Early Ed Leadership & Innovation

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Practicing health, wellness, and self care as early educators 

The afternoon panel “Wellness: self-care” at our 10th annual Leadership Forum on Early Education, Research, Policy, and Practice May 13 offered a lively and honest discussion about managing stress on the job, managing children’s stress, mindfulness practice for staff and families, and Black joy. 

Moderated by Cristina Mendes, the Institute for Early Education Leadership and Innovation’s Director of Outreach, Recruitment and Retention, the panel included 

  • Dottie Williams, the owner of Dottie’s Family Childcare in Dorchester and current student in UMass Boston’s PhD program in early education. Williams is also a graduate of the Leadership Institute’s Small Business Innovation program training and Post Master’s Certificate in Early Education Research, Policy, and Practice.
  • Emilee Johnson, senior educational coordinator at Boston Children’s Hospital Child Care Center and a graduate of our Post Master’s Certificate in Early Education Research, Policy, and Practice.
  • Ara Reyes, PhD, a 2023 graduate of UMass Boston’s doctoral program in early education who first came to the Leadership Institute as an infant/toddler teacher and student in our Post Master’s Certificate in Early Education Research, Policy, and Practice program.
  • Nicole Johnson, the Universal Pre-K Project Manager-Cambridge Office of Early Childhood, an artist, and a current student in our early childhood education PhD program. 

Williams said running a large family childcare with a range of age groups—she currently serves 10 children aged six months to five years—presents many stressors, most notably staffing challenges. 

“Not only am I worried about making sure my children are educated, I also have to worry about my staff too,” said Williams. “I can’t do this without them.” 

To manage her stress at work, Williams uses a deep breathing technique that helps her stay centered and functional throughout the day. She makes sure to do the exercise out of the sight of children so that they do not feel as if they at fault for causing stress. 

“They’re just children and they’re naturally curious and they want what they want when they want it and how they want it, and I do understand that,” said Williams.

As for staffing stressors, Williams, who employs two paid staff members and a volunteer, said she strives to create a collaborative, communicative, and supportive workplace culture. It seems to be working, as Williams said she has maintained the same staff for 15 years. Williams provides them with annual bonuses, flexible hours, and rotating schedules to avoid overworking them. 

“We let them know and really understand that they have lives too, and that you have to respect that and value that,” said Williams. 

Emilee Johnson wrote the children’s book, “Our New Normal: A Children’s Social Story for Post-Pandemic Lives,” to help children and families cope with anxiety about COVID-19 safety protocols after ECE programs were allowed to re-open amid the pandemic in the summer of 2020. As her program serves many children of those who work in healthcare, they had a heightened experience with the safety protocols and COVID restrictions because they were dealing with them at home as well as in the community. Adults insisted things would eventually return to normal, but the concept of normalcy was difficult for young children to grasp, said Emilee, hence their increased anxiety. 

The book, which incorporates the voices and illustrations of the children in Johnson’s program, offered a visual tool for children to better understand the pandemic and what might come next in the cycle of safety measures as it wore on. 

“It wasn’t enough for us just to say things are going to be normal, we’re going to go back,” said Johnson. “Children didn’t understand that. So within our center, it gave children an outlet, and a lot of our preschoolers joined in on creating this book.” 

They depicted the reality of their pandemic lives—Facetime conversations, masking, social distancing with their peers, smaller class sizes and how they felt about the loosening of certain restrictions. “This book really grew from children and with children,” said Johnson. 

That’s why it has resonated with families beyond Johnson’s program. Other children could read it with their parents or in their school and get a preview of what was to come, thereby reducing their fears about returning to in-person activities, visiting family members, and removing their masks outdoors after months of being told such things were dangerous. 

“Our New Normal,” helped them prepare in advance for those transitions. “It started to offer children insight into what’s next,” said Johnson, while helping parents and teachers “start to understand this next step and try to decrease our anxiety around it and support our children through it.”

Reyes, who has been practicing mindfulness and self-awareness for more than 10 years, discussed using mindfulness to manage stress on the job. She described mindfulness as “the practice of noticing, without judgment, whatever is happening in your present experience and the ability to be present at every moment, no matter what is happening.” 

People often equate mindfulness with meditation, said Reyes, but meditation is actually just one type of mindfulness practice. She added that anyone can do it—including her three-year-old child—at any time “as long as you can pause and breathe.” 

Among its benefits, said Reyes, who consults with educators on implementing mindfulness techniques in the classroom, mindfulness provides the ability to understand oneself and others better, improves communication, reduces stress, and heals relationships. As such, practicing mindfulness is one good way that educators can model emotional regulation for the children in their classroom or program. 

The trick to getting the most out of mindfulness is to incorporate practices into your daily life, which Reyes acknowledged can be difficult given the busy schedules of most early educators. But it can as simple as incorporating breathing exercises into your daily activities, for instance taking deep, centering breaths with children at arrival time, accompanied by soft background music, and taking mindfulness breaks during the day—during circle time, between activities, during walks—to focus children on their breath or movement, or simply gaze out a window. Reyes also suggested that having children draw how they are feeling, or what they are grateful for or anxious about, can also help children develop mindfulness skills and process their feelings. “You can talk about those drawings on a daily or weekly basis as part of your circle time and address those concerns then.” 

Reyes also recommended engaging parents on the mindfulness practices educators incorporate to promote continuity of the practices at home for maximum benefit. “You can send home information on these small practices, exercises, and some of the ideas to the parents in the children’s backpacks,” she said. 

Reyes also encourages mindfulness practices among ECE staff, such as driving meditations for their commute, and the development of “mindfulness corners” in their classroom for both children and teachers that are stocked with calming items such as mindfulness coloring books, soft rattles, putty, and scented lotion. “There’s so many things that you can incorporate into your room to make it more mindful and more peaceful,” said Reyes.

Nicole Johnson brought the discussion to a close with remarks on Black joy and how to find joy and bring it ECE practice and into the classroom. Nicole defined the joy in which she believes as “not just the giggly joy,” but rather the “overwhelming smile-from-ear-to-ear-joy.” She added that she believes Black joy is a “liberatory practice, a right, and an acknowledgement of freedom.” 

As practitioners and leaders, Nicole encouraged attendees at the discussion to reflect on the ways they experience joy in their work. 

“Consider the connections you have with children throughout the day that affirm their cultural understandings and authenticity. Consider how you engage with families and the supportive tasks that you may offer, both directly and indirectly every day,” said Nicole. “I recently saw these social media posts about ‘pockets of peace,’ and I think this could connect here as well. Small acts of joy are opportunities to dismantle oppressive thoughts and actions and liberate spaces. Whatever, and however you choose to do joy, start small, hold onto it and repeat it often. And then share it with others.”

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