Episode 181 – Early education can be emotional and stressful. In this episode, we interview Richard Cohen, consultant and coach about how he uses his meditation practice to support his professional work. We also discuss how this translates to being more present when playing with kids and why that is important in the field.
- Richard’s website
- Contact Richard at firstname.lastname@example.org
And it’s one of those leaps of faith where you don’t really see the fruits of your labor until you’ve been practicing for a while and then you realize, “Oh, just this does change the way, the quality of my life, personally and professionally.”
Richard, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!
Hi, I’m glad to be here!
We’re delighted to have on the show today Richard Cohen. Richard is an early-childhood education professor, consultant and keynote speaker with many years of experience in the field. Richard, let’s start off learning about why you got involved in early-childhood education and especially as a male. We don’t see that as often as we’d like to in early-childhood education. So, tell us a bit about your background.
Well, when I was a teenager I was a babysitter and a camp counselor through all of those years. I was one of those people that was sort of a natural with little kids and just always sort of gravitated toward that work. But then I went off to NYU [New York University] film school and thought I was going to be a famous film director, moved out to Hollywood and started working in movies and TV shows out there and was pretty miserable around the people that I was around each day.
And I was making some extra money on the side by working at a children’s gym, singing songs and dancing and tumbling. And I thought, “What am I doing? I need to shift my career and go back to what I always loved,” which was being with little kids. So, I went back and got my bachelors, a masters in early-childhood education and never looked back.
So, Richard, this interesting background because I think it actually relates quite well to some of the things we’re going to talk to today, which is about how our personal and professional lives are connected as early-childhood educators. And you decided to do something that you’re really passionate about and you love doing. Talk about how that’s influenced your work and I assume has had an impact on why you’re quite passionate about that subject.
You know, I hadn’t made that connection in my own mind, between my early professional history and the topic we’re talking about today. But yeah, you’re right, there is a real connection. Simply put, I chose joy. I chose a profession that was going to put me in a place to love getting up each morning and feeling like I was making an important difference and doing something that was contributing to making this world a better place. And that was a very personal choice that directed my professional course of my life.
And, of course, you get up every morning excited to make a difference. But it’s also really hard being an early-childhood educator, which is something we talk about a lot on the Preschool Podcast. Talk about how, as an early-childhood educator, your personal life and having a healthy personal life is relevant to your job as a professional.
Well, yeah, let me first acknowledge and sort of reiterate what you just said: I can absolutely verify that it is an exhausting job mentally, emotionally, spiritually, physically. I didn’t realize that until I went back to teaching in my 50’s as a preschool teacher again. And it seemed so easy when I was in my early 20’s. But wow, it was just absolutely exhausting. There was no way I could do anything after work except just sort of lay down and collapse after giving everything I had to other people’s young children and those people and the colleagues and everyone in my community. So, you were asking how to how to maintain that?
Yeah, how do we how do we maintain that balance when we just want to go home and crash out on the couch every night because we’re so exhausted when we’re doing something we love but it is so challenging? How do we find that balance? And why is it important for us to find that balance?
Well, there’s a whole lot of emphasis in recent years on self-care, the importance of taking care of ourselves and what does that look like? And I think a lot of us forget to do that, especially a lot of the types of folks that are drawn to early-childhood education. We’re the kind of folks who do get energy from other people and then we forget to kind of replenish ourselves and take care of ourselves.
They always say, “When you get on the airplane, if you have a child with you and the oxygen masks drop down, put the mask on yourself first and then put it on a child.” You have to take care of yourself in order to take care of your children in your care.
One of the ways that I do that is through the practice of mindfulness, staying present with my thinking. We talk about meta-cognition, which means practicing how to separate myself out from my thoughts and noticing those thoughts so that they don’t drive me necessarily and I can pick the ones that serve me.
When we take care of other people’s young children we come to this professional work with a whole set of history, of wounds and challenges and strengths, biases and preferences. And all of those things color how we address our professional responsibilities. And if we don’t become aware of those things and take responsibility for them – heal the wounds that are there – we’re just going to end up and make our jobs even more stressful and exhausting than they already are.
Yeah, absolutely. And how do you go about doing that as an educator who doesn’t have any experience practicing mindfulness and reflecting? It sounds like something that is maybe kind of akin to exercising – it’s like, you don’t just go to the gym and you’ve got it all figured out the first time you show up. Is this something that takes some practice? And what are some tips to doing that effectively?
Well, it’s a lifelong practice. We early-childhood educators are all about process over product. So, this journey that you and I are talking about right now is reflective of that. You never arrive there – you’re just always in the process of working on that, that self-healing in that self-care that we’re talking.
You know, early-childhood educators, one of the things we do on a daily basis – and I think HiMama helps with that, I think – is documenting children’s learning and developmental progress. So, we become keen observers and we take notes about what we’re seeing and we track what children are capable of.
