6.2 Supervisor Strategies

What Is It?

The work of Reflective Supervision occurs within the relationship between the supervisor and the home visitor. It requires enough time and positive experiences for trust to develop. It requires a willingness to both think and feel deeply about the home visitor’s and the child’s and family’s experiences, as well as your experiences with the home visitor.

It can take years to learn to provide RS. Many people believe the best first step is to participate in RS yourself, with an experienced provider. Whether you can take that route or not, self- reflection, collaboration, and active learning are a few key strategies that will help you begin.

Reflection helps home visitors think about the experience of the child and family—and it helps you to understand the experience of each home visitor, child, and family. This understanding can lead to strategies that deepen and strengthen the relationships of everyone involved. The process is one of wondering together about what history, feelings, and expectations each person might bring to the event. New understandings or strategies can emerge from mutual exploration. But it is not your job to provide solutions to problems! The shared respect between you and the home visitors creates a space where, together, you may find alternative possibilities for resolving challenges.

The ability to self-reflect is an important part of being able to reflect with home visitors. Self- reflection goes hand in hand with self-awareness. Self-awareness comes from understanding that your own past experiences (personal and professional), culture, values, and expectations can affect and influence how you listen to and interact with home visitors as you share their experiences and ask questions. You may also find that you have difficult feelings or strong reactions to what home visitors tell you.

When you share insights about your own thoughts and feelings and ask open-ended questions, you demonstrate your willingness to “struggle” together with the home visitor to understand what a situation or event means to the people involved. In RS, no one comes into the session with solutions to a problem. The process is one of respectfully and mutually exploring an event. Your emotional responses and reflections, as well as the home visitor’s, are information about the event—and each event offers opportunities for learning about the home visitor’s, family’s, or child’s experience.

Collaboration distinguishes RS from supervision that focuses only on accountability. Collaboration involves mutuality, respect, and open communication between you and each home visitor. It is a partnership in which you and the home visitor bring your best, collective thinking to identify strengths or address concerns around the families and children being served.

Active Listening
Active listening means putting all distractions aside to be fully present and tuned in to what the home visitor is saying. It involves creating a distraction-free external environment and putting aside internal distractions to focus attention on the home visitor. An active listener seeks to fully understand the home visitor’s experiences, questions, and concerns.

How To

Here are some suggested strategies to use in self-reflection, collaboration, and active listening.


Look within to notice what is going on. Try to identify

  • strong feelings, such as anger, frustration, irritation, impatience, and helplessness;
  • desires to fix problems or to rescue the home visitor from his/her situation with a parent/family;
  • physical responses, such as rapid breathing, fast heartbeat, muscle tightness, and discomfort/pain; difficulty focusing on what the home visitor is saying or doing; and
  • difficulty thinking clearly.

Then try to listen to what the feeling is telling you. For example, is it telling you

  • something about yourself? The home visitor? The family?
  • something about your relationship with the home visitor?
  • about how it feels to be in the home visitor’s situation?

Acknowledging these feelings and insights does not mean you must disclose them to the home visitor. Sometimes just the act of identifying and acknowledging can help you move past uncomfortable feelings and respond to the home visitor instead of your own emotions. However, sometimes self-disclosure can help you deepen your relationship with the home visitor. You might say:

  • “I have a lot of tasks on my plate right now and I’m feeling _. I want you to know that if I seem abrupt, that’s why.”
  • “As you were describing the parent’s actions, I found myself feeling judgmental toward the parent. I need to put that aside so I can better understand her perspective and the situation you’re describing to me.”
  • “I’m noticing that I’m feeling tense as you describe ___.

You might also use your insights to respond in an empathetic way. You might say:

  • “As I listen to you, I can imagine that you might feel overwhelmed. This is a lot to handle!”
  • “It’s frustrating when you try your best and things don’t seem to go as planned.”
  • “I know how much you want things to work out well for this family.”

You might follow up self-disclosures and empathetic statements with open-ended questions to help the home visitor think about his/her approaches and next steps. You might ask:

  • “What are your thoughts about your role and/or responsibilities in this situation?”
  • “What do you think the parent’s (or child’s) behavior is telling us?”
  • “If this approach isn’t working as you had hoped, what can you learn from that? Is there another approach you can try?”
  • “What would you find most helpful right now?”

RS is a developmental process in which the balance of power shifts over time as the home visitor becomes more confident and experienced. The following strategies support the creation of a collaborative relationship:

  • Identify your responsibilities as well as the home visitor’s. You might do this through a supervisory contract (verbal or written). Power is shared in this process; it is mutual, although not necessarily equal.
  • Use joint decision making about the home visitor’s work and mutual performance assessments.
  • Use silence and waiting to demonstrate your respect for the home visitor’s thought process.
  • Ask clarifying questions, such as, “And then what happened?” or “What did you think Robin wanted to do with the doll?”
  • Ask reflective questions such as, “You’ve never described Monica being so delighted with Oscar. Do you think there is something different about the crawling for her than all the other things Oscar has learned?”
  • Acknowledge and respect the home visitor’s observations and reflections: “That’s really insightful. It seems like you picked up a lot on nonverbal communication that was really telling you a whole story.”
  • Offer your own insights: “I’m getting a clear picture from what you’re telling me. Listening to you, another thought occurred to me. Tell me what you think about this.”
  • Plan your sessions together.
  • Plan the home visitor’s next steps together.
  • Follow through on any commitments you make to find resources, contact others, or check in after a particular home visit.

