There is a part of a child’s soul that has always been unknown but which must be known. With a spirit of sacrifice and enthusiasm we must go in search, like those who travel to foreign lands and tear up mountains in their search for hidden gold. ~ Maria Montessori
Reflective Listening (From Positive Discipline in the Montessori Classroom)
Listening, really listening, can be one of the most effective ways to help children solve their own problems. How many times have you thought to yourself, when discussing your problems with someone else, “I wish he would just listen to me!”
Have you ever had a friend, who really listened well? Someone who didn’t offer a lot of advice, and really heard you? How did it feel to bring that friend a problem? Oftentimes, we can solve problems all on our own, and the act of listening enables that process to happen.
Learning how to listen is the key to unlocking the communication gap between adults and students, specifically learning to listen without fixing. Too often adults listen to talk, fix or advise. Even if the information that we want to impart is wise, accurate, and potentially helpful, it is, often, unwanted and subsequently rejected. This leaves adults wondering why the student brought up the problem in the first place!
Reflective listening is a concrete skill that helps adults truly listen to children and adolescents. It involves listening, reflecting and checking back in for understanding. It also requires holding back from input, unless it is specifically asked for. It is important to remember that when students come to us to talk, they are frequently looking for understanding, connection, and a way to process their own experiences.
Here’s a simple method to use to help you listen effectively when a student comes to you with a problem:
- Repeat what you heard them say (mirror their words).
- Validate their feelings
- Ask if there is more that they want to share. If there is more, simply repeat steps 1-4 until they have finished sharing.
Most of us are familiar with using I Statements (I feel______ because_______, and I wish ________). Reflective Listening simply turns around the I Statement format, so that the listener is mirroring back what the communicator is saying.
“You feel _______________, when _________________, and you wish __________________? Is there anything else?”
Henry was a 6-year-old boy in our Lower Elementary classroom. Henry was very sensitive to being embarrassed. As a matter of fact, if Henry felt embarrassed in front of his classmates when they were on the playground his first line of defense was to bolt about 100 yards into the woods that abutted the playground. The first time he did this we couldn’t find him and had to call his parents and the police. We found him before either his parents or law enforcement arrived. It was pretty scary. Fortunately for us, Henry was a creature of habit, and the next time he bolted into the woods he ran to the same spot and did the same thing the time after that.
After the third time Henry ran to his spot, he was sitting in my office angry and crying. I asked him to tell me what happened.
Henry said, “It doesn’t matter. I told my mom that I hate this school, and she is going to put me in public school. I hate this school.”
I said, “It sounds like you’re feeling really hurt, Henry. What happened?”
His expression started to soften, “I just hate this place. I hate it here.”
I said, “It sounds like you’re really feeling hurt. What happened.”
Henry broke down, “I was waiting in line to go inside, and Conner called me stupid in front of the whole class.”
I asked, “So, you were feeling embarrassed when Conner called you stupid in front of everyone, and you wished he’d be more respectful?”
Henry: “I wish he’d die, and go away forever.”
Me: “So, you were feeling really hurt and embarrassed when he made fun of you in front of your friends, and you wish he would leave you alone?”
Henry is now starting to become more physically relaxed and his tone started to soften, “Yes, I wish he’d just leave me alone… and die?”
Me: “You just want him to leave you alone?”
Me: “Is there anything else?”
Henry: “I tried to be friends with him, but he just keeps picking on me.”
Me: “So, you’re feeling really sad when Conner picks on you, and you wish he would be more kind to you?”
Me: “Is there anything else?”
Henry: “No, I just don’t want him to make fun of me and embarrass me anymore.”
Me: “So, you were feeling really embarrassed and ran away, but you wish you could find a way to be friends with Conner?”
Henry’s entire deportment has changed by now. He is calm and attentive to our conversation.
Me: “Is there anything else?”
Henry: “I’m sorry I ran into the woods again. Maybe I can use the Peace Shell (our version of the Peace Rose) when I go back to class.”
Me: “That sounds like a plan.”
This is a true story. When Henry felt listened to, he began to cool down and began to start problem-solving on his own. He didn’t need advice, a reprimand, or a lecture.
When people feel like they are being listened to, without judgment, they feel understood and accepted. They feel better. And when they feel better…! In addition to helping children solve their own problems, Reflective Listening can also help students cool off, and it is especially effective for children whose mistaken goal is revenge. For Henry, Reflective Listening was just what he needed to feel connected and capable.
When adults learn to listen effectively, and avoid offering advice or direction, they find that children are really want to do better, and that they are incredibly capable problem solvers, especially if they feel understood, trusted and connected.
See you next time…
 Nelsen, Jane, and Chip DeLorenzo. Positive Discipline in the Montessori Classroom: Preparing an Environment That Fosters Respect, Kindness and Responsibility. USA, Parent Child Press, 2021, page186-190.