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Little Kids, Big Questions
is a series of 12 podcasts that translates the research of early childhood development into parenting practices that mothers, fathers and other caregivers can tailor to the needs of their own child and family. Click here to listen to or download the podcasts. This podcast series is generously funded by MetLife Foundation.


Southern Oregon Early Head Start Program
Where: Central Point, Oregon
Mission:  To provide opportunities for children and parents to achieve success with dignity. 
Target population:  Children aged 0-5 who are low-income or have a disability, and their families
Program Model:  National child development program with center- and home-based components
Introduced Reflective Supervision:  1995
Catalyst for Change:  Start-up program seeking to implement best


Southern Oregon
Early Head Start

 In 1994, the federal Early Head Start program was created by the U.S. Congress as part of the reauthorization of the Head Start Act. Oregon’s two Early Head Start sites were among the first programs established. Early Head Start is a comprehensive child development program with both center-based and home-based components. Its primary objectives are the promotion of healthy parent-child relationships, and the provision of other individualized services including education and early childhood development and medical, dental, mental health, and nutrition services.

Oregon Early Head Start’s philosophy is that healthy development is best promoted within the context of nurturing relationships with a primary caregiver who is responsive to the child’s needs. Parents, as the primary educators of their children, are included as full partners in all OEHS service areas.

Talley Dunn, program coordinator, notes, “Being [in the first wave of Early Head Start programs], we were really seeking the best possible things to do in setting up our program.  I started to get a sense that strong parent-child relationships and sincere relationships between supervisors and staff, and staff and families formed a continuous circle.  EHS put a name to it:  reflective supervision.” 


Dunn sought more information about reflective supervision and ultimately decided to integrate elements of reflection and relationship-based work into the Oregon Early Head Start (OEHS) culture. She remembers:  “As a manager setting up two centers, the reason we decided to use reflective supervision was to provide high quality services to infants, toddlers and their parents.  Over time, we’ve been able to see a parallel—that reflective supervision supports staff, staff support parents, and that parents support their children.  It might sound idealistic, but that’s what we’re hoping for, and that’s what we’re seeing in our program.”

Dunn’s mentor, Mary Foltz, an infant/toddler specialist at Portland State University, assisted her with the introduction of reflective
supervision.  In the planning phases, this mentorship included twice-monthly conference calls to discuss key articles and questions related to reflective supervisory practices.  Foltz was then available later in the process to debrief with Dunn after she began providing her staff with supervision.

Recruitment, Selection, and Staff Orientation
Having established the program from the ground-up, Dunn sought to hire staff members who were open to the reflective culture she was working to establish at OEHS.  As most job candidates then and now are not familiar with the concept of reflective supervision, Dunn and her team use specific interview questions to assess job candidates’ ability to be reflective about themselves and the work.  Examples include:

  • Do you work best independently or in teams?
  • If you had a conflict with your supervisor, what would you do?
  • How do you like your supervisor to approach you?

Once on site, new employees meet with their supervisors to learn more about the twice-monthly supervisory meetings for direct service staff, as well as to answer any specific questions they may have about the process of reflective supervision.  Supervisory relationships develop at the staff member’s pace and comfort level.  “There’s no rushing this process,” says site supervisor Lauren Bell, who reports to Dunn.

New staff members typically become involved in a supervisory relationship easily because “they see that there’s not one way of communicating inside my office and another way outside,” says Bell.  Through open, supportive interactions with both peers and supervisors, new employees soon realize that reflective supervision is not a specific event, but a way of being and communicating throughout the organization. The goal for supervisors is to establish a collaborative relationship with each staff member in which reflective supervision “is as an ongoing dialogue from the day they start until the day they leave,” says Bell.

In the early years of the program, Dunn supplemented her targeted recruitment efforts with on-the-job training provided by Victor Bernstein, Ph.D. from the Chicago, Illinois-based Ounce of Prevention Fund.  Its purpose was to promote better understanding of reflective approaches among the new staff at Oregon Early Head Start.  Bernstein conducted two full-day training sessions on strengthening the family through strengthening the parent-child relationship.   This training, which took place in 1996 and 1997, also addressed observation techniques and the use of videotape to observe family interactions. 

Meetings Contribute to the Creation of a Reflective Culture
Weekly staff meetings, a group venue to encourage information-sharing and collegial support, have become integral to the OEHS program.  The value of these regular meetings is two-fold: They encourage collaboration, and they build a sense of commitment to one another and to the work.  Each person realizes that, while the work is challenging, they are not in it alone. 

Bell remembers that her expectations about staff meetings, initially focused on administrative tasks and program-centered issues, changed over time:  “[I began to] recognize that the need is for us to connect as people, not only as workers.”  Each meeting now includes a discussion of emerging work-related issues as well as “check-ins” in which each staff members updates the others on the previous week.  Topics raised may be either professional or personal. 

Oregon Early Head Start also uses the following meetings as a way to maximize opportunities for staff collaboration, support, and supervision.

