So I’m doing a great pedagogical course at the moment about building character strength in children. It’s aimed at teachers but it’s also fantastic for parents because our focus at home should very much be about helping our children develop and build their character strengths so that they grow up to be decent, pleasant, awesome human beings (and this is something we can do even if we’re not great on helping them with some content knowledge like irregular verbs or quantum physics or how to build a birdhouse). Today I’m going to focus on one specific skill that we can practice as parents or teachers and this has to do with how we interact with them.
Psychologist Shelly Gable proposed a theoretical framework about active and constructive responding (ACR) that has to do with the most effective way to respond, achieve a positive outcome, and to develop and maintain strong personal relationships. It involves both verbal language and body language.
Active constructive responding means providing specific statements of praise; it’s genuine, meaningful and engaged. It’s also about providing eye contact and really being present in the moment.
For instance: “Billy, I can see that you’re really working hard on that difficult piano piece; that shows real grit. Good job.”
Passive constructive responding uses positive feedback but it’s generalized and may not actually feel encouraging to the listener especially if the speaker seems distracted. It might come across as a rote phrase tossed out while distracted; i.e. while looking at a smartphone, or turning to someone else, or in the midst of another activity.
For instance: “Mmm, yes, great Billy.” (as Billy practices the piano and actively seeks approval but the speaker is busy doing something else).
Active destructive responding has specific and negative feedback and is often accompanied by frowning or glares. It may use ‘you’ within the statement, can come across as a personal attack, and can be embarrassing or shaming for the person listening. The speaker may not intend to be hurtful, they may speak out of frustration or without thinking, but it can cause lingering harm for the listener – especially because it can feel like their actions and feelings are invalidated.
For instance: “Billy, that sounds awful. I can’t believe you’re been getting lessons for three months and all you can do is make that dreadful racket!”
Passive destructive responding contains no positive or affirming response. It might ignore the topic under discussion entirely, include a lack of eye contact, or mean leaving the room.
For instance: Billy is actively seeking feedback and attention while practicing the piano (either by verbally asking for feedback or seeking it out through making eye contact repeatedly and turning to their parent/teacher) but their parent/teacher avoids making eye contact and leaves the room rather than listen to a piece that is being played enthusiastically and diligently but is technically (and acoustically) awful.
To see a video of these four forms of responding (guest starring Billy the T Rex) click here.
Active constructive responding takes practice. It’s useful not only with children but with partners, families, and colleagues. GoStrengths has more examples/scenarios of how these different types of responding might look; i.e. a partner coming home from work to announce that they have received a new job.