I was marching in a circle with 10 children and their caregivers, singing songs and parading around with musical instruments, and I couldn’t have felt more out of place. The early intervention program director entered, took one glance around the room, and said, “You didn’t think you were going to have to make a fool of yourself, did you?”
Making a fool of myself at work is one of the ways I implement the professional use of self, defined in social work as “melding the professional self of what one knows (training, knowledge, techniques) with the personal self of who one is (personality traits, belief systems, and life experiences).”
Behind my humorous personality and playful demeanor are knowledge and expertise. How I present myself to my toddler-aged clients is intentional and purposeful. It is developmentally appropriate, language-rich, and frequently movement-based.
It’s You That Makes a Difference
Much of what is learned in preschools, such as self-control and social interaction, can only be taught in the context of interactions with others, making professional use of self the most effective tool available to early childhood educators.
One of my students, for example, dislikes being touched during dysregulated periods. He hides beneath tables and refuses help. While he struggles, I sit with him and act as a silent intervention, but I do not physically intervene. I give him enough room to respect his boundaries. In a calm, kind voice, I explain every movement I make around him, then patiently wait to assist him further.
Once he comes out from under the table and inches closer to me, I redirect him by asking him to assist me with something or by gently offering to wash his tears away in the bathroom. Then we play together, giving him the opportunity to experience a caregiver who can be consistent in presentation no matter how he’s feeling or behaving.
In another example, a student refused to leave the bathroom stall one morning. I took a lighthearted approach to the situation, joking with him about making me crawl on the filthy bathroom floor just to get him. “Do me a favor and open the door so you can have breakfast with me,” I offered as an incentive. He opened the door, washed his hands, and then grabbed mine.
Several coworkers have had a positive impact on their students using just themselves. When we returned to work in June 2020, one of my coworkers was purposeful in how she used her facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice during the morning circle to demonstrate affect identification. “I’m frustrated and sorry we can’t go back to normal just yet,” she added. She mirrored back what each student said and acknowledged their sentiments, adding, “I feel that way too.”
In another instance, a coworker’s use of self was critical in initiating a collaborative relationship with a parent. During one meeting, she tuned in to her student’s mother’s body language, tone of voice, and facial expression, visually displaying compassion and empathy. Her use of self in this way helped to reframe a difficult conversation as one of concern rather than a complaint, allowing the mom to feel more like a partner in her child’s support.
The Importance of Self-Reflection in Professional Use of Self
Self-reflection on our professional use of self can help us figure out if what we’re doing is working. When supporting a learner with self-regulation, one reason that self-reflection is important is the ability to notice our own mood and presentation. Otherwise, we may unknowingly create problems by co-escalating instead of co-regulating.
“What was coming up for you at that moment?” I‘ll inquire during a debrief whenever I observe a colleague having a challenging time in class. “Was there something about the student’s behavior that triggered you?” One instructor was able to identify that she was feeling the same amount of dysregulation as the student with whom she was so overwhelmed and upset.
“I know I yelled; I know I shouldn’t have,” she realized. “As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I wished I could take them back.” She elaborated, “Next time, I’ll attempt to take a breath or ask for a break.” And the next time she wanted a break during class, she asked for it.
Self-reflection can also assist us in recognizing when we're doing something that works so that we can incorporate it into our classroom routines intentionally.
“Wow! While watching you cook, all of your children were completely absorbed!” I told a colleague after seeing images of a cooking exercise she did with her class. “It looks like you enjoyed doing that with them.”
“I love to cook, and it’s fun to try different recipes with the kids. You can incorporate so much learning in one lesson,” she commented.
She added, “When we’re joyful about something in the classroom, our kids can feel that. I bet that’s why they were so interested.” I later found out that her class cooks together once a week, and photos of the class I’ve seen since that chat show them having a fun time while cooking.
There are helpful techniques that preschool teachers can use to reflect on their professional use of self. Having reflective conversations facilitated by a social worker, an early childhood mental health consultant, or another mental health professional who works with preschool instructors can be extremely beneficial.
Journaling on specific classroom experiences with guided prompts can also help you figure out how to fine-tune your use of self in the classroom. Participating in professional development programs that specialize in helping early childhood educators reflect on the professional use of self within early intervention programs such as the Circle of Security International can also help.
Toys on the shelf, fidgets in the quiet zone, curriculums that govern lesson planning? These are just items that will help your teaching. What you contribute to the interaction with your students is what makes a difference.