How reflective practices stoke curiosity and deepen relationships [Podcast]

This week on The Preschool Podcast, we are honored to have Ron Grady, the Founder of Childlogy.co and a teacher at NOLA Nature School join us to talk about reflective practices and how they stoke curiously and deepen relationships.

At the end of each week, Ron goes to a coffee shop with his computer, gives himself a time frame, and writes reflections on each of his children. Once you can step outside of the physical space of your classroom, you can take a few minutes for yourself and it can become a spot for you to stay energized in your own practice. It has helped him be more patient, understanding, and curious with children.

So, how do you get started in this reflective practice? That is always the hardest part! Ron has three tips:

  1. Be forgiving to yourself – if you don’t get to it one week, it’s okay!
  2. Start where you are – don’t overhaul your whole classroom life or get overwhelmed. Most of the time you naturally practice reflecting and don’t realize it
  3. Give yourself a small, achievable goal that you can meet

Once you are in a rhythm, you can deepen your reflective practice by remembering that it is about sharing our own processes of thinking with ourselves, colleagues, and children. Your room is filled with collaborators, children are just as sharp as any human being and they can be involved in reflection. Lastly, once you have really honed your reflection skillset, take a microscope approach and get small and detailed into things that pique your interest.

Listen to the full episode to dive deeper into these tips!

Reflecting on children for a few minutes at the end of the week allowed me to become more alive with them. My reflections had implications on the future days and changed how I interacted with the children. I became more intellectually stimulated and motivated.

Ron Grady

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Read the transcript or scroll to the bottom to listen on the page:

Ron GRADY:

Bring your children into these discussions. Bring your children into the consideration of what’s happening, what’s unfolding. Ask them. Yes, their responses may be different than we were expecting as adults. But it’s also an important disposition for the children to hone, to reflect on experience. And it also illustrates for them that we care about what they have to say, that we are truly listening.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: 

Ron, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!

GRADY:

Thank you, Ron, for having me!

SPREEUWENBERG: 

We’re super pumped to have on the show with us today Ron Grady. He’s the founder of Childology and he’s a teacher at NOLA [New Orleans Louisiana] Nature School. He joins us from New Orleans today. And we’re going to talk to Ron a bit about reflective practices in early childhood education. So, really excited to chat with you today, Ron. Let’s start off learning a little bit about you and what drove you towards a career as a teacher and early-childhood education

GRADY:

Yeah, for sure. So, for me, it was kind of a roundabout journey. I kind of began, I guess, shortly, super unexpectedly. At undergrad, I took a summer job doing studies, like running studies for a Ph.D. student. And the studies that she was working on just happened to take place at the lab school on our campus. And so the work was looking at children’s understanding of certain linguistic cues and how they use these subtle cues to make inferences about social partners and their meanings. So, that was really great.

But I guess what ultimately ended up happening was that I would go into the classrooms and see the children interacting, working together, working with their teachers, creating things and forming relationships. And I just became fascinated. It was one of those things where once I entered that classroom, it was like, “Okay, I need to learn more about this, about this space, about children’s lives in general.”

And so, yeah, that’s really how I got my start. It’s one of those things that I could not have anticipated and didn’t anticipate. But that is really kind of like where it all ended up. And it’s funny because my mom was a teacher. But growing up, I always said, “I never want to be a teacher, I never want to be in education.” And then, of course, at age 19, I’m like, “Well, I may have to reconsider that.”

SPREEUWENBERG: 

That’s cool, yeah. It’s one of those things, right? I mean, especially in early-childhood education, with children at such a young age, it feels like there’s so much more we can learn about how they learn and develop. And we’re really just at the tip of the iceberg.

GRADY:

Absolutely, absolutely. And I think, to just piggyback on that, once you really get in – and I think I had the privilege of coming from sort of a research-observation perspective at the start. And once you really start to deconstruct what’s actually happening in the classrooms, to your point, you can’t help but just like be in awe and be so intrigued.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Absolutely. And in particular, something that has intrigued you is reflective practices. What drove you towards getting into reflection more specifically, as well?

GRADY:

Yeah, so personally speaking, I’ve always been someone who journals. You might call that a journaler, I guess. And so ever since I’ve been young, I can look back and see that I had journals and would always be reflecting on experiences. And so, in short, it really was always something that yielded good insight to my personal life. And so it really was kind of a natural thing for me to start doing as a teacher.

