Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
September 1, 1999
Vol. 57
No. 1

The First "R": Reflective Capacities

Promoting social-emotional literacy and learning to detect social problems early are among the most powerful tools we can use to prevent youth violence.

I feel so bad, I don't know if I want to kill every damn person I see—or myself.—A comment overheard from a 9th grade student
How do we know whether a student's difficulties are a normal part of growing up—or a potential signal that something is terribly amiss? What can (and can't) we do as educators and school specialists to help students socially and emotionally—and to increase our abilities to prevent problems from becoming disasters? The recent wave of violence in schools underscores the profound importance of these questions.
We know that listening to our students—and to ourselves—provides the foundation for recognizing problems; indeed, it strengthens everything we do as both teachers and learners. "What do I think about her?" "How do I feel about this?" "How does this fit with my past experience?" "What is their intent in saying that?" To answer these questions, we necessarily reflect on our own experience and that of others in conscious as well as automatic and unrecognized ways. This reflective capacity—the "reading" of self and others—is the first "R."
Reflective capacities involve personal and interpersonal components that enable a person to learn from social-emotional experience. Just as children's capacity to decode phonemes is the foundation for language learning, so, too, does the ability to decode others and ourselves become the foundation for social and emotional competencies. These fundamental capacities have been described in developmental research (Baron-Cohen, Tager-Flusberg, & Cohen, 1993), cognitive psychological studies (Morton & Frith, 1995), and clinical psychotherapeutic research (Fonagy & Target, 1996).
Reflective capacities are important for many reasons. Reflective abilities make the world understandable. For example, when a child's attribution of thoughts and feelings enables him or her to see actions as meaningful, his or her behavior becomes predictable. When parents reflect on children's inner experience empathically, they foster secure attachment; core psychological structures; and a coherent, stable sense of self (Fonagy & Target, 1997).
Reflective capacities promote communication. Acknowledging the point of view of others is the essential ingredient in meaningful communication, effective social problem solving, and conflict resolution. It is this capacity that allows teachers to form meaningful relationships with students, the basis of all learning (O'Neil, 1997). What's even more important to know, however, is that as educators and school specialists, we can enhance these skills within our students. In fact, whether we mean to or not, we influence the ways in which reflective capacities develop.
The "first R" provides the foundation for all that is essential in schools, be it the three "R's" or, as Howard Gardner recently suggested, the learning of "truth, beauty, and goodness" (Gardner, 1999). Reflective capacities also lead us to the early detection of social-emotional problems and the promotion of social-emotional literacy.

Social-Emotional Difficulties: Normal Variation or Deviation?

We all have had moments of feeling anxious, depressed, lonely, or alienated. Such social-emotional difficulties are a normal part of growing up. For weeks, even months, we experience painful moments of alienation, anger, and any number of complicated states of mind. How do we know whether these experiences signal more serious and potentially explosive problems? Although there's no easy answer, the following guidelines can help educators recognize possible difficulties and act in helpful ways.
Feelings of anxiety. We have all experienced times when a student makes a disturbing "joke." Sometimes we laugh, but, at other moments we hesitate, thinking "Uh oh! . . . Is this a joke?" We feel confused. No one likes to feel anxious, and our natural inclination is to avoid and dismiss such feelings. But these reactions—our confusion and anxiety—are internal signals that we must honor and act on.
Honoring our concern leads to action—talking directly with the student, a fellow educator, or a school counselor or enlisting the participation of parents to map out strategy. At the very least, these conversations go a long way toward clearing up our doubts. It is easy to say that we must "listen to ourselves." It's not always easy to do so. It is crucial that we examine those times when we do and don't feel able to be reflective and responsible in the face of an uncertain situation.
Duration. When students experience ongoing social-emotional difficulties, or when they begin to voice violent thoughts and impulses, we need to listen and respond. A downturn in mood of more than three months can be a sign that the student is "stuck" and is not simply experiencing a "bumpy" time. When we recognize the gravity of the situation—experience the first "R"—we can not only talk it over with the student, the school counselor, or parents, but, more important, also discover more about the student's experience. We can then address the problem in helpful ways.
This is exactly what we do when a child is struggling with reading in the 1st or 2nd grade. Many children have some difficulty learning to read. When the struggle persists, we try to figure out a plan to help that child learn. The same holds true for social-emotional difficulties.
Early warning signs. There are early warning signals of student distress (Dwyer, Osher, & Warger, 1998). Consciously or unconsciously, students who are in trouble almost always let others know of their unhappiness. Through a "joke" about suicide or homicide; through a paper for English class that leaks pain, rage, and desperation; or through changes in behavior, students try to let us know. No one wants to be left in pain.

