Teaching Young Students How to Reflect on Their Learning
Early elementary students can identify and articulate their goals through structured reflection on what matters most to them.
Reflection helps us remember lessons learned and gives us a sense of accomplishment. When we consider our challenges and experiences deeply, we can identify gratifying experiences and things that we can aspire to do differently going forward.
When you help kids set manageable goals, they can take ownership of their learning and understand that they can accomplish hard things if they focus. As a foundation for lifelong learning, reflection builds confidence and fosters pride in new skills (including metacognition skills that help learners notice their own growth).
You can teach young children this skill anytime during the school year, weaving it into instruction in any number of simple ways. I like to build reflection into the beginning of the school year so students can set their own goals for the year ahead, and near the end of the school year.
I always have kids reflect on their hopes and dreams for the school year ahead to set them up for success. I guide them through the activity over the first couple of weeks of school, starting with discussions centered around questions like “Why do we come to school?” and “What would you like to accomplish here?”
I record my students’ answers on a single piece of chart paper and help them articulate the answers as manageable goals. (If any of their goals seem unrealistic, I help them form ones that are more manageable. If a child says, “I want to visit a zoo,” I may ask them if I can rephrase their goal by saying, “Sounds like you want to learn about animals this year. Can I write that down?”)
This activity continues over several days: The list grows as new goals emerge, classroom routines develop, and students learn what a school day is like. Students also discover that setting learning goals takes time and requires thoughtfulness to discover what matters most to them.
After a week, each child chooses one goal from our class list that is most important to them. They write it down on a piece of paper and illustrate it with markers and watercolor paints. Then each child shares their goal with the class, and we display them for everyone to see. The students learn that their goals are something they can work toward and be proud of, and that goals represent who they are, who they want to become, and what is important to them.
I also teach children about reflection in our daily morning meeting. Our class mascot is a stuffed turtle named Twiggles, who shows up every day at our morning meeting and asks the kids, “How are you feeling?” This SEL activity helps the kids learn how to identify and express their emotions. We name our feelings and describe what may be causing them; sharing them in a group builds their confidence. We also talk about expected and unexpected feelings (excitement to see a friend or sudden sadness while remembering a loved one who has passed away), as well as comfortable and uncomfortable feelings (happiness when you do something really well or nervousness when presenting your work to the class). Finally, we notice how feelings come and go and how sometimes people can have many emotions at once.
I like to list these feelings on an ABC chart (A: Agreeable, Anxious, Annoyed; B: Brave, Bored, Bashful; etc.) so that we can continue to reflect on and learn from the many feelings that infuse our days. Being able to notice, name, and reflect on their emotions gives children the emotional vocabulary they need to feel heard, valued, and accepted, which helps them in accomplishing their goals.
Another great way to reflect with young children is through their written work. Whether we are doing a science observation out in nature or discussing a strategy for solving a math equation, the kids keep a journal where they can reflect on what they learned. They answer these three prompts: I see _____, I think _____, I wonder _____.
That way, children learn how to pay close attention to what they see, draw conclusions from their observations, and think about what questions that doing so brings up for them. This simple journal activity, along with other question-generating strategies, such as the Question Formulation Technique, helps students reflect on their learning and take ownership of it.
As the children share their thoughts with classmates, they learn that there are many ways to solve problems, that their observations can help others learn, and that there is value in listening to others’ ideas. This practice of reflecting on their work with others helps build confidence in their knowledge, engages them in their assignments, and inspires curiosity.
This year I introduced a new reflection activity to my students: creating memory rocks. At the end of the year, we made a list of lessons learned from the long previous months, when things were constantly changing. I asked my students simple questions about what lessons or memories they wanted to hold on to as we got ready to say goodbye for the summer:
- What did we learn from this year?
- How are you feeling?
- What was the most important thing you want to remember?
They amazed me with their simple, powerful reflections: Don’t give up... Be kind... Try your best... Friendship counts... Be brave... Things can change... Be yourself... Help others... You can do it... Love.
Then we read If You Find a Rock, a story about all the mysterious natural places you can find different kinds of rocks, including those you hold on to that can represent certain memories. Then we went outside in the woods to look together for smooth rocks and brought a big pile back to our classroom.
Each child wrote the words they wanted to put on their memory rock to honor our year together. They drew on paper what they wanted their rock to look like, then painted it with vibrant colors and a white square in the middle for their words to go. When they were done, they brought their rocks to the front entrance of our school for all to see.