- Describe reflective supervision as a tool to prevent child abuse and neglect.
- Promote staff wellness and professionalism.
“When it’s going well, supervision is a holding environment, a place to feel secure enough to expose insecurities, mistakes, questions, and differences.” - Rebecca Shahmoon Shanock (1992)
Working in child and youth programs is a rewarding job, but it can be a difficult one. Staff members are responsible for the safety and education of children day in and day out. Many of the children in your programs face extraordinary stress at home, and your staff members often bear this stress and make it their own. There are few breaks during the day and few breaks during the year. Many of your staff members also go home to care for their own families after work. Given this context, it is not surprising that staff members experience stress, burnout, and job turnover.
When staff members get frustrated or stressed, they do not use their best thinking. They are less able to problem-solve, use new practices, think creatively, and be patient. They may be less able to support the children who need their help the most. Reflective supervision is one tool you can use to help support your staff members’ experience and performance. It also is an important tool in preventing child abuse and neglect in center settings.
Supervise & Support
Introduction to Reflective Supervision
Healthy, nurturing relationships are just as important for adults as they are for children. Reflective supervision provides an opportunity for you to build relationships with staff members. In the context of those relationships, staff members reflect on their work, process their emotions, challenge themselves, talk through new ideas, and express their beliefs. It is a supportive process that facilitates high quality care for children and youth in your programs. In the words of Fenichel (1992), reflective supervision is a “relationship for learning.”
What are the Characteristics of Reflective Supervision?
In many ways, reflective supervision models a parallel process for staff members. We, as managers, want staff members to be emotionally supportive of children and families. We want them to reflect on their practice and continually improve. In reflective supervision, supervisors have a chance to model this process. We emotionally support staff members as they reflect on their practice. Reflective supervision is characterized by (Cox, Harrison, & Neilson-Gatti, 2011):
- Noticing and labeling a staff member's feelings about an event or situation
- Acknowledging professional competence
- Staying rooted in the experiences of children or youth
- Providing a structure for reflection within and between sessions
How do Supervisors use Reflective Supervision?
The Family Connections Project at Children’s Hospital Boston identified eight steps to help you build a supportive relationship within reflective supervision. The following list is adapted from “Supportive Supervision: Promoting Staff and Family Growth through Positive Relationships”:
- Establish a regular and protected time for supervision. Set appointments and keep them! Make sure staff members know your time with them is valued and important.
- Share the power. Work together to decide how meetings will be structured, what goals are set, how progress is monitored, etc.
- Accentuate the positive . Make sure staff members know you appreciate the work they do…and that they are good at it. Encourage staff members and spend time really noticing what is going well in your programs.
- Try to listen without judging. Notice staff members’ emotions as they talk to you, but do not assign your own values to how they are feeling. Do not get angry if they are unhappy about something at work. Just listen.
- Model healthy ways to manage conflict. Reflective supervision gives you the space to talk about problems. Work together to solve them efficiently.
- Make time for reflection inside and outside of supervision. Think about how your sessions with staff members went. Practice how you might say something differently if it came up again.
- Remember that you are not alone. You have many resources at your fingertips: Family Advocacy Programs, mental health services, etc. Help staff find the resources they need.
- Establish healthy boundaries. Take care of yourself. If you don’t know the answer to a question, say so.
When Staff Experience Stress
Sometimes within a reflective supervision relationship, you might notice a staff member is experiencing stress. Realize that stress can make it difficult for staff members to do their jobs well. They might be at greater risk of using inappropriate practices. As a manager, make sure you are aware of the stress your staff members are facing. Be emotionally connected to them. Observe staff members for signs of stress. When you see signs of stress, be prepared to help the staff member process their emotions. You might see the following:
- Changes in mood or behavior. The staff member seems upset, angry, or more quick-tempered than usual.
- Changes in work attendance or attitude. A stressed staff member may stop coming to work, come to work late, or do as little as possible at work.
- Problems with drugs or alcohol.
- Problems sleeping or talking of restlessness.
- Feelings of hopelessness or powerlessness. Staff might say things like, “We’re just spinning our wheels. Nothing’s going to change for this kid.”
- Depression. Staff may lose interest in things they used to enjoy, have changes in appetite, or other symptoms.
When you see these signs, it is important to take action. Talk to the staff member. Help them process the emotions they are feeling. This can be challenging for you professionally and personally. After all, you are not a trained counselor and no one should expect you to be. You can open lines of communication, though. You can be a kind person to talk to, and you can help staff members feel more confident about their work. You can also refer staff to counseling services and other community supports as needed.
There is a lot you can do to help staff take care of themselves and bounce back from challenges:
- Make sure staff members get breaks and take the breaks they earn . Design the schedule in a way that everyone has sufficient breaks and knows when they will get a break.
- Step in and help . There might be times when the job becomes so stressful that staff members need an unscheduled break. When you see the warning signs that a staff member is under stress or at risk for using inappropriate practices in the classroom, step in and encourage them to go take a break.
- Make sure it is always ok to ask for help . You know your role is to support staff. Make sure they know that, too. Be available for them. Show vulnerability yourself: admit when you don’t know the answer to something. Learn alongside the staff.
- Anticipate stressful events . In the context of child abuse and neglect, the stress rarely ends once the report is made. After a report, staff might be anxious about angry families, damaged relationships, or a child’s safety. You need to know in advance that these feelings are going to occur. Help prepare the staff for “day 1” after a report and every day after. Talk to the staff about what might happen, reflect with them on what they might feel or experience, and role play together how to respond to difficult situations.
- Advocate for staff . You know how hard your staff work every day. Be an advocate for them and their needs. Find the resources that can help them grow and recover from difficult situations.
A great deal of work has been done on reflective supervision by a number of national and federal organizations. To learn more about reflective supervision, explore the different resources listed in the Reflective Supervision Resource Guide, As you visit each website make notes about resources that might be valuable for your work.
Here you can find a short paper on reflective supervision produced by the Office of Head Start. Although it was designed for Head Start staff, the principles and concepts are relevant to everyone who works with children and youth. Download it as a resource for yourself or to share with colleagues.
Cox, M., Harrison, M., & Neilsen-Gatti, S. (2011). Foundations for understanding a widely used practice: Elements that define reflective supervision. Presented at 2011 League of States Retreat.
University of Minnesota Center for Early Education and Development (n.d.). Reflective Supervision.
Watts, C. L., Ayoub, C. C., Avery, M. W., Beardslee, W. R., & Knowlton-Young, K. (2008). Supportive Supervision: Promoting Staff and Family Growth through Positive Relationships. https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/supportive-supervision-promoting-staff-positive-relationships.pdf
Wightman, B., Weigand, B., Whitaker, K., Traylor, D., Yeider, S. Hyden, V. (2007). Reflective practice and supervision in child abuse prevention.
Zero to Three. (2013). Three Building Blocks of Reflective Supervision. Excerpted from Parlakian, R. (2001). Look, listen, and learn: Reflective supervision and relationship-based work. Washington, D.C: ZERO TO THREE. https://www.zerotothree.org/about-us/areas-of-expertise/reflective-practice-program-development/three-building-blocks-of-reflective-supervision.html