self-assessments in the book—tangible tools for self-reflection. Take a minute or two after each visit to complete one of the tools or work through one of the exercises in the book. The self-assessments are downloadable as fillable PDFs, so they can be completed on a device or printed if that’s easier.

If something less formal would work better, consider recording a quick voice memo reflecting on concepts in the book after each visit. Ask a colleague to be a reflection partner and call or text each other after visits to check in. If reflecting after every visit is too much, pick one or two visits each week to target for self-reflection. Or, if a practitioner is supporting a family virtually while doing tele-intervention, ask for permission to record the session. That way, self-reflection can happen later when there is time to pause to watch the video and reflect on what went well and what could be done differently.

The trick here is for practitioners to focus on what they did—not on what the caregiver did. It’s so easy to get caught up in what we want others to do. Self-reflection is a commitment to ourselves to notice what we do, celebrate our growth, and look for rich opportunities to develop our own knowledge and skills. It can be challenging to make time for it, but so worth it when we do.

Q. Could you talk about your approach to developing this resource? It seems like you worked hard to make this book engaging, relatable, and reader-friendly. Could you tell us about some of the practical features you included throughout the book, and how they’ll help readers improve their practice?

 A. I approached the format of this book from a professional development, practical perspective. I wanted the content to be relatable and connected to real-life practices, while also challenging the reader to do more than simply read. I wanted to integrate what we know about adult learning into a written resource that could be used for individual or group study. We know that active participation and reflection are key components for making learning “stick,” so I challenged myself to build both into the book.

Read Chapter One of Pause and Reflect

I wanted to write something I would want to read and use, whether I was an early interventionist, other home visiting professional, or a training facilitator. Using lots of scenarios based on real visits, journal prompts, and other reflective exercises, readers are provided with opportunities to use writing and reflecting to investigate how the content matches or doesn’t match with what they know and do. I hope they can see themselves in the scenarios and learn a few strategies to try on their visits with families.

I also included some activities with author feedback so readers can compare their answers with mine. Feedback is so important to adult learners, so having something to compare to will help them broaden their perspective. The book includes lots of practice strategies for providing balanced intervention, working with families and other team members, managing your workload, etc. Some of these strategies are presented in list or paragraph form, some include “do” and “don’t” examples, and some are explained in the context of scenarios. Using different means of sharing the information and providing different ways for the reader to interact with the information were purposeful to facilitate active engagement with the content.

At the end of each chapter, I included opportunities for reflective journaling and action planning; both are places where readers can connect reflecting about the past and present with plans for using what they learned. We know that writing goals or being specific about an action plan makes it more likely that you will use what you learned. That’s the ultimate goal of any professional development activity—to facilitate learning and strengthen practices—whether the reader completes it in the car or at a desk or as part of a small book study group.

Q. Can self-reflection be a collaborative effort? For example, can professionals effectively work in a group to reflect on their practices?

 A. Absolutely! Group reflection can be a wonderful way to deepen your practice because you benefit from hearing others’ experiences, discussing answers to questions, sharing feedback, and processing thoughts together. To help readers host a collaborative effort using the book, I have written a book study guide, available as a free download from the Brookes site. The study guide includes guidance on how to divide up the book chapters for a multi-session activity and how to organize study sessions. I also included lists of open-ended questions for each chapter to help the facilitator guide the discussion. I hope that supervisors, trainers, and others who want to host a book study will find the study guide useful as they craft a group activity to fit the needs of their staff and colleagues.

Q. Your book challenges the reader to think beyond traditional child-focused practices and recognize the benefits of family-centered practices. What are the benefits of family-centered practices, both for the child and the caregivers?

 A. Family-centered early intervention is not only best practice; it is the foundation of how we do our work. When we work from a family-centered perspective, we carry with us a deep respect for what is unique about each family and use their priorities to guide our work. We ground intervention in what is important to families, what they like to do, and what they want their child to be able to do. We learn about and join their daily activities because that is where children learn. We combine our expertise in child development and intervention with their expertise in their how their family works, what their child enjoys, and what’s challenging, to build on and integrate intervention strategies into what the family already does. This requires that we make room for and value family decisions, especially when they differ from our own preferences.

When we use family-centered practices in early intervention, we understand that each of us, regardless of discipline, is a guest in the family’s life and is present to support caregiver-child interactions. The family is the center of the child’s life and is therefore the center of early intervention. This perspective means that we have to stretch ourselves for each family, individualize how we share our expertise, and adjust to each environment. This is quite different from the traditional, child-focused approach where we expected the family and environment to adjust to us as the primary agents of change in the child’s development.

We benefit from a family-centered approach when we see how our one to two hours a week with a family can help spread intervention throughout the week, so that the child receives much more support than we could ever provide on our own. The family benefits in the same way—by gaining the knowledge, skills, and confidence to interact with the child in ways that facilitate development throughout the day, throughout the week. Together, hopefully we will create an intervention partnership that makes a meaningful, positive difference in the child’s development and the family’s life. This works best when we learn and grow together.

Q. What would you say are the three most important things early childhood professionals will be able to do after reading and engaging with your book?

A. Understand the connection between adult learning and balanced early intervention. By reading this book, I hope readers will gain a deep understanding of how they can support learning for both the caregiver and the child through balanced intervention. Balancing their energy to attend to both learners takes intentional effort that starts with understanding why adult learning is so important in the early intervention/early childhood context. This book is designed to give readers the space to explore this idea of balance, reflect on how it shows up in their work, and use the strategies to facilitate active learning for adult caregivers.

Use practical strategies that support caregiver and child learning. I hope that readers gain some concrete, practical strategies that enhance their work with families. In the end, this book is about strengthening practices, and we do that through a deeper exploration of what we do during and between visits with families. It’s not just about thinking about what we do, though. Taking what we learn, applying it on visits with families, reflecting on our successes and challenges, then integrating those strategies into our day-to-day work—that’s the key.

Continue to use self-reflection as a professional. I hope that readers will strengthen their self-reflection muscles and carry this mindful practice forward. Taking time to pause and reflect on what you do is so important for professional development. We can find time to read an article, attend a webinar, or observe a colleague. Reflection helps you stretch that experience further and integrate it into your way of doing your job. As I said in the book, we have a responsibility to evolve our skills as early interventionists. For readers, I hope this book is a drop in their pool that ripples throughout their professional practice.

Learn more about Pause and Reflect

A one‐of‐a‐kind workbook designed to help early childhood professionals reflect on their practices, grow their skills, and be confident that they’re translating the best, most current knowledge into real‐world action every day.

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