  • Debriefs—Staff meet following parent/child interaction groups and discuss their immediate observations of interactions, children’s growth and development, and the effectiveness of the curriculum plans.  Peers listen, support, and encourage one another.  Adaptation and revision of curriculum plans takes place at this time.
  • Specialist Support Groups—Staff working with children and families discuss overall job-related issues and their feelings about the work at these bimonthly meetings.  The specialists, all managing similar caseloads and responsibilities, provide empathy, support, and encouragement to one another.

Challenges to Implementing Reflective Supervision

Finding the Time
Dunn notes that, hands down, the toughest part of using reflective supervision is “always having to make it a priority, [realizing it’s slipping and] then bringing it back to the fore.”  Says Dunn: 

“There are always planning sessions, staff hirings, etc., that supervisory
schedules have to accommodate.  To [find a balance], supervisors must be
convinced of the value of the reflective, collaborative approach, not only
for staff but for the well-being of families as well.  We need to make it a
supervisory priority, creating the time and space for this effort.”

Bell agrees, “Reflective supervision is a unique opportunity in the human services field, where outcomes are not always in direct relationship to staff’s contribution.  [Sometimes it can be hard for staff to tell] if they’re doing their job well or effectively.  The family situation is often an unstable measure.  By giving staff an opportunity to discuss their work, they can begin to understand their impact.”

Responding to Turnover
Turnover, though low at OEHS, is a tremendous challenge for this relationship-based model of supervision.  When staff members leave, “you start the relationship anew.  You can’t rush it.  You just need to wait patiently until trust is established,” says Dunn.

Learning and Applying the Concepts
While Bell agrees that finding the time for reflective supervision is difficult, she does wonder:

“Whether time was ever really the issue for me since I’m as
busy now as I was during start-up.  In the beginning, I thought,
‘There’s no way I can do that.’  During Year 1, there was little
time and I was very uncomfortable with [reflective supervision]… 
I thought I should be all-knowing, like my staff were supposed
to come in and for one hour would tell me all their problems
and I would give them all the answers.  Not surprisingly, I felt
some anxiety about ‘what if I don’t have all the answers?’  [But] I
had misunderstood what reflective supervision was supposed to be.” 

By meeting regularly with Dunn (her supervisor), Bell grew more comfortable with the concepts of reflective supervision as time went on.  “I was looking for a technique, but really reflective supervision was about the relationship between Talley and me.  It was Year 3 before I looked forward to supervising staff because I let go of having all the answers.  Talley let me experience this in supervision.  She would say, ‘Tell me about what’s happening,’ not ‘What are all your problems?’ I understood how reflective supervision impacted others’ work by understanding how it affected me.” 

In addition, Bell began to realize that all her daily interactions with staff were an opportunity to encourage reflective practice.  She observes, “[Realizing that] takes the pressure off of something big happening in the one-on-one meetings.”  Now, supervisors use groups, lunches, and casual discussions to learn from, share with, and support supervisees.  Reflective supervision, says Bell, “is the way in which we have relationships with staff, talk to staff, listen to staff.”

Outcomes of Reflective Supervision
One powerful outcome measure tracked by OEHS is its very low turnover—the highest level since 1994 has been only about 12 percent.  This compares to an average rate of 30 percent for the field (Whitebook & Bellm, 5).  In addition, the program has achieved a number of important staff development outcomes (listed below). 

  • Staff display increased effectiveness in working with families—e.g., watching for subtleties, wondering what families might (or might not) do, finding deeper meaning in their work. Bell notes that, as staff members begin to internalize the concepts of reflection and inquiry, their interactions with families change:  “New home visitors are focused on doing, doing, doing.  Experienced home visitors, on the other hand, are listening, listening, listening.”
  • Staff better understand how to integrate techniques used in training in their work—e.g., using inquiry and critical thinking skills on the job.  By using these techniques to solicit more information about the parents and children with whom they work, staff can better individualize their responses and interventions to reflect families’ needs.
  • Staff better understand boundary issues—e.g., are more open and cognizant of how they are affected by families, and vice versa. 

Oregon Head Start has also observed positive outcomes for families as a result of using reflective supervision.  Dunn states that parents’ problem-solving skills have increased across time, as supportive relationships with staff help them to experiment with new parenting techniques and approaches.

Lastly, Dunn observes that staff themselves no longer feel alone in difficult situations.  “They know that their supervisors will go with them to a home visit or court proceedings.  It’s letting them know they have a supervisor and colleagues who support them.”  This level of collaboration ensures that the most difficult questions receive the most comprehensive answers; the most emotionally intense interactions receive the greatest support.

Oregon Early Head Start has found that the greatest benefit of reflective supervision lies in the fact that, says Dunn, it “gives everyone an opportunity to step back, observe, and learn from relationships:  with supervisors, staff, parents and children.”

Oregon Early Head Start Staff:
Talley Dunn, Program Coordinator
Lauren Bell, Site Supervisor
Laura Bellah, Family Specialist

Excerpted from Parlakian, R. (Ed.). (2002).  Reflective supervision in practice:  Stories from the field.  Washington, DC:  ZERO TO THREE



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