At the dinner table each night I ask my children questions about their day to reflect on their successes and their failures. I’m not the only one. In 2016 Meg Conley wrote an article for Huffington Post’s ‘The Blog’ entitled We Ask Our Children the Same 3 Questions Every Night. Conley asks her children three specific quesitons: How were you kind today? How were you brave today? and, How did you fail today? This line of questioning asks young people and their parents to reflect on what worked, what didn’t, and how to approach the next day from a different perspective in order to be more successful. As a STEM educator and a Gifted and Talented Interventionist, these self-relections are great examples of growth mindset: the belief a person can learn more or become smarter by working hard and persevering. Self-reflection promotes brain growth, here’s how!
A Brief History of Self-Reflection
Self-reflection is part of human culture for millenia, from ancient oral histories to the traditions of religions, ethnic groups, and even nationalities. It is embedded in tradition, because our ancestors knew looking back in time was essential to moving forward in time. The very idea of “learning from our mistakes” is based in the value of sel-reflection. Now our ancestors, grandparents, and parents have science to support their proverbs and moral tales.
Self-Reflection and Brain Development
Reflecting on our day, our week, or our year has a positive impact on brain development. It is essential to ask our brains to remember, to recall details about events, facts, and emotions. When we recall information we also automatically recall emotions associated with the event: was the situation good, fun, painful, frustrating, etc.? Going back and analyzing a memory takes time and effort; the process can be emotionally stimulating or taxing. The energy and effort put into analysis enhances brain development through neuroplasticity.
Recalling and analyzing information is important, but so is change. When we challenge our brains to recall and rethink events, facts, and emotions, we create new neural pathways and take advantage of the brain’s capacity to make new connections. This incredible process works for adults as well as children. The brain uses dendrites to send information down familiar pathways, and creates new pathways to accommodate new information: all because we challenged the brain to look back and reflect.
Self-reflection is a habit, or practice, parents can help children develop at a young age. When self-reflection is used as a tool to work out the kinks in what went wrong, to determine what can be done differently next time, or how to build upon what worked and make it even better next time, you are promoting incredible brain training skills and healthy brain development for your young person.
How to Lead a Year’s End Reflection
An end of the year reflection requires more than a quick conversation in the car on the way to soccer. When you ask a young person to reflect over 12 months, you may need to help them along a bit. As a young brain’s frontal lobe develops throughout childhood and adolescence, a young person will remember more and in greater detail. Kindergartners through 3rd graders need some help remembering some of the bigger events (success, failures, travel, camps, holidays, etc.) during their year in review. Even 4th-6th graders may need some assistance. Middle school, junior high, and high school students have greater capacity to store some of those smaller, more detailed events; most will be able to reflect more deeply on their year in review.
This exercise does not need to be formal or prescribed like a homework assignment. You can put written reflections into a jar and take turns reading them. Your family can discuss their collected reflections around the campfire with hot cocoa. Some kids might even love creating selfie video reflections! As a parent, try to encourage your kids to dig a bit deeper than superficial memories; all their experiences matter (even the tough ones) and can be used to grow their brains and help them experience situations in the future with a positive mindset, a better attitude, and a healthy perspective. Don’t forget to share your reflections with your children, as well. Modeling healthy behavior is always the best teacher.