And there’s a great opportunity in there to be paying attention to our objectivity in where we’re and how we’re recording the information that we’re seeing – the behaviors that we’re seeing, the skill development that we’re seeing – and going back and reflecting on that and looking to notice where we are being subjective, where we are putting our own personal experiences into our interpretations of what we’re seeing the children do. And there’s a great opportunity there, day-to-day and minute-to-minute, to work on that aspect of mindfulness.
The other big piece of mindfulness work, which always seems overly simple to people who don’t practice it on a regular basis, is breathing. It’s that our grandmothers used to say, “Take a deep breath and count to ten before you respond to someone.” And they were right – there’s a whole set of neurological occurrences that can refocus our brains just through the process of slowing down our breathing for a moment. And that can help us separate ourselves out from those emotions and thoughts that can sometimes get in the way of our professional responsibilities and then exhaust us at the end of the day.
And, Richard, of these practices that sounds like you’ve been practicing for quite some time, where did you learn how to do these things? And how did you make them habit for yourself over time?
My journey started about 30 years ago, 25 to 30 years ago, when I was studying Zen Buddhism. That’s when I first began encountering ideas around what we now call “meta-cognition” and understanding that we are not our thoughts or our feelings, as well as some other trainings that I did.
And I it just resonated with me. I thought, “Well, there’s something of value here.” Just like physical exercise resonates with some people and they think, “Yep, I feel like this is something that’s going to improve the quality of my life. I want to take this on.” And I did and it’s one of those leaps of faith where you don’t really see the fruits of your labor until you’ve been practicing for a while. And then you realize, “Oh, this does change the way, the quality of my life, personally and professionally.”
That’s an interesting point because sometimes we do look for really tangible results, really quickly. And it sounds like this is one of those things where you have to put some time in before you might start seeing some of those results.
Well, yes, you’re right. And I think the other reason why it’s perfect for early-childhood educators is that we are the kind of people that know how to take those leaps of faith. We’re exactly the kind of people who know that we’re going to put in our love and our joy and our skill and our focus into these young kids.
And we very well may not see the fruits of our labors. We have to trust that what we’re doing, if we are talking to an infant and talking to them while we’re changing their diaper, and we’re talking nonstop about what’s happening around them while we’re changing that diaper, we have to take a leap of faith that that’s making a difference in their lives and in their journey toward literacy, for example, because we may not actually see it happen. We have to trust it.
So, doing these kind of mindfulness techniques that I was mentioning are very much in alignment with – or I would say very accessible to – the types of people perhaps that are in our field.
That makes a lot of sense. And, Richard, one of the other things that you’ve talked about is why play is important for early educators. Can you talk to us a little bit about that?
Sure. Well, just to sort of create the bridge from the topic we were just talking about, mindfulness: to be “mindful” means, when I talk about becoming aware of your thoughts and your feelings and being able to step outside of them the reason for that – or the purpose or value of that – is to become present, is to be present in the moment that you’re in, right then.
And so that’s another aspect that’s helpful for all people, but especially for early-childhood educators because when we work with young children we work with little human beings who have been on the planet for a thousand days and are living very much in the present. And when they play, play is a very present moment-oriented activity.
Children are very rarely – although there are reasons, purposes behind in which play can assist with their pasts and with their futures – but for the most part, when young children are playing, they are very much in the present moment. And so the more we early-childhood educators can practice the skills of becoming present and being in the present moment with young kids, the better able we are to serve them and to interpret correctly what they’re doing and what their needs are and what we might need to plan next.
And so the best way to do that is to play with them, to know when to back away and let them play on their own but also know when to be in there playing and looking completely foolish and having a heck of a time and just enjoying the moment with the kids and not worrying about what the end product is going to be or what the future goal is, just being there in that moment with them. And play is the medium in which that so often occurs.
That’s interesting, I never really thought about playing with young children in that way but it makes so much sense when you explain it, about being in the present. And it’s an activity that’s performed in the present. Love it. And you’ve used the word “joy” a couple of times in this interview. And certainly I think it helps to bring about that joy and playfulness in everybody – how can it not?
Richard, it’s been an absolute delight having you on the Podcast. [There have been] lots of things that we’ve learned from you today. But if I want to learn more about what we’ve talked about here on the Podcast, where can I go to learn more about these topics or you and your work?
Well, a place to start is going to www.RichardCohen.com, that’s my website. If you were to go to there it would link you to my various social media pages on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. And it would take you to my online courses that teachers and caregivers can take to earn professional development clock hours. It would take you to my Zen shop where people can buy sweatshirts and T-shirts that say, “Play!” and mugs that are all about early-childhood things. So, that might be a good entry point to all the different crazy things I’m doing out there in the world.
Awesome. Richard, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom. And [it has been a] pleasure having you on the Podcast today!
Thank you, Ron. All my best to you!