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Giving Students “Reflection Cards”


I’ve never been that comfortable with the idea of — after a student has been disruptive or “blew it” in some way — giving them a sheet to write about what happened, why, and what they could do differently (though I did try it). They’re not going to be thinking clearly at that moment, and much of the time they don’t have a clue about why they did it, anyway.

I have been trying, though, having students do some different types of reflective activities, and have written about them at Another Way For Students To Strengthen Self-Control? and One Way To Help Students Who “Shut Down”?

Those posts describe studies that show self-control can be replenished by both self-affirmation exercises and by remembering better times. I’ve been trying this by asking students to put their head down and think about those questions for a minute. It seems to work (somewhat), though I don’t know if it’s because of the exercise or just because it functions as sort of a “time-out.”

Now I’m going to try something different.

I’ve created two simple questions that I’ve put on cardstock (you can download a master to use for copying here):

1. Please write at least three sentences about a time (or times) you have felt successful and happy:

2. Please write at least three sentences about something that is important to you (friends, family, sports, etc.) and why it’s important:

There’s space for students to respond.

I’ve explained to the class what the studies have shown, and what I’ll be asking them to do — if necessary.

I’m all for talking with students about their specific problem behaviors, and helping them think through ways that both they (and I) can handle challenging situations better. I just think it’s much more effective to do it later, or the next day, when everybody’s cooled down.

In that moment, when my goal is just to get the student re-focused on learning, I think these questions, and this card, might have a better chance at diffusing the situation more quickly, and helping the student replenish his “supply” of self-control so he/she can get back to that learning task.

Reactions — both positive and critical — are welcome.

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. Larry,
    I’m going to have to disagree with you on this one. I have tried the “self-reflection – what could I have done differently” approach with students on the HS level. Their behavior didn’t change nor improve and I ran this technique for the school year. The students found this a joke and another worthless activity. I found it “enabling”. The next year I went “old school” and had the students write out 4 sides of a notebook paper the sentence “I will not act out in class.” or other behavior that needed changing. You know what (and this went against everything people told me like my methods teachers, language arts teachers, school psychologists, educational theory, etc. – sorry) the behavior stopped and I didn’t have to call them on this again. That’s the bottom line. Our current Middle School program is spending more time on touchy-feely emotions and self-reflection, that I am inheriting self-centered students who don’t know what it means to act for the communal good. Their self-concept will heal from the writing exercise and everybody will be better for it. 🙂

    • Dan,

      As I wrote in my post, I agree that “what I could do differently” student reflection sheets do not tend to work well. In my experience, though, those kinds of personal conversations can be valuable later in the day or the next day when cooler heads prevail.

      I also believe that there are certain student behaviors that require a strong and immediate negative consequence, such as sexual harassment, fights, verbal abuse, physical threats, etc. In those circumstances, I will not hesitate to refer a student to the office (and I also will have a personal conversation with that student after the consequence — suspension, detention, etc. — carried out. Fortunately, though, I typically only find this happens two or three times a year in my class because of both our school culture and my classroom culture, despite the stereotypes that some have of us being the largest inner-city high school in Sacramento.

      In my experience, I have generally found “punishment” to be the least effective long-term method of helping students become life-long learners, and not helpful to creating the kind of learning community I want in class. I am human, however, and there are certainly days when I resort to it, though I generally regret doing so and it typically doesn’t work.

      I also recognize that what works for me might not work for everybody. I’m for anybody’s system that students perceive as fair and is encouraging to students to develop themselves as lifelong learners.


  2. Larry,
    I think you are definitely on to something here with the goal of getting kids back into the “state” or frame of mind where they will be able to learn again. Using a positive writing activity that gets them to refocus their mind on something that brings about a more peaceful state will combat the negative emotions/result of whatever disruption just occurred. Like you, I believe that behavioral issues are communications and can be explored in conversation, etc, but many times the goal is getting the student in a space where they are able to resume learning for the day. It’s great that you take research based strategies, evaluate and mold solutions for your students. I appreciate your openness in sharing ideas that are just implemented. Thank you!

  3. Larry,

    I am a middle school teacher and I appreciate finding new ways of positive distraction! Thank you very much!

    Dan, could this not simply another tool we put in our ever expanding toolbox to use at the right time, for the right student?

    Steve Davis

  4. Larry,
    Our school has been using what we call a choice card. When a student makes an inappropriate choice in class they are handed a card in class by the teacher. At this point they must leave the room and not say a word in the process. They then go to what we call the choice card room. There they are instructed to fill out a card that describes the choice they made and has them reflect on their behavior. At this point they may or may not be return to class depending on their attitude. This allows teachers to teach and students to learn. What I have found is that every student is different and one tool will only meet the needs of a portion of the students. Many students feel empowered by this process and never really learn from this type of discipline. In fact most frequent flyers feel so empowered that their behavior becomes worse and they are eventually suspended. I agree reflection needs to take place but needs to be very careful in how it is done.

  5. I like this idea a lot, Larry, and I like Stephen’s term for it: “positive distraction.” I’ve always been against using writing as a form of punishment because, well, many students have so many negative associations with writing already…and it’s part of my job to improve their writing. But this approach is different. Instead of punishing students, it’s giving them an opportunity to see themselves in a positive light, as their best “them,” who they really want to be and who they can be more often if they stay focused. Thanks!

  6. Larry,
    I agree that there has to be some way to deter students from their negative behaviors and refocus them on their journey as lifelong learners.

    I like how Dan has shared his experience, seeing that older learners take feeling talk as a joke and continue to make poor decisions. Dan decided to change his method, and it worked! It allowed him to focus on teaching and his students were not able to manipulate the feeling conversations into further behavior problems.

    As far as positive redirection goes, I really think this is getting close to therapy and counseling techniques. If students need to have these redirected talks frequently, perhaps there needs to be some therapy or counseling offered for those students so that when they are in a class of 25 students they can function better because they have had the one on one time that they needed with a counselor…

  7. Larry,

    Thanks for your insightful article. I am always trying to add more ways to reach students when they are disruptive.

  8. Man, I must be old school. When a teacher tried to use writing as punishment for my 5th grade son, and didn’t respond in the correct fashion to my forbidding it (wish I had underline here) my husband and I made an appointment with the principal.

    When the principal didn’t seem to be seeing things our way, he looked her straight in the eye and said, “That’s what they made us do in the re-education camp. My son is not writing false apologies.”

    I had to keep a straight face- guess who had never been in a re-education camp! BUT, I agreed with him 100%! No false apologies or forced confessions!

    We (our family of five) still laugh about Daddy’s story on this one. Boy that principal shut up!!

    Ok, confession over : )

    There is a point here, just in case you can’t tell.

  9. Pingback: Guest Post | Helping Students Motivate Themselves -

  10. Hi Larry,

    I’m a solutions focussed hypnotherapist in the UK and also a trainer -and the technique you are using is supported by the training I’ve had and use. It is impossible for anyone to regain self control without shifting to a positive state of mind and simply by thinking of a time when they were happy moves them to a different part of the brain – from memory it’s all to do with the prefrontal cortex.

    ‘The miracle question’ by Linda Metcalf takes it a step further asking what would be different if they woke up tomorrow morning and you had waved a magic wand – what difference would that make, who else would notice etc shifting them to a solutions focussed frame of mind.

    However I have to agree with Shalina – if they keep repeating the same behaviour they may need more help.

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