So, for example, my first year teaching, I would spend a few minutes every Friday at the end of the week just kind of reflecting on each of the children. And really what that did for me – and I guess if there was a point that solidified my interest in reflection, it was that practice during my first year of teaching, of just reflecting on children for a few minutes at the end of the week.

Because it really started helping me to become more and more alive to children and to understand that these reflections weren’t confined to the moment that I was making them, but that they actually had implications. Like, I would go in the next week and think about the note that I made on Friday or the things I had been noticing the previous week. And it would change the way I interacted with the child. And I started noticing a deepening of relationships and also became more and more intellectually stimulated.

And really that kind of small practice was my entree into reflection. Ever since then, ever since that first year, it’s something that I knew that I wanted to really delve deeply into. And I guess also coming from a little bit of a research background as well, like in college, I took a class on observation of children at that same lab preschool, actually. And that also kind of, again, showed me all the different connections that are possible when you sit down and reflect. So, I hope that kind of gets at it a little bit.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

I just wanted to ask you about your weekly reflection practice for each of the children. That sounds really, really interesting. For our listeners, can you try to describe a little bit more about what that looked like, a little bit more sort of like practically and tangibly, in terms of what kind of notes you made and how you did that?

GRADY:

Yeah, absolutely. So, at the end of the week, as educators, often we’re all pretty tired and understandably so. But I would just go to a coffee shop and grab a coffee. And I would take my computer and sit at a table and give myself, “Okay, I’m going to be here until I get up around 3:30.” So I wouls say, “I’m going to give myself until 4:00.”

And I would write the children’s names on… I think I used a Google Doc at that point. And I would just write everything that I was thinking about that child this week. Everything that I noticed, just kind of a stream of consciousness: “Making a great connection with this friend; really interested in what it means to say no; really enjoying dramatic play; exploring what it means to play family.” All of those different things.

And then I would actually add on each week to each child’s… so, let’s say, for example, I had a kid named John. And so the first week I would have a little date and then my reflections about John. And then underneath there would be the second week with my reflections about John. And kind of so on, like that. So, I would sit with my coffee until about four o’clock and then I would close up my laptop and go home. But really, that was something simple, nothing too laborious, because again, I was exhausted at the end of the week – a good exhaustion, but exhausted. And just wanted to kind of take a moment for myself to say goodbye to this week and really kind of get myself up for the next.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, that’s an interesting point, too. It’s kind of like a specific event that allows you to sort of close the book on the week and sort of start fresh for the weekend and for the following week, as well. I never thought about it that way. The other thing that I think is interesting is that you went to a new environment. You mentioned you went to a coffee shop, which I don’t know if you think there’s anything specific to that. But maybe just stepping out of sort of the childcare, or early learning environment where you you’re used to the hustle-bustle where it’s been a long week to sort of step out and put your mind in a different space, too.

GRADY:

Absolutely, I totally think that there’s something to that. When you are able to… again, I keep making this point and I hope I’m not trying to make it sound negative. But the work that we do as early-childhood educators is really intensive. It’s quite intensive. And so there’s something about just being able to step away from that, but take all of the interest that you have.

And I don’t know if I made this point earlier, but I feel like in the middle of the hustle and bustle and the busyness and the joys and the ups and the downs of the day, a lot of times the beauty of the relationships and the intricate nature of our own interests and the things that intrigue us about early childhood can get a little bit lost. And so I think once you’re able to step outside of the physical space of your classroom, you’re not looking at what needs to be done. You’re not available for a pop-in from anyone. You really kind of just take a few minutes for yourself.

I also think that people might find it becomes a spot for you to stay energized in your own practice, despite all of the things that are happening around you. So, at least that worked for me very well. And it’s something that I don’t do quite as intensively anymore. I’ve kind of spread out into some other interesting explorations. But I still do take time outside of my school context to reflect on the week, to reflect on what I’m seeing because it’s just so important and so fulfilling.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, that’s an interesting perspective, as well and totally makes sense. And just in terms of being able to utilize even your education and your knowledge and experience as an early-childhood professional, which you’re doing in practice every day with children. But sort of stepping back away from when you’re not with the children directly to have that opportunity is interesting.

And the point about energy, as well, which of course, has been something we spend a lot of time talking about on the Preschool Podcast over the last 18 months or so because it’s been hard to keep energy levels high. And we talk about, what are things you can do to help bring some energy back? And certainly this journaling sounds like an opportunity for that, and it was for you.

Ron, is there a time when you were incorporating some of these intentional practices of reflection – and you mentioned how that helped you sort of be a better educator the following week and strengthen your relationships with the children. Is there ever a time when it also helped you understand something in a new light or from a new perspective?