Early Warning Signs of Troubling Behavior

  • Social withdrawal

  • Excessive feelings of isolation, loneliness, or rejection

  • Being a victim of violence

  • Feelings of persecution

  • Low school interest and poor academic performance

  • Expression of violence in writings and drawings

  • Uncontrolled anger

  • Patterns of impulsive and chronic hitting, intimidating, and bullying behaviors

  • History of discipline problems

  • History of violent and aggressive behavior

  • Intolerance for differences and prejudicial attitudes

  • Drug or alcohol use

  • Affiliation with gangs

  • Inappropriate access to, possession of, or use of firearms

  • Serious threats of violence

—Adapted from Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools, available online (www.ed.gov/offices/OSERS/OSEP/earlywrn.html).


We need to listen and, when in doubt, to turn to colleagues (for example, the principal or the school counselor) for intervention. It is OK—indeed, important—for us to worry about a child or an adolescent with early warning signs, not because such signs necessarily indicate a serious problem, but because they signal a need to find out about the student's experience and the extent to which it has become a source of anxiety.
Educators can increase their ability to spot signs of trouble by establishing caring, responsive, and supportive relationships with their students. Our reflective capacities determine how soon and how well we are able to recognize the warning signs. This decoding of student concerns, on the teacher's part, forms the platform on which are built caring, responsive relationships that students long remember. These relationships, in turn, become the platform for learning, for meaning, and for the student's interaction with others.

The Multiple Origins of Social-Emotional Problems

When students manifest serious problems, there is rarely one simple cause. Personality and psychopathology stem from a multitude of factors—biological, psychological, and social problems—that determine our behavior at any given moment.
  • Neurocognitive deficits can complicate linguistic learning (such as dyslexia and dysgraphia), attentional functioning, and self-regulation (such as ADHD). Neurocognitive deficits also interfere with nonverbal learning, creating mathematical learning disabilities and, sometimes, social problems, such as an inability to "read" the faces and emotions of others.
  • Psychiatric problems include biologically based depressive and anxiety disorders (which can result in outbursts of rage as well as depression), obsessive-compulsive disorders, tic disorders, substance abuse, and some communication disorders.
  • Medical problems ranging from diabetes (which can result in inattention or sleepiness) to epilepsy can and often do complicate learning. Potentially, these medical problems also affect the student's sense of safety and learning ability.
Psychological, or intrapsychic, problems. Over time, most persistent difficulties enter the nooks and crannies of a child's mind, becoming an "intrapsychically based problem." For example, when students experience learning difficulties at school, when a grandparent dies, or when they witness domestic violence, they often imagine the event to be their fault. This is especially true of elementary school children. Such incidents can have devastating results, complicating conscious and, eventually, unconscious narratives. Sometimes a student's withdrawal or acting out represents a desperate attempt to manage these internal struggles.
Even when students have clear-cut biologically based problems (for example, epilepsy or a chronic attentional disorder), they tend to create narratives about their difficulties. For this reason, medication alone is often not enough to help them. How children understand or misunderstand their difficulties begins to take on a psychological life of its own.
Social, or interpersonal, problems. Too many children struggle with problems within the family (such as violence, marital difficulties, alcoholism, or chronic illness). Violence—tragically pervasive—forces problems. Children, overwhelmed and frightened, often cope in ways that complicate or derail learning and development. Some students show the world, directly or indirectly, that they are overwhelmed or wounded: They act out. They force us to pay attention. Others disappear from the radar screen; they do not cause problems, but instead withdraw.
Larger, systemic problems. Many problems, at onset, are not biological, psychological, or social. Too many of America's children struggle with larger, systemic problems such as poverty, racism, and the absence of safe havens. These conditions can, and often do, create intrapsychic, interpersonal, and even medical problems. For example, ongoing worries about hunger or physical safety in school can result in chronic anxiety, which, in turn, results in attentional disorder, peer problems, and school failure. Over time, these concerns will become a fixed part of the child's inner landscape.

What Can We Do?