Active Listening
Here are strategies for engaging in active listening:

Stop. Home-based supervisors often multi-task. Stopping in a reflective supervision session means just that: Stop other work, turn your cellphone off or put it on vibrate, and turn the computer screen away so that you can pay full attention to the home visitor. Close the door of the space where reflective supervision is happening. Create a “Do not disturb” sign and hang it on the door. This tells the home visitor that you are focused on her and communicates that you feel that she and the time you spend together are important.

Look. In active listening, looking involves not only eyes, but face and body, too. Be aware of your own nonverbal cues as a listener as well as a speaker!

  • Face the home visitor directly.
  • Make eye contact (if this is culturally appropriate).
  • Observe the home visitor’s nonverbal cues. For example, is she looking at you when she talks or when you talk? Is she using closed-body language such as crossing arms or sitting hunched over? What unspoken messages might she be sending with her body,gestures, and facial expressions? Keep in mind that home visitors’ temperaments, cultures, and experience with reflective supervision may influence their nonverbal behaviors.

Listen. Listening is more than just hearing the words. It also involves listening to how the words are said.

  • How does the home visitor sound? Is she excited? Frustrated? Angry? Depressed?
  • What is the home visitor’s tone of voice? Is it softer or louder than usual? Is her voice trembling? Monotone?
  • Watch the home visitor’s body language. Does it match what the home visitor says?

If you think there are conflicting messages between what a home visitor says and how she says it, seek clarification: “You’re telling me that you’re not angry that the parent wasn’t home when you came for the scheduled home visit. But, I’m hearing and seeing something different. You’re speaking loudly and quickly, and there is a frown on your face. Please share more so I can understand what you are really feeling.”

Respond. Let the home visitor know you are listening and you understand. You can demonstrate this through nonverbal means such as nodding your head, leaning forward (toward the home visitor), touching the home visitor’s hand or arm (if personally and culturally appropriate), smiling, and saying, “Mm-hmm.”

You can also respond verbally by reflecting back what the home visitor shares, asking open- ended questions, hypothesizing, reframing and restating, and scaffolding.

  • Reflect back. Repeat or paraphrase (restate or reword) what you heard: “Okay, let me see if I understand what you just said…” “I hear what you are saying. It can be emotionally draining to hear parents’ worries about violence in the community and how it is affecting their children.”
  • Use open-ended questions that enable the home visitor to think out loud, wonder, take a different perspective, and problem solve. Open-ended questions typically do not have one right answer.
    • Ask about events: “And then what happened?” “What did the parent do next?”
    • Ask about the home visitor’s internal responses: “How did you feel?” “How do you think the parent felt?”
    • Ask about the parents’ perspective: “Hmm. That doesn’t sound like Carl. I wonder why he said that?” or “Why to do you think he was upset?”
    • Guide home visitors to think differently or focus on possible solutions: “Wow, I can see how that makes your job difficult. What do you think can be done to help you manage your feelings so you can best support the families you work with?”
  • Use hypothesizing when you have an answer or solution but want to present it in an open- ended format as “wondering aloud”: “I wonder what would happen if…”; “Have you thought of …?”; “How do you think the parent would react if you…?”; “Hmmm, I remember reading…Do you think that is worth trying?” Hypothesizing is useful when home visitors feel stuck in their thinking or are new to the work and have limited strategies in their “tool box.”
  • Restating and reframing are like paraphrasing. They allow for clarification to make sure that you and the home visitor are “on the same page.” They also provide space to slow down, rethink, process what has been discussed, and to wonder together.

    • Repeat what you heard: “Okay, let me see if I have this right...”
    • If the home visitor is having difficulty seeing another’s perspective, present it as a possibility: “Do you think the parent was upset about her father —isn’t he ill? Perhaps that’s why she…?”; “Do you think management did______ because they…?”
  • Scaffolding is a term from developmental literature that describes how an adult can support a child who is on the edge of learning a new skill. Scaffolding can also be applied to RS. You can support home visitors in acquiring new knowledge and analyzing their own performance: “Do you remember when we had that workshop on …? The presenter talked about…Do you think that might help here? How?”

  1. ZERO TO THREE, “Self Reflection,” in Helping Staff Look, Listen, and Learn: A Tool to Guide Reflective Practice (Washington, DC: Author, 2012). 

Experience It

The Supervisor's Strategies

Rebecca Shahmoon-Shanok, LCSW, PhD, a leading early childhood expert, talks about strategies for conducting reflective supervision from the perspective of both the supervisor and the supervisee.

Reflection Questions:

  1. What reflective supervision strategy would you like to enhance in your practice?
  2. Determine a strategy that you would like a supervisee to work on with you in supervision.
  3. What steps will you take to achieve the strategies in Questions 1 and 2?

Learn More

Reflective supervision is a process through which supervisors and direct service staff work together to understand the children and families that they serve, as well as their own feelings about this often emotionally difficult work. This paper is designed to provide directors, administrators, and staff with a tool for relationship-based Early Head Start services and describes how some programs have implemented reflective supervision.

In EHS programs, reflective supervision and reflective parenting practice can also be thought of as the circle of support or the continuous relationships that allow caring for and supporting infants and toddlers to be the main focus. Readers will learn strategies for sustaining relationships built through the circle of support, strategies and issues to consider to overcoming a break down in reflective practice, and suggestions for encouraging parents to reflect and build on parenting practices.

This audio conference features Sherry Heller, co-editor of A Practical Guide to Reflective Supervision, federal staff, and program managers who use reflective supervision in their Early Head Start programs. Panelists will discuss the challenges of introducing and implementing the practice and share their keys to success.

The skills of self-reflection and shared reflection are important for building your reflective practice. This article explains what self-and shared reflection are and includes strategies for improving practice.