Using Reflective Language with Children

One of the biggest challenges facing primary school staff can be dealing with children’s behaviour in a way that has a positive impact on them, is not detrimental to their self esteem, and enables them to make realistic changes. The use of reflective language which considers and explores the possible reasons behind the behaviour is a useful tool for any member of school staff. There are many benefits to using reflective language and it can be used easily throughout the school day. It clearly communicates to a child ‘I see you, I hear you, I am trying to understand you’, and enables them to feel seen, heard, valued and understood. It validates and acknowledges the child’s experiences and feelings along with building confidence, self-esteem and self worth. It can also develop self-awareness, self-control and resilience, which are all essential ingredients for emotional wellbeing and engagement with learning.

The use of reflective language is a subtle way of providing positive messages to a child and an opportunity to tentatively explore what may be happening for them. For example acknowledging when things are happening by saying “It can feel frustrating when we get things wrong” to a child who has been struggling to do something or has made a mistake. This is particularly helpful to a child who lacks resilience as it normalizes their feelings. It enables school staff to build a connection and develop a relationship with a child and uses a way of communicating that provides a commentary of their behaviour, for example, “I can see you are trying to fit those pieces together” By using this with children, adults are providing a positive message to them, ‘You are worth thinking about and trying to understand, I am trying to help you to work out how you feel and support you with understanding and managing your feelings.’ It can be beneficial to use reflective language rather than always reprimanding children or telling them what to do, because it acknowledges and validates the child’s feelings and experiences. The use of reflective language conveys to the child that you are recognizing any feelings they may be experiencing. It enables adults to gently explore the child’s experience without making judgments or assumptions about it because it is a way of exploring and checking out rather than making statements.

When children have learnt self-sufficiency at a young age they may try to manage on their own as they have learned ‘it’s not ok to ask for help or if you do no one responds.” A reflection such as “You may need some help from an adult with this, and I can help you if you would like me to” provides the message that sometimes children need help from an adult and it is acceptable to ask for it. It enables the child to have the choice and decide whether they need help, rather than the adult controlling the situation and deciding for them. It can be useful to say ‘help from an adult’ as a generic term rather than ‘help from me’ as this reinforces that they can ask other people for help if they need it and gives the message that it’s acceptable to ask. This can help to reduce any feelings of anxiety and fear that the child may be having. It is also useful if children see school staff asking for help, as this can be very liberating, for example, “I’m going to ask Mr. Bell to help me with the display because everyone needs help from other people sometimes”

School staff can be positive role models for children when dealing with and articulating their own feelings during the school day as this provides children with concrete experiences of this. This is particularly important for children who may not have this demonstrated to them outside of school, for example, a child who sees their dad punch the wall when they are angry, rather than voicing it. School staff can use regular opportunities to admit and acknowledge their own mistakes, for example, “Even grown-ups get things wrong sometimes.” There are many opportunities during the school day where staff can acknowledge their own feelings where appropriate, for example, “I felt cross when the photocopier was broken.” Staff can also identify and acknowledge difficult times during the school day, such as, “It’s raining again and that can be frustrating when we were looking forward to doing PE outside.”

The use of reflective language has a positive impact on both children’s emotional well being and their behaviour. Some children may find it difficult to express their feelings and may have learnt that it is not safe to do so. Their anxieties may manifest in their behaviour, for example a child who is unable to sit still or is always fiddling with something. It can help if their feelings and behaviour can be identified and acknowledged in a gentle and supportive way, rather than reprimanding them for not being able to express or manage their feelings, for example, ‘I can see that it’s really difficult for you to sit still and relax until you know what we are going to do.’ This reflection may enable children to manage their anxieties more easily.

When a child feels an adult is trying to help and understand them, they may start to feel more positive about themselves, therefore enabling them to make changes to their behaviour. The use of reflective language within schools encourages a sense of safety and security rather than fear and anxiety. If a child is able to have their feelings accepted, acknowledged and validated without judgment or reprimand by an adult, they learn that all feelings are acceptable and this can impact on their behaviour in a positive way. When a child’s behaviour is explored in a gentle and reassuring way by using reflective language, it provides them with an opportunity to begin to acknowledge their own mistakes and gradually learn to start taking responsibility for their actions. These are small but essential steps towards learning about choices and consequences and ultimately making positive changes to their behaviour.

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