Adopt A Reflective Mindset

By Zach Mural

Those readers who have spent time working with young people are likely familiar with the phrase “teachable moments.” And those who have heard the term probably embrace the idea that some of life’s greatest lessons are learned (and taught) because of everyday activities and conversations. However, what some people might not be cognizant of is the benefit of applying the idea of looking for and capitalizing on teachable moments to personal and professional growth. 

For those readers who may be unfamiliar with “teachable moments,” they are periods of time that immediately follow an event, conversation, or experience when an individual is still thinking about what has just occurred, and therefore is able to be taught a lesson. In youth programs, teachable moments happen all the time. Scoring a winning goal is a perfect opportunity to talk about sportsmanship and being a gracious winner. Picking a paintbrush up that someone else dropped naturally lends itself to reinforcing caring as a value and the importance of helping others. The list goes on and on, but what is most important is that a knowledgeable “teacher” can respond swiftly and appropriately in the moment to convey a lesson or reinforce a desired behavior or trait. 

Becoming Self Taught
While capitalizing on teachable moments at work with youth is certainly important, too often we, as professionals, fail to take advantage of these in our daily lives. This is partly because of our culture and how we were raised. While we are frequently doing a reasonable job of monitoring our own choices and thoughts (both positive and less-than-ideal), we tend to react with behavioral rewards/consequences or by assigning blame or credit in less-than-honest ways. For example, when we snap at our children, many of us will recognize that it was an overreaction, but then we assign blame. Or, when we fail to follow through on a commitment, we acknowledge the failure but attribute the cause to a situation, our own personality, or someone else. When we aren’t fully honest and reflective in the moment, we are missing our own teachable moments.

Let’s take two examples from the previous paragraph, one at a time. When we criticize a child, it’s easy to blame the behavior (or pattern of behavior), or to chalk it up to being too stressed or tired from the rigors of the day.  And, in some circumstances, these reactions may be both valid and causal reasons. But, if we really take the time to think about why we reacted that way, there may be more we can learn. Maybe it’s not really the behavior but a lack of following through on the request made. If that’s the case, then what can we do next time to  ensure the original task is completed? Are we expecting too much? Were our instructions not clear, or did the child not understand what we were asking?  

In the second example, again, it may be easy to assign blame to circumstances or competing priorities when we fail to live up to a commitment. But there are likely other lessons to be learned that can help us become more successful in the future. It may be that what we agreed to wasn’t something we saw much value in completing, so we need to be better at saying “no.” Or, it may be that we are uncertain about our ability to complete a task, so we can work on asking for help. There are a number of possibilities out there, but the key is to take the time to reflect and look for the lesson.

Train The Trainer
Once we become more reflective and better at capitalizing on teachable moments in our own life (both personally and professionally), then we can begin to encourage the practice in others. As a supervisor, I see this as an incredibly valuable skill for a team to learn and embrace.

Think about the number of conversations we have with those we work with and how frequently (regardless of position or reporting relationship) we can capitalize on teachable moments in a workday. Now, imagine if everyone we worked with was reflective, honest, and skilled at looking for teachable moments in their own work and lives. When a group of people embrace reflection, growth, and honest appraisal of both strengths and areas for improvement, truly amazing things become possible.

Start Them Young
Children model what they see adults do. In some cases, this is not a good thing (think about that word we let slip, only to hear it repeated 10 minutes later).  However, one of the best parts about adopting a reflective mindset and capitalizing on teachable moments is that young people will see what we are doing and adopt the same behavior. 

There are multiple benefits for children to become reflective and able to garner lessons from their everyday experiences. First, an adult’s time is freed up to focus on more advanced teaching. For example, when an eight-year-old is able to reflect on why he is angry and how he should have handled a conflict, then the adult can focus on teaching planning skills to avoid a similar situation rather than merely coaching him to make better choices.

A second benefit for young people being reflective and able to recognize opportunities for learning is that when they do, they are more likely to persist through challenges. Think about our own lives and the challenges we have faced. When children have a realistic understanding of the root cause of the problem and possible solutions, it is significantly easier for them to try again. On the other hand, if they don’t have any real sense of what caused the failure in the first effort, they will be less likely to try again.

Practice Makes Pretty Good
Adopting a reflective mindset and making the most of teachable moments in everyday life takes time and practice. Readers, don’t be too hard on yourselves if/when you realize you let some opportunities slip by. And, finally, remember that being a reflective “self-educator” means being real about successes and awesomeness too, so don’t be too quick to attribute your accomplishments to others.

Dr. Zachary Mural is an executive-level leader, youth-development professional, and father. He holds a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology, is the owner of Youth Development Consulting, is VP of Education for The Minnieland Academy Family of Schools in Northern Virginia, and is an ExpertOnlineTraining faculty member. If you have questions or comments, or would like to discuss a possible workshop or training, visit