Cultivate Self-Awareness to Guide Thought, Emotion, and Behavior

For me, cultivating self-awareness is like opening the windows and letting some fresh air in. It means allowing myself to be curious, rather than judgmental, about what I don’t yet know or understand about myself. And as Nichole Parks, LFC’s Associate Director of Programs, so wisely said: cultivating self-awareness is hard work. That’s why people shy away from it. We have to be brave, bold, and persistent. We have to keep talking about it and make lots of space to think about it with colleagues.

Darlene, Early Head Start Education Director.

This week at Leading for Children we are thinking about how Optimistic Leaders cultivate self-awareness and why it matters. We introduced an imaginary character, Darlene, in Monday’s webinar and many of the four hundred early learning educators who participated either identified with her or recognized her as someone they know. What makes her recognizable? She claims to know herself, is well-liked by her colleagues, and is always there for them as a listener and problem-solver, answering texts and emails at 11:00 pm. She’s also completely exhausted. Darlene comes to realize that perhaps being so helpful to others and taking on their worries as her own is burning her out. Maybe this isn’t just who she is and how it has to be. Maybe she has choices. Darlene realizes that cultivating self-awareness is not simply knowing who you are but, in the words of Serene Stevens, an LFC Optimistic Leadership Council Member: it’s also about noticing patterns in your behavior and giving yourself the grace to make choices and change.

Self-awareness is the most critical leadership skill and the strongest predictor of overall success (Nicol & Sparrow 2010).

The LFC Optimistic Leadership Council* is a group of early learning educators from across the country who have been thinking together about the Five Commitments of Optimistic Leadership. This week we took a deep dive into self-awareness.

I decided to use this week’s blog to summarize the conversation among the Council as an invitation to you to practice this commitment: be brave, bold and persistent so that we can model self-awareness for children. As we think about each of the Five Commitments of Optimistic Leadership, we explore them from three different perspectives: me and my identity, me with another and me in a group. What follows are our collective insights about the three perspectives of cultivating self-awareness.

Self-awareness: me and my identity. When we know ourselves and can make choices about how we want to show up, we can more effectively help children with this important aspect of social and emotional development.

  • Self-awareness means understanding and embracing my identity.

My identity is tied to my role as a professional as well as the other roles I have as partner, spouse, and child.

My identity is knowing and accepting all that contributes to my authentic self, including my race, gender, and experiences both as a child and as an adult.

  • Self-awareness means internal reflection from a place of curiosity.

When I give myself grace, I can admit that I’m wrong, resist being self-conscious, and allow myself space to make mistakes and learn.

When I allow myself to do internal reflection from a place of mental health, rather than with judgment and shame, I can grow and shift rather than feeling bad or just not talking or thinking about it.

I can choose my internal battles. I can ask myself: is this thing that’s bothering me real or is it simply the lens I’m looking through? What evidence do I have to confirm my fears or anxieties. I can choose whether to sink in and get stuck or allow it to move me forward.

Self-awareness: me with another. Relationships and interactions are critical for children’s growth and development. When we increase our understanding of how to show up in our relationships, we model it for children and we have a deeper understanding about how to teach these skills to children.

  • Self-awareness means recognizing that I have an impact on others.

I can be a model of self-awareness by pausing to take time to draw other adults out and let them have “aha” moments.

I can listen with intention to learn more about another person rather than jumping to a conclusion.

  • Self-awareness means choosing how I want to show up with others.

When I embrace my whole self, I may not like everything I see, but it gives me the power to make a choice about how I want to show up with others.

I have the power to choose how I want to adjust my style so that I can be more effective in my interactions with others.

Self-awareness: me in a group. Self-regulation is a critical skill for all children to develop. Learning how we can make choices about how to show up in a group empowers us with skills that we can teach children.

  • Self-awareness means recognizing how I show up influences what happens in a group.

I have to think about my face and body language. What is it saying to others?

What I might think lightens the mood with a joke, humor, or sarcasm may be interpreted as negative by others.

  • Self-awareness means questioning your assumptions about how you read a room.

My perceptions about the experience the group is having — dissonance, enthusiasm, conflict, or harmony are only my perceptions. I have to remain open rather than assuming, listen with curiosity, and ask questions.

I have to take a look inside and wonder how I feel about difficult conversations and whether I avoid them or can manage them.

I have to notice what bothers me and question what it is about “this” that really gets under my skin.

As the week comes to a close, we’re wondering how to support others in exploring self-awareness as an important pathway to becoming Optimistic Leaders. We’re learning that sharing stories — real and fictional (like Darlene’s) — can be a safe way in to brave, bold and courageous conversations. Conversations about self-awareness are too often left out of early learning professional development. It’s time for a change!

*Margo Dichtelmiller, Irene Garneau, Jill Gunderman, Dr. Robin Hancock, Elena Jaime, Tunga Otis, Maria Rosado, Silvia Salcido, Casey Sims, Tara Skiles, Serene Stevens, Larramie Sylvester, Sharmaine Thomas-Binns and Tia Walters.

© Leading for Children, 2020.

Leading for Children is a national nonprofit that empowers adults across the early childhood ecosystem to be leaders and learners.