Reflecting and Connecting: Supporting future caregivers in increasing intentionality and synchrony in their work with children

Project Category: Preparing a Highly Qualified 0-3 Workforce 

Gina A. Cook, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Psychology and Child Development
California State University, Stanislaus

Introduction: Sensitive caregiving is key to synchrony when working with children and requires the ability to be observant and correctly interpret and respond to cues as if seeing the world from the child’s perspective. Many students struggle with evaluation, observation, and self-reflection and are not mindful of their own emotions, behaviors, or perspective and thus cannot be mindful of those in their care. Targeting mindfulness and reflective functioning may be an effective way to support teachers’ abilities to notice infant/toddler cues and respond sensitively. Mindfulness may underlie caregivers’ abilities to see the world from the child’s perspective and to use this information to respond sensitively and synchronously (Jennings, 2014). Mindfulness is “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally…” (Kabat-Zinn, 1994; pg. 4). Reflective functioning is the ability to recognize thoughts, emotions, attitudes, and intentions in oneself and others, link these mental states to behavior, and take another’s perspective to understand their behavior (Fonagy, Steele, Steele & Moran, 1991; Slade, 2005) and may be another practice that underlies the ability to be intentional and synchronous in caregiving. A self-reflective attitude will help pre-service teachers examine their biases, strengths, and needs for growth so that they can adapt to the diverse needs of the children they serve (ZTT, 2012). The ability to self-reflect supports intentionality and flexibility in early childhood caregiving and increases a caregiver’s ability to know what to do and why (NAEYC, 2009).

The goal of the study was to identify teaching methods that support student’s reflective functioning and increase mindfulness. I created a set of mindfulness, reflective writing, and observation assignments to support infant/toddler teachers in their ability to be more effective at mindful, reflective practices when working with children and parents in the hopes of increasing synchrony in these relationships.

Methods: Students were recruited from two social/emotional development courses and an Infant/Toddler curriculum course, these courses are for junior/senior level students. Pre- and post-test data was collected on observation behaviors, mindfulness interactions, and beliefs about the value of reflective thinking skills. The social/emotional development course was assigned mindfulness and reflective writing assignments and the infant/toddler class was assigned observation and reflective writing assignments. Modules focused on caregiver-child interactions and brain development were assigned to both classes.

Students completed surveys during the first week of class and at the end of the semester. Forty-seven of 52 students enrolled in the social/emotional development classes completed surveys: (1) dispositional mindfulness (Philadelphia Mindfulness Scale; Cardacitto, et al., 2008); (2) mindfulness interactions (adapted Interpersonal Mindfulness in Parenting Scale; Duncan, 2007); and (3) beliefs about the value of reflective practices (Observe, Listen, Wonder, and Respond scale; Tomlin, et al., 2009). Forty-two surveys met requirements for use.

Results: Overall, mean scores reported for all measures increased over the semester, but only kind interactions and belief about the value of reflection saw significant increases. Dispositional mindfulness, mindful awareness, and beliefs about reflective practices were significantly correlated, but beliefs about the importance of reflective practices was not correlated with dispositional mindfulness or kind interactions.  Those with greater dispositional mindfulness reported more mindful awareness and interactions with others, particularly interactions characterized by intentional kindness. Results indicate that it is possible to change student’s beliefs about the importance of reflective practices and in turn increase their awareness of mindfulness, but belief in the importance of mindfulness and increased awareness does not change mindfulness practices or interactions with others. Interestingly, students with higher scores on mindful disposition at the beginning of the semester showed increases in kind interactions with others. These results highlight the associations between dispositional mindfulness and developmentally-supportive beliefs and practices and supports recent research on the role of mindfulness in high-quality, sensitive caregiving. Results also suggest the importance of attending to mindfulness and reflective practices as part of teacher training.

Discussion: Producing a high quality workforce of sensitive, synchronous caregivers for infants and young children is vital. These findings suggest more needs to be done to translate training and knowledge into practice. Changing attitudes does not necessarily change behaviors, but when teachers are mindful they are more likely to report more sensitive, kind caregiving practices.

Limitations include the sample size and lack of observational outcome measures. This data is from two courses limiting the number of participants. The methods and measures used were limited by amount of time and funding available. Future studies will assess more students to provide for variability in teaching methods and will implement observational measures of student practices in lab classrooms instead of relying solely on student report. Videotaping students during lab experiences will enable identification of students with high-quality teaching practices to determine if their behaviors are related to mindfulness or reflective practices.

Gina A. Cook, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Psychology and Child Development
California State University, Stanislaus
One University Circle
Turlock, CA 95382


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