Using reflective language to support child mental health and well-being

Cath Hunter is a therapeutic consultant, trainer, play therapist and author with over 30 years’ experience of working with schools, children and families. Here, she discusses reflective language and its impact on children with behavioural issues…

One of the challenges facing school staff can be dealing with children’s behaviour in a way that has a positive impact on them, supports their self-esteem, and enables them to make realistic changes. As children, especially young children may not have the language skills to express their thoughts and feelings; they often express this through their behaviour.

Our job is to try and understand what they are communicating so we can support them with their need and help them communicate more effectively. As children become able to articulate their feelings, they no longer need to do it through their behaviour. I have worked successfully in many schools introducing the concept of reflective language and encouraging staff to use this approach. This has resulted in children becoming more able to express their feelings, resulting in staff reporting a significant improvement in children’s behaviour, resilience and emotional well-being. Cath Hunter - expert in child mental health, talks about using reflective language


Reflective language is simple but effective

Reflective language is a behaviour management approach which explores the possible reasons behind the behaviour whilst providing positive messages to a child. It is a simple but highly effective tool providing many benefits that can be easily implemented.

Reflective language provides a commentary of a child’s behaviour and can tentatively suggest the feelings behind it, for example, when a child makes a mistake acknowledging: “It can feel frustrating when we get things wrong.” This is particularly helpful to a child who lacks resilience as it normalizes their feelings.

Consider saying to a child “I can see you are looking out of the window, would you like some help with that?” or “I can see that it’s really difficult for you to sit still and relax until you know what we are going to do,” rather than reprimanding them. This communicates: “You are worth thinking about and trying to understand, I am trying to help you to work out how you feel and support you with understanding and managing your feelings.”

I would encourage you to experiment with reflective language, if you want to learn more please see my reflective language video. Cath Hunter - expert in child mental health, talks about using reflective language

Also “Making a Difference – a practical guide for the emotionally focused school practitioner” provides a detailed introduction to reflective language along with many examples.