Behaviour management: Using reflective language

Written by: Cath Hunter | Published:
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Using reflective language to meet the emotional and behavioural needs of children can have a big impact on behaviour and learning. Cath Hunter advises

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.

For many staff working in primary schools today their desire to support and encourage learning is disrupted by children who do not conform to the expectations of engaged participation in daily school life.

We may know of children who have refused to follow instruction, appear to be deliberately disruptive and challenge staff. We may also know of children who are withdrawn, overly eager to please and unable to build and sustain relationships. In some schools there may only be a few children causing concern, in others there may be many.

Reflective language

Reflective language uses simple tentative statements that articulate what you observe, what may be going on for a child and how they may be feeling. For example, “I can see you looking out of the window, I wonder if you are not sure what to do next, perhaps it would help if I explained it again.”

Using reflective language which considers and explores the possible reasons behind the behaviour is a useful tool for any member of school staff. It focuses on increasing understanding of why a child may be doing something, rather than just looking at the behaviour the child is displaying.

Reflective language is a subtle way of providing positive messages to children. It conveys to the child that you are seeing them, trying to understand them and acknowledging any feelings they may be experiencing. It enables adults to tentatively explore the child’s experience without making judgements or assumptions about it.

Using reflective language clearly communicates to a child: “I see you, I hear you, I am trying to understand you,” and thus enables them to feel seen, heard, valued and understood. For some children this can be a relatively new experience and may result in increased self-worth and self-esteem.

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.

When to use it

The use of reflective language can be easily integrated into the school day. For example, if a child is struggling or finding a task difficult, it can help to reflect: “It can be difficult when we get things wrong” or “It can feel frustrating when we are trying to do something and we can’t work out how to do it.”

This enables the child to feel noticed and understood, along with helping them to identify how frustration feels. Over time this enables the child to link the feelings with the word and to make that connection themselves. This may result in them being able to use the word themselves when they next have that feeling. Children who are able to understand and express their feelings are able to achieve success at school and reach their potential more easily.

When a child is unable to put their feelings into words, they can be at a disadvantage in terms of fully accessing the curriculum and engaging in all aspects of school life.
Affirmative responses

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 judgement 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.

Enabling children to ask for help

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 okay 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. 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”.

Acknowledging your own feelings

School staff can be positive role models for children when dealing with and expressing 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 opportunities during the school day 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.”

Why is it important?

The use of reflective language has a positive impact on both children’s emotional wellbeing 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 kind of reflection may enable children to manage their anxieties more easily.

Using reflective language can be a powerful tool to change children’s behaviour and set them on the path to improved mental health and wellbeing. The use of reflective language enables school staff to become more aware of what, why and how children communicate through their behaviour along with increasing their awareness of how they respond to this.

This may result in improved staff confidence and self -esteem along with a better understanding of themselves which may then affect how they respond to children. When adults are open to making small changes in the way they view and respond to children’s behaviour, this can have a positive impact on children, enabling them to feel more accepted and understood. 

  • Cath Hunter is a play therapist, trainer, therapeutic consultant and author who has worked in schools since 2004. She is the author of Making a Difference: A practical guide for the emotionally focused school practitioner, which introduces reflective language and other strategies to respond to behaviour and meet emotional wellbeing needs. The early bird offer of £13 is available until June 30. For details, visit www.therapeuticfamilyinterventions.co.uk


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