GRADY:

Yeah, that’s such an interesting question. And as I think about it, there’s probably so many times. But I guess if I can share a little bit about kind of what’s currently understanding in a new light, and this is a little bit of an unfolding exploration. So, forgive me if that sounds a little bit incoherent, but yeah.

I teach a nature preschool in New Orleans. So, we are outside a lot. And a big part of our classroom day is climbing. And so I have been reflecting a lot on climbing. And this climbing is really kind of a part of a broader exploration that I am doing, looking at children’s experiences outdoors and in the forest and how they understand their experiences.

And so some initial interviews kind of revealed climbing is a huge part of children’s subjective experiences outside. And so I’ve been really coming to understand climbing in a new light, not only as this interesting, risky, gross-motor practice that it is, but also coming to understand it, for example, as a time for social engagement; a time to understand a challenge; a time to sort of transgress norms.

And so how I have been reflecting on this, I guess just to add more color to it, is we had some talks about climbing and talked with the children about, “What is a good climbing tree? What does it mean to climb?” And then I kind of took my own notes from the day and wrote them down, made some more connections and then kind of went back the next week and said, “Okay, this week I’m going to transcribe everything that the children say about climbing when they’re in a tree.” And it has been so cool to listen to.

So, right now, I am really transforming the understanding of this practice. And what it has helped me do on a practical level is also be more patient. And again, I’m using climbing as this example of that sounds hyper-nature-focused. But I do think that this could potentially be the case for any sort of ritual or any sort of practice or normal thing or classroom context. So, instead of rushing the children down off the tree, I’m able to be more patient because I’m understanding that, through my own reflections, that this is a much deeper process than it appears on the surface, that the children are really striving after many different ends in what looks like such a simple thing.

And I think maybe that’s an important point to make as well, that this reflective process has illuminated kind of the sub-layers of this practice and allowed me then, as a teacher, to be able to respond, in this case, with more patience and more curiosity and in a different way. And so, yeah, right now for me, it’s climbing and it’s been really cool. And I’m super excited to see what I’ll eventually find out.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, that’s a great example, and one of my favorite childhood activities, by the way. I loved climbing trees growing up, and I was lucky enough to have a bunch in my backyard. And yeah, it’s a really great example of how you said on the surface, the obvious thing is the gross-motor skills. But you got to understand it in a whole new depth with the reflective practices, which is really, really cool.

So, if I’m listening to this podcast and I’m thinking to myself, “This sounds like a great practice to get into,” and I’m thinking to myself, “This is an excellent sort of a habit to get into.” But I think with many habits and new things, the hard part is, how do you start? How do you make the time to force yourself to do this, which is always kind of like the hardest part. It’s like going to the gym – how do you get there in the first place?

GRADY:

Gosh, okay, first off, like a blanket statement: be forgiving to yourself. If there is a day or a week that, you don’t get to it, it’s okay. You are showing up for the children and the day-to-day. And just encourage yourself in that; relish that. So, don’t make this huge, overwhelming plan. But I will say, I feel like if you start where you are, you don’t have to overhaul your entire classroom life, your entire personal life to be more intentional.

A lot of the time what I tell people when I’m talking about these sorts of things is that most of the time you’re reflecting, and you may not realize it, it doesn’t have to look like these extensive journal pages. It doesn’t have to look like this super-extensive, like, “Okay, I’m doing all of this.” It can be simple, I guess is what I’m trying to say, really kind of de-mythologizing this whole process of what it means to be reflective. It can look so many different ways.

And so just start where you are, start where you are, start where you are and give yourself a small, achievable goal. Whether it’s you want to take time once a month to reflect, whether you want to take time once a week to reflect, whether you’re going to take a little bit of an extended bathroom break and reflect. And it’s funny to hear that, right? Like, “Oh my gosh, a bathroom break!” But realistically, our days are full and we have full lives outside of work. And this reflection is also important, and I would even say critical, for quality, early-childhood practice.

And so we have to take the time. But start where you are. And eventually, hopefully, it becomes something that you can find a good rhythm. And don’t be afraid to realize when something isn’t working. If an hour on a Friday doesn’t work for you, okay, you know that. Great, you were too tired. Maybe you try ten minutes on a Friday; maybe try ten minutes on a Wednesday. Again, start where you are. And it doesn’t have to be anything crazy-intensive, but start where you are; start where you are.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

And what about for our listeners who have been practicing some of these reflective exercises, but maybe they want to take their game to the next level or deepen those reflective practices. Any tips for them?

