Using Biobehavioral Feedback to Increase Reflective Function in Prospective Infant/Toddler Educators

Project Category: Leveraging Technology for New Insights 

Amanda Wilcox-Herzog, PhD
Associate Professor, Department of Psychology
California State University, San Bernardino

Introduction:  Prospective early educators are often overwhelmed when interacting with children, yet relationships between caregivers and children are vital (Zero to Three, 2010).  One way to promote this is to increase reflective function, which asks caregivers to take the perspective of the child, while simultaneously regulating one’s own emotions.  Slavik (2014) notes that this skill can be learned and help reduce reactivity and counter-productive strategies in highly emotional situations, such as those that often arise when working with young children.  This study used two strategies to help students learn and practice reflective function during practicum experience.

First, students measured heart rate variability (HRV).  Greater HRV is related to impulsive behavior, low task persistence, and poor anxiety management (Bradley, McCraty, Atkinson, Tomasino, Daughtery, & Arguelles, 2010; Reynard, Gervitz, Berlow, Brown, & Boutelle, 2011; Segerstrom & Nes, 2007), but information about HRV can help people improve performance and reduce stress.  Second, students journaled.  Journaling helps teachers engage in reflection to improve practice (Kremenitzer, 2005; Lee, 2010).  Evidence from studies with prospective early educators indicates that journaling may be particularly useful in helping students increase their technical skills (Isikoglu, 2007; McFarland & Saunders, 2009; Nolan, 2011; Pihlaja & Holst, 2013).

Methods: 10 female undergraduate students majoring in human development participated.  During the 2015-16 academic year, students were enrolled in two lab courses with infants and toddlers.  The purpose of these labs was to learn to effectively interact with children and plan/implement developmentally appropriate activities.  Students were recruited in their Infant/Toddler Interactions course.  Interested students then met with the primary investigator separately to further discuss the project, sign informed consent forms, and complete a demographic form.

Data collection then commenced.  First, students were instructed in the use of the Fitbit heart rate trackers and were asked to provide baseline heart rate data.  While in lab, students recorded their heart rate when stressed, what was taking place at the time, how they responded, and if heart rate changed thereafter.  At the end of lab hours each week, students completed a journal entry reflecting on stress inducing situations encountered in lab, HRV experienced, the usefulness of the Fitbit feedback provided, and strategies used to minimize stress and HRV.

Results: Data gathered for the project included initial heart rate tracker forms and student’s journal entries.  The heart rate tracker form showed that students had an average resting heart of 68.95 with a range of 53.5-82.0.  When students did report specific heart rate information in their journals, it was 95+, clearly above resting heart rate.  Student journals collected across the duration of the project indicated that having access to HRV data was very helpful.  Upon analysis, four themes emerged from journal data.  First, HRV data highlighted lack of awareness regarding stressful situations and how they influence HRV. Second, HRV data helped students to relax and calm down.  Third, students realized their lack of self-regulation might cause children to deregulate.  Finally, HRV data helped students to devise strategies to interact more successfully with the children and help children develop their self-regulatory skills.

Discussion:This project was designed to help increase reflective functioning and synchronous interactions with children via HRV and journaling.  Students used HRV information to gauge and monitor their stress in various situations and increased self-regulation through techniques such as breathing deeply.  They also used HRV to improve the variety and quality of strategies used when interacting with children.  It was found, as noted above, that students tended to use their journals to discuss technical aspects of their performance (Isikoglu, 2007; McFarland & Saunders, 2009; Nolan, 2011; Pihlaja & Holst, 2013).  While the results were promising, there were limitations.  First, the data generated was self-report.  Observational strategies were not used to measure actual interactions.  Additionally, students found it difficult to record HRV while they were involved in interactions with children.

Professional development specialists have long touted the importance of subject-matter and pedagogical knowledge.  Recently though, there is recognition that professional dispositions are equally important to effectively working with children.  Dispositions are habits of the mind wherein educators engage in self-reflective activities, regulate their emotions and behaviors, and respond to children flexibly and sensitively (Roeser, Skinner, Beers, & Jennings, 2012).  Journaling, combined with HRV information, appears to grow professional dispositions.  In the future, collecting observational data may determine if journaling and HRV data actually result in more efficacious practice with young children.

Amanda Wilcox-Herzog
California State University San Bernardino
Department of Psychology
5500 University Parkway
San Bernardino, CA  92407


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