This is a reflection from my first practicum placement to meet the requirements to register as an early childhood educator in Ontario. I began my 12-hour/week placement in September 2019 and wrote this reflection mid-October in response to my initial reactions to my experience.
Upon beginning my first ECE placement, I was really impressed with how the educators were using resources such as space, materials, the outdoor environment, and their documentation skills. It took me a couple weeks to feel comfortable working with the children and get used to being observed. A big surprise for me was not so much regarding something about myself, but regarding something I was observing: the ways in which the educators interact with the children. I saw educators hugging children in the classrooms and yelling “I LOVE YOU!” back and forth with children on the playground after they had moved to other classrooms. I also saw educators kiss children on the cheek, squish children’s cheeks with affection, and cuddle on the couch. Additionally, some educators expressed exhilaration when a child reached a milestone and frustration when a child had been crying for most of the morning. These observations were something I remained “stuck” on and they held my attention during my initial days in practicum.
These interactions made me feel uncomfortable: something was not aligning with my understanding of best practices for working with young children. I felt a bit let-down during these first few days, because something was not meeting my expectations. I felt as though the educators were being unprofessional, and this challenged some of my recently-formed beliefs about quality in the ECEC field – was this the kind of behaviour that makes people question the professionalism of ECE’s? I began questioning the “educated educators” myself and felt that these affectionate practices were especially unprofessional for a lab-school centre that provides high-quality childcare and learning. I started wondering why I was not noticing the educator-child interactions I was expecting and that I assumed were necessary for extending learning, scaffolding, and fostering autonomy, self-regulation, belonging, engagement, and expression.
Considering my background with (pre)school-age children in their homes, schools, camps, and playrooms, the public image and customer service considerations were often prioritized over physical comfort and affection for the children in my care, and litigation and suspicion loomed for anyone who was too intimate with the children for too long. Considering that my previous experiences trained me to be aware of my physical contact with children, I realized that I may have entered my placement with a skewed perception on what “care” means for young children. Although I have hugged children many times, I would: a) always ask before hugging, b) often not let the hug linger, and c) redirect to high-fives in the school setting. Observing these different practices caused me to reconsider my approaches. Through reflection and further observation, I realized the educators oscillated between various kinds of responsive interactions and I had not noticed the extensions of learning because it was done subtly and smoothly, while I was focussed on the affection. Further, my knowledge of child development informs me that young children learn through relationships, co-regulation, and their senses, and as such, physical contact, at times, is likely essential for young children learning to navigate the world and understand themselves. Thus, physical affection makes sense for young children, and my own practice likely needs to change. Additionally, spending time “collecting and connecting” with children, rather than constantly guiding behaviour, is an element of process quality that educators should strive for in their practice, as these educators do. Realizing this consideration resolved much of my discomfort.
Moreover, I realized I was initially surprised by these observations because I was expecting educators to take an idealized, hands-off approach to fostering independence and autonomy in a way that would children that would “wow” me. I was expecting the relationship-based approach to resemble shared experiences through discussions and play, not through affection and intimacy. What I saw reminded me of what I have witnessed in many other childcare settings. I felt I was seeing some raw emotions from the educators: from joy and passion to fear and exhaustion. Considering the educators’ well-being, I eventually realized I was impressed that the educators felt comfortable expressing themselves and to be authentic and caring in their interactions with the children. Perhaps I was even a bit jealous that the educators at the lab-school were able to be considered in high regards while still retaining the special and personal relationships with children that created the foundation for many of us to enter this field in the first place.
This reflective experience has softened my own approach, causing me to consider what it really means to grow with young children. I recently learned that sometimes educators are considered “extended family”, and intimacy makes more sense when considering the family context and educator-parent-child collaboration. I can now consider relationship dynamics to better inform the context of the affectionate moments I witnessed within relationships I am not yet a part of. I now expect to be able to tune-in to other interactions and recognize strategies I want to integrate into my own repertoire. I also now assume that the educator’s interact differently with different children, such as hugging and kissing those form families they are closest with and whom they have cared for longest.
I suspect my biggest challenge for the rest of the semester will be to let my guard down in order to participate in authentic and affectionate moments with children, without feeling like I’m crossing a boundary – and this will only be done through getting to know their families. I have struggled in my personal life to be honest in expressing my feelings, so I will have to find the right language and timing for respectful expression of my range of emotions, which I hope my lead teacher will help me with. That kind of balance is what I strive to achieve in my future career as an educator and researcher; however, that should I ever mentor students, I would want to have intentional conversations about some of these intimate interactions they may witness in order to clarify the expectation for students as new personnel and aspiring educators. I now have a renewed hope for myself, and respect for the educators, in providing comfort and warmth to young children.