GRADY:

Yeah, for sure. I think deepening reflective practice, I feel like for educators who are more experienced in this, it’s important to remember a few things: that reflect the practice is about sharing, first and foremost, and sharing our own processes of thinking with ourselves. And also thinking about what we see and how these things can be shared with colleagues and children. So, remembering the more deeply embedded framework that you’re working within, just as a little integration.

I also would remind more experienced educators that your room is filled with collaborators that, even though children’s bodies are smaller than our bodies, their intellects are just as active. They’re just as observant, they’re just as sharp as any human being. And so reflections should also involve the children.

And I think it’s tempting to… yes, there’s obvious benefits in taking time by yourself or reflecting with colleagues, but also reflect every day. Bring your children into these discussions. Bring your children into the consideration of what’s happening, what’s unfolding. Ask them. Yes, their responses may be different than we were expecting as adults or show that they weren’t quite thinking about something in the way that we were thinking about it. But it’s also an important disposition for the children to hone, to reflect on experience and also illustrates for them that we care about what they have to say, that we are truly listening. So, bring in the children.

I would also say that if you’re looking to really deepen an existing reflective practice, that you might take a microscope approach. And I guess this is something that I’m sure there’s probably another term in the broader literature. So, if anyone knows it, let us know. But a microscope, and I guess a microscope doesn’t really show a big picture. It’s shows you something small in detail and kind of peaks your interest. It fills you with this sense of wonder. And it does really have implications for how you think about the whole.

And so something that you might do as an educator who has an existing practice of reflection is to take a microscope approach. Choose something and really go in-depth and see all of the ways that you can bring in reflection about that topic. So for me right now, I’m taking this microscope approach to climbing. I am transcribing the children’s words; I’m taking my own reflective notes; I’m asking the children about it in the school day; all of these different things. Really kind of choose something to hone in on and unpack it. And what has the potential to do is to not only, again, reinvigorate you in your current practice, but also give you insight into new, alternate methods of reflection that you can then take into your broader work.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Awesome, I love it. Some great tips from Ron there, if you want to deepen your reflective practices. And segueing then into professional development and how we want to continue to improve and get better in our lives and in our careers, one of the things that we’re passionate about on the Preschool Podcast. And so, Ron, just wondering if there’s any resources that you might know of that you’d like to share with the audience that they can check out for their growth and development?

GRADY:

Yeah, absolutely. So, it’s interesting that I actually just finished a really interesting article by Ann Pelo, and it’s called At The Crossroads: Pedagogical Documentation and Social Justice. And it is available, just do a Google search, that is a beautiful exploration of the way that pedagogical documentation, observation, reflection and the cycle of inquiry kind of led this group of teachers and children and families through this study of skin color understandings of power. And so that is just a beautiful 18 pages – not too long to read, but something that could get you thinking about ways to bring in all these dimensions into your reflective practice.

And then I guess that there is one more – and this is kind of out of left field – but it’s a book that I am reading. It’s called The Anthropology of Childhood [Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings], and it is by an anthropologist, David Lancy. And it’s definitely more of a textbook but it’s been really interesting. And to read how childhood looks and has looked in different cultures, in different spaces across the world and has really just… it’s always good to be supported and then also challenged in the way that we view our practice and the human beings with whom we work: children. So, those are really kind of getting me going and holding my attention in this moment.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, great, those sound like great resources for reflection as well, frankly, to go through and think about what that means in terms of the case study, for lack of a better word, and the deeper text book which is sort of more of a longer read. But it’s something on my To Do List this year, is to try to do more of that, too. And Ron, if our listeners want to get in touch with you or learn more about your work, where can they go to get more information?

GRADY:

Yeah, so my Instagram, which is where I do a lot of posting and communication, the handle is @Childology.co. And then also, same for the website, it’s www.Childology.co. So, feel free to reach out on there. And I always love hearing from people.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Wonderful. Ron, thank you so, so much for joining us on the Preschool Podcast. It’s been really great to talk to you and to listen to some of your experiences and sharing your experiences on reflective practices in early-childhood education!

GRADY:

Thank you, it’s been so fun!

Christie White

Christie is a Senior Content Marketing Specialist at HiMama. She is passionate about children's development, parenting, and supporting the child care industry. She has been working to support child care centers with their events and marketing for almost a decade. In her personal life, Christie lives in Stouffville, ON with her husband Kyle and dog Tucker. She enjoys going for walks, baking, cooking, and watching reality tv!

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