What if every morning, you made room for a few minutes to think about what will bring you joy in the day ahead?
I do this first thing in the morning with my cup of coffee. In the quiet of my living room, I think about what I hope for in the day. Often, it’s the same thing I hoped for the day before: To have laughter, joy, dancing, and imagination filling my classroom, to be at my best and asking open-ended questions, and have the utmost patience when children become frustrated.
My little morning ritual is an example of Appreciative Inquiry, and it’s one of my favorite subjects to talk and write about in the Early Years. Appreciative Inquiry might sound a bit technical, but it’s not — it’s quite simple, and life-giving when applied well. Put simply, it’s a way of tweaking your default, everyday mindset, so that you pay more attention to the brightest moments.
Especially as we’re all struggling through this year, it’s a meaningful way to find some light each day.
In this article, we’ll take a look at ways that Appreciative Inquiry within child care can be utilized, and how you can apply these practices to your personal life.
Appreciative Inquiry 101
Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a way to notice, seek and create positive change in our lives. People and organizations use it in all sorts of technical ways, like for strategic planning, leadership development, self-development, and organization design — but you can also use it in your daily practice in child care and early education.
I became certified as an Appreciative Inquiry Practitioner through Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont a few years ago. While I was studying there, I met Jackie Kelms, a practitioner of AI and an early adopter of the practice in her personal life. She started helping me learn how to fold Appreciative Inquiry into my life and work in my child care program.
Rethinking your day with Appreciative Inquiry
I had a case of the Mondays starting every Friday and lasting all weekend, because Mondays were awful every week. It felt like the children would be overtired — like they had sugar hangovers. I thought they were showing up exhausted, and I was over it. But Jackie helped me reframe those thoughts in a different light.
It might sound overly simple, but I started by thinking of words like balance, calm, and joy — and visualized the day ahead in terms of how I could put those ideas into action. What calm would look like, and how would I interact with each child?
Monday showed that the day was fantastic, and I thought it might be a fluke. The next week, I went through the same process. The day went well again.
It was that moment it hit me: it wasn’t the kids, it was me!! I was showing up depleted with my glass empty. I had already emptied my tank before I arrived. I was most definitely working from a deficit-based attitude and now had a real example of what a strengths-based attitude can look like.
The five principles of Appreciative Inquiry
You can break down Appreciative Inquiry into five principles — you might think of them as five different ways to approach the idea. Those principles are:
Let’s get into them, one by one.
The Anticipatory Principle says when we anticipate good things will happen, we’re moved toward that future. Have you ever seen athletes who look focused and pacing right before a big competition?
They’re moving through what they want with visualization. You might not think it, but that core principle applies just the same to your child care setting.
When I know that I need to have a difficult conversation with staff or a family in my program, one of the ways that I can utilize this principle is by rehearsing how I want the conversation to go in my head. What do I want the outcome to be? What might they be feeling, when they come into the conversation? When I do this type of exercise, I’m able to take stress out of the task and focus on the relationship and the outcome I want.
The Simultaneity Principle suggests that inquiry and change happen simultaneously. The moment we ask a question, we begin to create change.
If a colleague were to ask you, “What brings you the most joy each day?”, your mindset automatically leans toward the positive things in your child care setting.
Imagine if you were able to ask families during parent/teacher conferences, “What has been a highlight in watching your child learn and grow this year?” or “What do you want more of for your child?” The key is questions that focus on growth, and finding positivity. You can reinvent anything from staff surveys, interviews and annual reviews with this method.
“Words create worlds.” That’s the essence of the Constructionist Principle.
One way I like to think about this principle is to think about the narrative we have in each day. If someone at your early education program is constantly complaining about the winter weather, it can wear people down. But you could reconstruct this narrative: “What are some activities you loved to do as a child in the snow? Or mud? Or when it was hot out?”
We can then follow questions up with more questions. “I wonder how we can emulate that here in our program.” This is a big part of shaping the opportunities you see in your current circumstances.
The Poetic Principle states that what we focus on grows. When we focus on something we are truly passionate about, like a project, advocacy for the early care and education field, or for a child that needs early intervention, we find joy and confidence in pursuing that goal.
In practice, it’s important to understand that the poetic principle can have different narratives. For example, two early childhood educators could be talking about a child who bites others. One may describe that child being aggressive or unkind, but the other may describe this behavior as developmentally appropriate, and that the child is learning to communicate.
It’s like two people reading the same poem — you can interpret behaviors and intentions in different ways.
The Positive Principle is probably the easiest to remember: If you feel good, you do good. There is a plethora of research about the impact of positivity on your neural pathways and overall health.
Juliette Tocino-Smith of University College of London articulates it in this way:
“The positive principle is about the emotional context in which the goal is framed. As such, encouragement, personal support and other forms of positive affect can have a pivotal effect on the way in which a person goes about enacting change. Even acknowledging and feeling grateful for the mere presence of others in one’s life can strengthen the extent to which a person feels empowered to embrace growth.”
We can take a closer look at how we interact with each other, and make intentional changes each and every day toward creating an appreciative classroom. It can be small — instead of a casual, “Hey” in the morning, try a cheery “Good Morning”. Think about what others are doing well, and tell them: “I really love the way you handled that tough transition with Nora, I can tell she really trusts you.”
Practicing Appreciative Inquiry at your child care setting
So how can you use all this at your own child care setting? Let’s take a look at some ways that you and your staff can find ways to weave Appreciative Inquiry into each day.
Create a vision board. This is about imagining what you want to see in the future at your setting, or with your children and families. What do you want more of? What brings you joy? What mantras are helpful for you to keep your goals in sight? Gather glue, sticks, scissors, magazines, photos, embellishments, and start getting crafty, by making a collage of the phrases or images you connect with these goals. Hang it in a place where you can look at it each day, read the mantras and begin manifesting the message.
Gratitude list. It’s not a journal! Many people get intimidated by the idea of a journal and having to write about each thing they are grateful for. Just start small: Make a list of three things, people, or anything you are thankful for. You can do it in your calendar, a datebook, a notebook — don’t overthink it. There’s a lot of research to show how gratitude is good for us — you can learn more right here.
Have paired conversations. Using staff meetings, interviews, meetings with families, and conversations with children to ask questions that help everyone explore Appreciative Inquiry. Here are a few examples:
What has been a high-point experience in your time working at this child care setting, when you felt the most alive, successful, and effective?
No need to be so humble — what do you value most about yourself, your work as a teacher, supervisor, or parent?
What are the core elements that make our child care setting work at its best, when it feels like a great place to be? How can we make room for more of that?
If you had three wishes for our child care setting, what would they be?
For children: What made you the happiest today? What was your favorite part of the weekend? What was the best thing you did this week?
There are many creative ways to have an appreciative lens when working with families and children in early care and education settings. The examples and principles I have shared are just the beginning.
Creating a philosophy that adopts trust, communication, honesty, positivity, and collaboration are steps toward creating an appreciative early childhood education program.