Educators can take major steps to prevent violence and to enhance the social-emotional health of students.
Early detection. Just as more and more schools screen children for possible linguistic disabilities, we can also screen for social-emotional problems. Programs designed for this purpose can make a difference because they give educators, paraprofessional staff, and counselors specific information about what to look for and suggest alternative courses of action. They also encourage us to listen to ourselves, to be reflective—the first "R"—and to honor our experience.
Some schools have ongoing consultative relationships with mental health professionals who are trained to recognize the range of overt and subtle problems that students experience. Other schools train paraprofessionals to connect educators with mental health professionals (Cowen et al., 1996). From preK through high school, educators must collaborate with mental health professionals to learn how to detect problems.
Social-emotional learning. Educators have the power to expand the reflective capacity of students by integrating social-emotional learning programs into classrooms and into the culture of schools. Compelling evidence suggests that first-rate social-emotional learning programs can promote the first "R," reduce violence, create caring and responsive school communities, and, in many instances, enhance academic achievement (Cohen, 1999; Consortium on the School-Based Promotion of Social Competence, 1994; Elias et al. 1997; Goleman, 1995; Weissberg & Greenberg, 1998).
Working with the Collaborative to Advance Social and Emotional Learning (http://www.casel.org) and the Project for Social and Emotional Learning at Teachers College, Columbia University (http://www.tc.columbia.edu/~academic/psel), I have learned that effective programs are organized around five core principles: (1) creating safe, caring, and responsive classrooms; (2) enhancing an awareness of self and others (the first "R"); (3) encouraging students to become flexible problem solvers; (4) helping students become more able to cooperate, form relationships, be self-motivating, and become both followers and leaders; and (5) engaging in long-term planning that includes collaboration among home, school, and community. Schools have choices about how to implement these principles, whether as a stand-alone, K–12 course of study or as a program that can be integrated into academic and nonacademic activities (see Cohen, 1999, for an overview of a range of programs).
Effective social-emotional learning programs can boost a school's chance of becoming a caring, responsive, and responsible culture—one in which incidents of violence are sharply curtailed. These programs foster reflective capacities and skills that are more predictive of life satisfaction and productive citizenry than academic grades and SAT scores.

Social-Emotional Literacy Must Be a Priority

Just as we expect every child to learn to read, we must expect every child to become socially and emotionally literate. Educators, social scientists, and health care providers must define what this means and then take steps to ensure that it occurs. We must join forces to reach this goal.
There are rarely simple answers to why students have the strengths—and the problems—that they do. Commentators try to pinpoint The Cause of student difficulties, particularly of student violence: mayhem in computer games and movies, lax gun control, and irresponsible parents. But, much as we might abhor the easy availability of firearms, it is the absence of reflective capacities and social-emotional literacy and health that pulls the trigger. Today, we do know a great deal about how to detect social-emotional problems and how to promote these strengths. How many more Littletons will it take until we put these ideas into wider practice?

Baron-Cohen, S., Tager-Flusberg, H., & Cohen, D. J. (1993). Understanding others' minds: Perspectives from autism. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Cohen, J. (Ed.). (1999). Educating minds and hearts: Social emotional learning and the passage into adolescence. Alexandria, VA: ASCD and New York: Teachers College Press.

Consortium on the School-Based Promotion of Social Competence. (1994). The school-based promotion of social competence: Theory, research, practice, and policy. In R. J. Haggerty, L. R. Sherrod, N. Garmezy, & M. Rutter (Eds.), Stress, risk, and resilience in children and adolescence(pp. 268–316). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Cowen, E. L., Hightower, D. A., Pedro-Carroll, J. L., Work, W. C., Wyman, P. A., & Haffey, W. G. (1996). School-based prevention for children at risk: The primary mental health project. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association Press.

Dwyer, K., Osher, D., & Warger, C. (1998). Early warning, timely response: A guide to safe schools. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Elias, M., Zins, J. E., Weissberg, R. P., Frey, K. S., Greenberg, M. T., Haynes, N. M., Kessler, R., Schwab-Stone, M. E., & Shriver, T. P. (1997). Promoting social and emotional learning: A guide for educators. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Fonagy, P., & Target, M. (1996). A contemporary psychoanalytical perspective: Psychodynamic developmental therapy. In E. D. Hibbs & P. S. Jenson (Eds.), Psychosocial treatments for child and adolescent disorders: Empirically based strategies for clinical practice (pp. 619–638). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association Press.

Fonagy, P., & Target, M. (1997). Attachment and reflective function: Their role in self-organization. Development and Psychopathology, 9, 697–700.

Gardner, H. (1999). The disciplined mind: What all students should understand. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam.

Morton, J., & Frith, U. (1995). Causal modeling: A structural approach to developmental psychology. In D. Cicchetti & D. J. Cohen (Eds.),Developmental psychopathology: Vol. 1. Theory and methods (pp. 357–390). New York: John Wiley.

O'Neil, J. (1997, May). Building schools as communities: A conversation with James Comer. Educational Leadership, 54(8), 6–10.

Weissberg, R. P., & Greenberg, M. T. (1998). School and community competence-enhancement and prevention programs. In W. Damon (Series Ed.) & I. E. Sigel & K. A. Renninger (Vol. Eds.), Handbook of child psychology: Vol. 4. Child psychology in practice (5th ed.). New York: John Wiley.

Jonathan Cohen is the president of the National School Climate Center (NSCC) and co-chair of the National School Climate Council.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
From our issue
Product cover image 199290.jpg
Personalized Learning
Go To Publication