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Teaching self-awareness as a core subject

Early in high school, I made the declaration to my parents that I was going to pursue a career in Accounting or Finance. After seeing my older sister stress out to get perfect grades so she could go to med school someday, through experiencing the financial success of my parents and relatives in South Orange County and the comfort and respect it brought, and after watching a Michael J. Fox character on the 80’s family sitcom Family Ties get the laughs because he was remarkably mature, conservative, and focused on business success (he read the Wall Street Journal, so I started to read it, too), I knew it was the safest choice for my future. It made too much sense! When you’re a teenager growing up in my family, in my town, and you say out loud: “Gee whiz, when I grow up I want to go into finance!”, not only does nobody second guess you, but you get a ton of praise and admiration.


The grand plan I hatched for my life, which I spent the next seven years relentlessly focused on, came on a whim to relieve myself of stress and anxiety- and nobody challenged it. I look back now and wish someone had. Those seven years weren’t a waste- I earned a valuable college degree, I had six internships in accounting and finance, and I discovered later on through mentoring, self-reflection, and risky trial-and-error that a meaningful life for me was down a different path. The biggest regret I have is that I pursued success through the perspective of others rather than my own framework. The biggest critique I have is that I didn’t have the tools to construct that framework for myself until much later.

School is not set up for students to reflect on constructing a meaningful life. It’s a sprint to gain the knowledge necessary to pass tests. There’s little room for reflection, integration, and self-awareness. You can be successful in school but not know yourself or have a clear picture of what a meaningful life could look like for yourself. You can get accepted into the top universities, but miss out on the meaningful life part.

There are two fundamental beliefs that drive what we do in the YouSchool:

  1. Every kid has the potential to be successful.

  2. Every kid deserves the opportunity to construct a meaningful life for themselves.

Both of those fundamental beliefs will not happen on their own. They require intervention and guidance- no student is successful on their own, no student will construct a meaningful life unless guided. That’s where school, family, and the broader community come in. We have an opportunity and the responsibility to guide students to success and meaning for their lives. (And, yes, those two always overlap.)

Self-reflection is the critical skill students need in order to construct a meaningful life for themselves. Unless and until they are guided frequently to reflect on what they’re learning about themselves and about the world, they will be mindlessly going down a path of least resistance, whatever that may be for that student.

Dr. Dan Siegel is a clinical professor of psychology at UCLA and author of many books on parenting, mindfulness, and neural integration. He speaks directly to the critical function self-reflection plays for the developing brain in a TEDx talk for Education:

"This part of the brain [the pre-frontal cortex] allows you to be regulating your impulses. Does that sound familiar, controlling your impulses? It allows you to do that. It allows you to actually be aware of your feelings. It allows you to be aware of other people’s feelings, and understand them. It allows you actually to be moral, think about what’s good for everyone, including the planet. It allows you to actually have intuition. It allows you to know where you’ve been in the past, where you are right now, where you go in the future, and it allows you to tune in on other people. That you get by reflecting on the inner world, being able to mention and manage your feelings. It allows you to develop it when you have the relationships that are supportive, like with teachers and with parents. And it allows you to develop all this so you’re resilient."

Try reading that excerpt again, this time looking for a benefit of reflection that you wouldn’t want your own children to have. Control impulses? Be self-aware? Have empathy? Be intuitive? Find clarity on the trajectory of your life? Demonstrate virtue? By guiding students to frequent reflection we can give them the capacity to both learn better AND become better humans.

Guided reflection can help students learn better in each subject area, too. Reflection helps students become more present, more engaged, and more motivated to learn. But the real purpose of guided self-reflection is to give students an opportunity to construct meaningful lives for themselves. In fact, students are already subconsciously creating stories for themselves. Dan McAdams, father of the theory of narrative identity says,

"The formulation of a narrative identity is the central psychosocial challenge of emerging adults in modern societies. Equipped now with the cognitive software to construct causally and thematically coherent narratives of the self, and motivated to do so by cultural demands, ranging from parental pressure to economic necessity, that proclaim the time to ‘get a life’ is now, young men and women begin to put their lives together into full life stories that make sense of the reconstructed past and position them to move forward with purpose into an unknown future."

There are more than a few people in education who would say this isn’t the job or purpose of school- these are the kinds of conversations that ought to be happening at home. I couldn’t agree more that these kinds of conversations should be happening at home- but they often aren’t. Not just because many families struggle to demonstrate wholehearted living, but also from an identity development standpoint, teenagers actually pull away from their primary caregivers as a survival mechanism to prepare themselves for life on their own two feet. The opportunity parents have to influence how their kids live their lives and make sense of the world significantly declines through these years.

The biggest and most obvious argument as to why this kind of reflection should be happening at school is that it’s directly tied to academic achievement. Students who have the opportunity to reflect on their lives, their values, their stories, and their goals and dreams become more engaged learners. Test scores increase. Graduation rates and college acceptance rates increase. That alone ought to get the attention of every teacher and school leader.

We’re not suggesting weeks or months or entire classes should be dedicated to guided self-reflection, although that wouldn’t be a bad thing- we’re suggesting that each teacher develop the skills and carve 2–5 minutes into each instructional hour to guide students to productive reflection in both peer and individual settings.

If you agree with our two fundamental beliefs- that every student has the potential to be successful and every student deserves the opportunity to construct a meaningful life for themselves, then guided reflection is THE key.

A key foundation element for being prepared to build a meaningful life is a habit of self-reflection. 

P.S. Here’s the full TEDx talk if you’d like to watch it… Mindfulness and Neural Integration: Daniel Siegel, MD at TEDxStudioCityED

Click to read the full Dan McAdams article, Personal Narratives and the Life Story.

We have a free, interactive digital course called The Real Me course you can go through which will guide you through three self-reflection exercises. Just go to theyouschool.com/store to get started today.

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For years we’ve been studying what a young person needs in order to transition into a healthy, thriving adulthood.  

They're uncommon sense ideas, really.

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