Originally posted January 20, 2013. Revised and updated November 5, 2018.

As directors, managers, supervisors and staff, we are passionate about doing our best for children and families. We’re eager to know what we can do to reach our program’s goals and outcomes. Luckily, one of the most powerful tools for reaching those goals is right at hand – it’s our relationships with each other and with those we serve. Relationships powerfully affect on other relationships. Leaders in relationship-based programs harness this power to attract and keep skilled staff members, recruit and retain program participants, promote program quality, and reach program outcomes (Parlakian, 2001).

Individual Reflective Practice

Reflective practice involves taking time regularly to think deeply about ourselves and our work, in order to learn and grow professionally. Specific practices individuals can use to promote reflection can include: mind-mapping, engaging in reflective dialogue; analyzing both successful and challenging workplace experiences in order to learn from them (reflecting on action); preparing for parent-child visit by identifying parent support and support and child development goals and, in partnership with the family, selecting discussion topics and activities that support those goals (reflection for action); mind-mapping; and drawing images or symbols to help explore difficult feelings emerging in the course of the work.

Reflective Supervision

Commitment to reflection, individually and within supervisory meetings, is a key part of the work in relationship-based organizations. Such organizations offer reflective supervision, a regular, reflective and collaborative relationship for learning and professional growth. Reflective supervisors create trusting relationships with their supervises within which it is possible to talk openly about the work and its impact. Successes are celebrated and support is provided for coping with challenges. Examples of strategies used by reflective supervisors include careful listening, remaining nonjudgemental; open-ended and clarifying questions, identifying key themes in the supervisory discussions and setting clear boundaries and expectations.

Relationship-Based Organizations

Relationship-based organizations create an environment in which staff members can raise questions, share expertise and learn from experience. They recognize that relationships powerfully impact other relationships, and use this understanding to intentionally strengthen trusting, effective workplace relationships. Such relationships positively influence the relationships built between staff and program participants, leading to strong program outcomes. They also contribute to effective relationships with external audiences including community leaders, potential collaborative partners, and with those in the funding community.

Relationship-based organizations use the seven core characteristics of relationship-based organizations to guide their work. These characteristics, first identified by Judith Bertacchi in 1996 are: mutual and shared goals, respect for individuals, sensitivity to context, open communication, commitment to learning and growth, commitment to reflection and high professional standards. These inter-related characteristics work together to build relationships that strengthen the trust, motivation and teamwork that decrease burnout and lead to strong outcomes for program participants.

Help for the Helper

Reflective supervision is a helping relationship for the helper, in which both the providers’ and the participants’ experiences are considered. The supports that are an inherent part of relationship-based practice, including reflective supervision, help prevent both burnout and vicarious trauma, conditions to which human service professionals are particularly vulnerable (Costa, 2004).

As one example of this, parent-child program supervisor Debbie Lancucki comments on the importance of reflective supervision for staff implementing the Keys to Interactive Parenting Scale (KIPS) in her home visiting program.

Lancuckie observed that

As a supervisor, I have discovered that reflective supervision with my staff following a KIPS [parenting assessment] benefits the employee’s insight on their work with a family as much as it benefits the parent’s future interactions with their child. The staff continue to look forward to completing a KIPS with a family, but the excitement of sharing that video with me is what I marvel at each and every time. Most workers call me immediately to share something and can’t wait until supervision to watch the video together. They are eager to discover insights to themselves as well as the parents!!

*parentheses added

Her staff members’ positive experience with the reflective supervision relationships becomes part of what they carry into their work with parents.Their positive relationship with their supervisor creates a safe environment for reflection and commitment to growth and learning. Through the parallel process in relationships, the positive supervisory relationship influences staff members’ ability to create trusting relationships with the parents and children they work with.

Relationship-based practice and reflective supervision support quality services by assuring staff members that they are never alone in the work. They do not have to become overwhelmed by the difficult emotions that can be stirred by their close, caring contact with young children and their families. When risk of burnout is reduced and staff well-being is supported, job performance, staff retention, and quality and outcomes of the work are strengthened (Buckingham & Coffman, 1999).



Buckingham, M. and Coffman, C. (1999). First break all the rules. Gallup Press.

Chu, M. (2014). Developing mentoring and coaching relationships in early care and education. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

CIPD, nd. Untitled paper on reflective practice.

Costa, G.(2004). The experience from within: helping the child protective services case worker. Best Practice/Next Practice, Winter 2004., p 4-7.

Heffron, M.C. & Murch, T. (2010). Reflective supervision and leadership. Washington, DC: ZERO TO THREE,

Parlakian, R. (2001). Look, listen and learn: Reflective supervision and relationship-based work. Washington, DC: ZERO TO THREE.

Parlakian, R. (2001). The power of questions: Building quality relationships with families. Washington, DC: ZERO TO THREE.



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