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Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

The Benefits of Reflection in School Discipline

When elementary students act out, one thing they need is time to reflect on the roots of their actions—and how they might respond differently next time.

September 20, 2021
Teacher sitting and talking to elementary student
Astrakan Images / Alamy Stock Photo

My first job as an educator was in-school suspension monitor. The majority of the students assigned in-school suspension were there because of their behavior, and on my first day, the vice principal explained that the best approach was to walk around the room, never smile, and not be cordial with students.

That mean, hard-nosed, punitive approach to school discipline is a practice from the past that really should be reevaluated. While I respect various approaches to student discipline, I found one particular approach back then that was effective—and it was not the vice principal’s. It was giving students a structured opportunity to reflect on their behavior.

During my year as suspension monitor, I had many opportunities to interact with students, and I made it my goal to discover the root cause of their behaviors. I found that just spending time with them, informally talking one-on-one about why they did the things they did that resulted in suspension, seemed to make a difference. Students who were frequent visitors to the suspension room became infrequent visitors. And I learned that outside of the suspension room, they were improving in their academic and social performance.

The Importance of Reflection in Changing Students’ Behavior

Perhaps connecting with students and talking with them about their actions was helping them change course in a way that coming down on them had not. And this made sense to me, because in my own years as a student, I seemed to be on a downward trajectory, and two middle school teachers changed my path by taking the time to talk with me. My science teacher appealed to the social and emotional aspect while my language arts teacher spoke directly to my intellectual aspirations and desire to be a better person. Neither approach was wrong; both were what I needed as a young teen looking for meaning and purpose in life.

Students need time and help to think about their actions, and sitting in isolation during detention or suspension is ineffective and counterproductive—it sends the message that no one has time to deal with behavior that does not comply with school rules.

Now a director, I apply what I learned back then to how I approach disciplining students. As adults, we often forget that children make mistakes, and that mistakes are an integral part of learning in behavior as much as in academics. In addition, we can at times neglect the power of care and attention in helping children consider their actions and make better choices going forward.

In the place of such care, we work with a one-sided ideal of how we should address their behavior—leaning at times toward harshness, separation, and correction—to redirect them from their wayward ways. But what if we offered opportunities for students to think about what led up to them making poor choices, and how they should address their own behavior?

Teaching Students How to Reflect on Their Actions

Students need support in complying with rules and opportunities to reflect on their actions when they break rules. Reflection is a skill best supported not by telling students to do it but by showing them how to do it. Unlike administering punishment when a child does something wrong, helping students critically reflect on past mistakes enables them to be proactive in changing how they act in the future. Teaching students to reflect is an intentional process that incorporates love, care, and attention.

I discovered this truth as office referrals were increasing in my school. Detention was ineffective, and students became callous to disciplinary practices, including suspension. As a school, we resolved to teach students to become reflective thinkers. We created a “reflection room” for students who displayed a continued pattern of behavior infractions.

The reflection room is not like in-school suspension—it’s an intentional process to engage the student in thinking about specific incidents that continue a pattern of undesirable behaviors that lead to the administration deciding to intervene.

Traditionally, detention and in-school suspension allow students to sit and become more upset. The reflection room, though, asks provoking questions to help the student—and teachers—understand the root cause and expected outcome of the student’s actions, which they need to know in order to identify better options.

At the conclusion of the student’s time in the reflection room, the student and their parents or caregivers meet with teachers and administrators to discuss the root cause of the child’s actions, alternative options for the child’s behavior in similar circumstances, and next steps in the case of continued behavioral patterns.

Staff were trained to teach students who were given referrals how to reflect on their actions and become strategic thinkers. The process begins with teaching students to understand and not run from their feelings and emotions—their feelings and emotions are not bad, but how they are displayed can be problematic. Undesirable behaviors typically come at a cost, and students can reflect on a cost analysis of their actions and missed opportunities, both academic and social. Teachers are thought provokers who challenge students to think about their actions in totality, not as isolated incidents.

On day one, staff sit with the students to explain the process. Students complete a reflection sheet with a series of 20 questions to answer either verbally or in writing about the incident(s), their feelings about the incident, their intentions and the results they sought, the cost of their actions, their thoughts about the feelings of those affected by their actions, public perceptions of their actions, and how they would approach similar incidents in the future.

The reflection sheet is saved in the student’s file for a few purposes—as a reminder to the student and parents of the agreed-upon steps the student indicated they would take if a similar situation arises, and to determine the number of students who have repeated the reflection process, which also helps to determine the reflection room’s effectiveness. The data is disaggregated so we can analyze it by gender, grade level, and ethnicity to ensure that school practices are equitable.

The reflection room is effective and produces results not because it’s magical but because it addresses the root cause of student behavior.

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Filed Under

  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Classroom Management
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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