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Reflective Supervision in Early Childhood Education

Improve relationships with your staff and promote their growth with reflective supervision.

Reflective Supervision in Early Childhood Education

Reflective Supervision in Early Childhood Education

The early learning environment requires continuous quality instruction and care. One aspect directly responsible for a quality program is healthy and effective relationships between teachers and their supervisors. The practice of reflective supervision can help improve those relationships with your staff and promote their professional development.

This guide explains reflective supervision, its importance, and how to apply it at your center. We also share a couple of training courses to help you develop reflective supervision skills and build a relationship-based workplace.

What is reflective supervision? 

Reflective supervision is a leadership approach where a director or supervisor guides and supports staff members through challenges they face working with young children and their families. It involves stepping back from the hands-on experience in the classroom and reflecting honestly on what the experience means. Dr. Shahmoon-Shanok, a clinician, teacher, and one of the developers of reflective supervision, defines this concept as “a collaborative relationship for professional growth that improves program quality and practice by cherishing strengths and partnering around vulnerabilities to generate growth.” 

Typically, reflective supervision involves a staff member or group of staff members and supervisor meeting face-to-face regularly in a confidential setting. Reflective supervision must focus on the experiences, thoughts, and feelings directly connected with the work. Unlike directive supervision, where a supervisor gives instructions to which the employee must comply, reflective supervision is about dialogue and teamwork.

The three building blocks of reflective supervision are:


As defined in the book, A Practical Guide to Reflective Supervision by Sheryl Scott Heller and Linda Gilkerson, “reflection is stepping back to consider the work from multiple perspectives including from what one and others observe, feel, and think.” Reflection requires a foundation of honesty and trust. The goal is to create a safe, calm, and supportive environment where the employee can talk about their experiences, thoughts, ideas, and emotions. The supervisor should guide the employee’s decision-making by providing knowledge and support in a non-judgemental and empathetic manner. Reflection is essential as it allows the staff member to self-assess and become aware of their strengths and vulnerabilities, thus enabling them to make corrections in work performance that feel natural.


This concept involves full participation and respectful mutual exchange between the supervisor and employee. A collaborative relationship requires open communication without fear of judgment and ridicule. Through active listening and curiosity, either party can ask questions to learn about the other partner’s thoughts and motivations. For example, “What were you thinking when you did that?” Collaboration helps staff freely express interest in taking on new tasks and challenges, and they can exercise some control over the terms and conditions of their work. Collaboration also allows supervisors and directors to learn from and teach their staff. The supervisor can recognize opportunities to share responsibility and decision-making, thus developing leadership talent from within.


Without regular interactions, reflection and collaboration won’t happen. Reflective supervision must be frequent, with a predictable and reliable schedule. Regularity creates safety for authentic interaction around strengths, vulnerabilities, and intrinsic problems at work. Both parties must agree on a set schedule, providing ample time for the interaction and protecting it from cancellations and procrastination. However, if an emergency arises, reschedule to the soonest possible convenient time. If cancellations happen regularly, find out why. It might be a time-management issue or tension in the relationship.

Why is reflective supervision important?

Reflective supervision has been most popular in infant and early childhood professional settings. This practice is essential for a number of reasons:

Helps teachers cope with stress

Talking to someone about your concerns helps reduce stress. Teachers face various challenges while engaging with children and their families daily. When children display challenging behavior, it can affect teachers emotionally, which may result in stress. Sharing with peers facing similar challenges or a supervisor who will listen without judgment helps them process their stressful emotions and let go of their frustrations. It’s important to incorporate practices that help teachers manage their stress as their mental well-being affects the quality of care and instruction in the classroom.

Improves teachers’ confidence at work

Sometimes teachers self-blame when they can’t help a child experiencing a meltdown or if they can’t immediately stop a child from hitting others and throwing objects around. When teachers believe they aren’t doing their jobs effectively, it can affect their confidence. Reflective supervision helps them process their emotions, understand the reason for the child’s behavior, and reframe the issue, thus improving their confidence.

Strengthens relationships with peers, supervisors, and families

Frequent interaction with peers and supervisors improves working relationships and helps teachers know they have a community or individual to rely on. Teachers who meet as a group become more empathetic, helping each other when a challenge arises in the classroom. Expressing thoughts and feelings about work to the school director without judgment helps teachers feel valued and gives them a sense of responsibility. 

In addition, sometimes teachers may pass judgment on families for a child’s behavior, straining communication with the families. However, after processing thoughts and feelings and hearing from other staff who’ve experienced the same, a teacher’s perspective may change, making communication with the families more manageable. A tool like brightwheel’s communication feature can enable families, staff, and administrators to easily communicate with each other and build deeper relationships. Send real-time messages and share children’s progress all from one centralized platform. 

Reduces teacher turnover

When teachers can’t share their struggles, the stress could lead to burnout and high turnover in early childhood education centers. According to a survey conducted by Teaching Strategies in 2022, 20% of early childhood educators considered a career change, and 40% of that group attributed it to mental health challenges. However, the teacher turnover at Hiveley Center in Detroit dropped due to their reflective supervision program. Reflective supervision improves their morale and motivation as they feel like part of a team.

Reflective supervision examples

The supervision format you use will depend on the needs of your staff. Here are some formats to consider:

  • Meeting one on one
  • Meeting in a small group
  • Meeting twice a month for an hour at a set time that doesn’t change
  • Meeting once a month for two hours on a set day/time that doesn’t change

Collaborating with teaching staff can be challenging if you haven’t observed the dynamic between the teachers and children. Regularly spending time in the classroom alongside the teacher gives the supervisor a  first-hand experience of the teacher’s concerns and reflections.

Reflective supervision training

Directors and supervisors can use the courses below to promote a relationship-based workplace, support early childhood professional development, and build reflective supervision practices in mentoring staff members.

RIOS framework

The Center for Early Education and Development (CEED) provides two online courses that use the Reflective Interaction Observation Scale (RIOS) framework. RIOS 1 is a three-week online introductory course focusing on reflective supervision principles. RIOS 2 is an advanced course that teaches the process of beginning and maintaining reflective interaction with individuals or groups while helping them develop skills and increase self-efficacy.

Introduction to Reflective Supervision for Supervisors

This reflective supervision training offered by the Washington Association for Infant Mental Health is a 12-hour workshop focused on the fundamental principles and practices of reflective supervision. It comes with a year-long online reflective consultation group where participants receive 18 hours of reflective consultation designed to support supervisors as they implement the principles with their staff.

A Practical Guide to Reflective Supervision

Although this isn’t a course, this book is a valuable resource that outlines the essential steps in creating a reflective supervision system in an early childhood program to improve services, support staff, and effectively meet the needs of children and families. 

Written by leading experts, this book answers critical questions that every early childhood program needs to know to implement reflective supervision. The authors provide strategies for conducting a reflective supervision meeting, repairing ruptures in the supervisory relationship, and combining reflective supervision with administrative supervision. The book also lists activities you can use to build reflective capacity within the staff.

Build a relationship-based workplace with reflective supervision

Reflective supervision aims to improve staff performance by strengthening relationships and reflecting on events and behavior, ultimately improving the entire program. To be effective, it’s important that reflective supervision focuses on the issues in the workplace and explores possible solutions. This will enhance your staff’s professional growth and promote healthy relationships for the overall success of your program. 

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