Reflective Function


Being reflective about internal emotional experience is crucial for teachers. It's March, I know. But I'm still working on my New Year’s Resolution, which is to actually read the professional journals that pile up in my home the way Hogwarts admissions letters flooded the Dursleys’ living room. I'm really on a roll! In just two journals, I encountered three articles that reinforced each other in a really nice and interesting way. The articles are

Zambrana, R.E., Ray, R., Espino, M.M., Castro, C., Cohen, B.D., & Eliason, J. (2015). “Don’t leave us behind”: The importance of mentoring for underrepresented minority faculty. American Educational Research Journal, 52 (1), 40-72.

Benbassat, N. & Priel, B. (2015). Why is fathers’ Reflective Function important?Psychoanalytic Psychology, 32 (1), 1 – 22.

Borelli, J.L., Compare, A., Snavely, J.E., & Decio, V. (2015). Reflective Function moderates the associations between perceptions of parental neglect and attachment in adolescence. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 32 (1), 23 – 35.

Here’s how these three articles are related: They all point to the importance of mentoring for young students.

The first article emphasizes how crucial (and still rare) it is for new college and university faculty who come from underrepresented backgrounds to find mentors who value their research and actively show them the professional ropes. Without this kind of support, underrepresented minority (URM) faculty, who are such critical models and mentors for URM students, can find it difficult to remain, let alone rise, in predominantly white academic institutions (PWIs). This first article also shares the finding that underrepresented minority faculty who had responsive mentors as young people were more likely to find and make use of mentors as adults.


The second two articles suggest a significant way that teachers, particularly male teachers, can be good mentors: They can “mentalize,” or utilize Reflective Function (RF).

And what, you might ask, does it mean to “mentalize”?

The term was coined by a pretty awesome psychoanalyst and researcher named Peter Fonagy. His research suggests that going “meta” on relationships – talking about one’s feelings, making guesses about others’ feelings and motivations, making the connection between feelings and behaviors, respecting the differences between people’s subjective experiences of reality – fosters in children the capacity to “mentalize,” or recognize their own internal lives as well as those of others. To be able to mentalize is to possess a “theory of mind” that notices differences in beliefs and abilities among people and provides a basis upon which to understand people's experiences and behaviors. Utilizing this awareness means exercising one’s Reflective Function (RF) – that is, thinking about internal experience, one’s own and others’ – which allows one to be emotionally and cognitively flexible.

So Reflective Function is a really good thing.

The second article I listed above gives evidence that dads who mentalize are especially important to their children’s growth through adolescence. According to the authors, fathers’ mentalizing can help them deal authoritatively with recalcitrant teens (and “authoritative” as opposed to “authoritarian” parenting seems to promote the Reflective Function in offspring) (and, apparently, adolescence is a crucial time for the development of RF); it can help fathers figure out what roles to play in their children’s lives (extremely valuable for dads who travel, who are divorced, who have stepchildren, who didn’t have particularly active fathers themselves, etc.); and it can help them remain connected and real in their relationships with their wives, which doesn’t just contribute to a harmonious and supportive family life but also can undermine stereotypical, sexist thinking and behaving.

Obviously, fathers who exercise RF can also be teachers who exercise RF. Male and female teachers who utilize the Reflective Function can be valuable mentors to students of all backgrounds, setting those students up to expect and utilize mentors throughout their lives. In addition, as the third article above suggests, teachers who use RF can help develop RF in their students whose parents did not model mentalizing. Moreover, adolescents who experienced neglect and other trauma in their early lives but who have developed RF through secure interactions with non-parental caregivers such as teachers appear to be less likely to behave in destructive ways and more likely to be able to attach healthily to other adults later in life.

It just so happens that, in reading something else (The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development, published in 1982 by Robert Kegan), I came upon a lovely way of conveying why RF is so important. Kegan makes the case that babies, with their inescapable cuteness, are able to “recruit” the attention they need not just to survive but also to thrive. “This sympathy is in great supply for newborns – and newborns share a powerful capacity to elicit it,” Kegan writes on p. 19.

"But Nature," he continues, "having done her part when it is most needed, is not so democratic after infancy. The capacity to recruit another’s invested regard, so uniform at birth, becomes a various affair as people grow older: some people have a much greater ability to recruit people’s attention to them than other people do. This obvious fact, so underinvestigated by psychologists and so commonly denied by teachers, is never forgotten by teenagers, who could have told researchers – before huge sums of money were spent to discover it – that the greatest inequalities in education are not between schools (of different economic strata, for example) but within them; that greater than the inequalities of social class or achievement test scores is the unequal capacity of students to interest others in them – a phenomenon not reducible to social class or intelligence, and which seems to be the more powerful determinant of future thriving."

So, to bring it back to the beginning: Students who find it difficult to “interest others in them” because, for example, they are African-American in a school that privileges whites or they are girls where men dominate or they are gay where otherness is deeply threatening or they are poor and do not share the social skills that come with being middle class – these types of students especially need mentors. (So do others, but students who “fit” better with the people and institutions around them are, like infants, better equipped to “recruit” the attention and help they need.) These students need people who show their care by seeing them and imagining what it is like to be them and engaging with them and offering support that is relevant to their particular situations.

In other words, at the very least, they need parents and teachers who mentalize, who utilize and model RF. This probably sounds super-simplistic after the moving paragraph from Kegan, but exercising RF is not as simple or obvious as it may sound. In my experience, it can take a lot of work.

What, in fact, might RF look like in a teacher or mentor? Funny you should ask. Stay tuned for the next blog post, which will show RF in action.