Reflection Language and the Development of the Self

Scott Tyink

by Scott Tyink

For Middle Level

Early in my teacher practice, I, like many teachers in my school, posted a document called “100 Ways to Praise a Child” by my desk, lest I run out of ways to say the same old thing.




This is the sort of praise my parents, teachers, friends, and coworkers had always offered me when they wanted to acknowledge something they liked or I did correctly.

One day, my son practiced his violin, as usual. Instead of paying attention to his playing, I was distracted by a phone call. He was used to my exclaiming at the end of his practice sessions that his practice was fantastic, awesome, or something else from that list of 100.

But this day he looked at me and said, “Dad, did I play well?”

Because I was distracted for much of the practice, I did not know how he had played. I said, “I don’t know. Did you play well?”

He hesitated, then, with a puzzled and disappointed look said, “I guess.”

He may have assumed that because I did not praise him, he did not do well. I realized at that moment that he would never be independent of me if he needed me to tell him if he was good enough—if he practiced well enough, was smart enough, was funny enough, was handsome enough, and on and on. If I was his source of knowing whether he was “enough,” what would his source be when I wasn’t there? How could he develop his own judgment and control if I kept telling him whether he had done well?

I decided I would turn it around and let him do the thinking.

When he asked me if he played well, I would ask him what he thought about it. When I first tried this, he shrugged his shoulders and left the room.

He didn’t know what to say.

I realized he did not have the language to talk about his playing because I had never asked him what he thought. So we started with a few stems like,
“My note reading was . . . because . . .”
“The part I played best was . . . because . . .”
The most difficult part for him was finding the words for “because . . .”

Soon enough, he stopped expecting me to tell him how he had done and began to judge for himself with my prompting.

This caused me to realize that his Pathway to Self-control, as it is termed in the Developmental Designs approach, does not come from me, but from his reflection and self-assessment. No matter how many times I tell him he has done well, he will not really know it until he decides it for himself; it is so when he believes it is so.

This wisdom applies to every student in our classrooms. All of them are wondering if they are good enough, and they may be expecting you to tell them.

Help students learn to assess themselves with these reflection stems

See Ways to Reflect for more ideas.

Related Topics: 
Teacher Language, Teaching Mindsets