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The Power of Self-Reflection: Lessons from a 5-year-old

On a calm evening, as I lay next to my five-year-old, our usual bedtime ritual began. I asked him a question as familiar as tucking him in:

Me: "Did you have a good day?"

Even before he could utter a word, I already knew - "No, it was boring."

My five-year-old: "School is boring."

He has been repeating this refrain for over a year now. Recently, I heard one of his friends say the same thing:

Friend: "School is boring!"

Ouch! Is this the chorus we'll be hearing for the next 15 years?

I hope not...

The Reassuring Truth

They don't really find it boring, you see. (Phew)

They seem to have a blast. They're challenged at their level, eager for more, and play until they drop.

So, what's really going on?

The Art of Self-Reflection

The seemingly innocent question, "How was your day?" is quite challenging. Not just for children, by the way. How do you usually answer that question, assuming you genuinely want to answer it? It's tricky, isn't it?

Self-reflection is an important skill, especially if we want to help children and young people take more control of their own learning (and lives).

However, self-reflection is also quite a challenging skill. That doesn't mean children (even five-year-olds) can't do it. They certainly can.

It does mean we need to guide them a bit.

One way to do that is to adjust our questioning.

What if we make it more concrete?

Me: "Wow, another boring day, huh? You know, it's hard for me to believe that. What exactly did you do today? Which corners did you play in?"

My five-year-old: "Not with the football table. We weren't allowed. ... Oh, I got to play with the iPad, Mom! And I had the coolest game!"

Me: "Really? What else?"

My five-year-old: "I played with Arjan with the Lego. We had a cage and put in the most dangerous animal we had: a polar bear! They have a Lego set at school just like ours, Mom!"

His voice rose, his pace quickened. He began to laugh.

By bringing up more concrete examples, my little one could relive fragments of his day.

Me: "Hey, but... that sounds far from boring, doesn't it?"

My five-year-old: "Yes! (Giggles)"

Me: "You know, I think I asked you a too-difficult question. I also struggle to answer when you ask me how my day went. In the evenings, I'm tired, and I don't always remember exactly what I did. But if I take a moment to think about who I saw today and what I did, I remember better. Just like you. You found two things that were fun. Hey, wait a minute... what were they again?"

(My favorite part is how they genuinely buy into your faked ignorance, right?)

My five-year-old: "The iPad and the Lego, Mom!"

Me: "Oh, yes! Two things that you really enjoyed. So, not such a boring day after all!"

The Contradiction

What a sharp contrast to his earlier declaration that his day was boring. But actually, it's not that surprising.

Often, we expect children and young people to reflect "in general" about something. How did your exam go? What will you do better next time? How was your day? Mark a ☺ or a ☹ on your homework sheet.

Why do we ask children these questions?

  • As parents, we naturally want to know how our children are doing. So, we often ask the question more for ourselves.

  • In school, however, we really want to teach children to reflect on their own. We know it will help them adjust their learning when necessary. In that case, it's a good idea for teachers to know what they want to achieve with a particular question.

(Attempt at) Reflection in the Classroom: Reflection Sheets

A commonly used tool to teach students to reflect is reflection sheets or smiley systems.

Have you ever heard your students sigh over one of those sheets?

Admittedly, as teachers, we do tend to use them quite often, don't we?

From the sighs and the sweat and, most of all, the disappointing answers on those sheets, we quickly deduce that students either don't want to or can't reflect.

But what if...

  • ... their sighs are caused more by yet another reflection sheet than by the act of reflecting itself?

  • ... we expect students to reflect, but haven't really taught them how?

  • ... self-reflection is expected but doesn't really yield anything for them?

These are all interesting questions! Questions that we can also answer from the perspective of self-regulated learning.

Self-Reflection is a (Teachable) Skill

Yes, self-reflection is indeed a self-regulation skill.

Students need to evaluate themselves, find explanations for their performance, deal with the emotions it brings up, and use the insights from their self-reflection in a constructive way. Quite a lot, and also somewhat challenging.

In Conclusion

My five-year-old made me pause once again to reflect on how easily we, as adults, often expect very difficult things from children. But also... that once you realize that, all is not lost. A few takeaways regarding self-reflection in young children:

  • Details Matter: It's difficult for everyone to reflect on something in general terms. Encourage children (and yourself) to reflect on very concrete activities. Some children also find it difficult to remember concrete things in the evening. Ask about rituals in the classroom that children do daily: Did you tell/hear something in the morning circle? Or use photos from the class blog to start the conversation. Or check the weekly report that the teacher shares for a concrete starting point.

  • Preparation Matters: The better you know in advance what you'll be reflecting on later, the easier it will be. It allows students to think about the question during a task or day and perhaps even keep some reflections. Concrete materials help you remember. Portfolios can be used for this purpose, but also consider a kind of learning diary where you ask students to reflect on certain times (close to or after a learning task). Then let them use those reflections to reflect on larger tasks or projects.

  • Gratitude Matters: I don't really like the idea that my five-year-old already thinks school is boring. Especially when he doesn't really mean it. By thinking concretely about what was fun and being grateful for it, I secretly hope to make it a habit to seek that feeling. After all, gratitude is a very powerful emotion! 🙏



At At the Heart of Learning, we help teachers (and parents) discover these self-regulatory skills - like self-reflection - in everyday life and provide tools to teach these skills. Self-regulated learning skills are truly all around us, ready to be seen and utilized. That's how each learner will get the chance to master learning and become a self-regulated rock star. 🎸 And that, dear reader, is our mission at At the Heart of Learning.


Image created with the help of Bing AI Image Generator

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