Proactive and reactive skills – we need them all
It used to be a big saying – respond, don’t react. Somehow the word ‘react’ conjures images of a loud, messy and rather undignified emotional meltdown to one of life’s harsh realities. However, in this context we’re going to use ‘reactive’ to describe a set of skills and attributes that help to diminish one’s own and others responses to emotionally impactful events.
Bullying – something that’s sure to get the emotional juices flowing for most. Reactive skills are the ones that help a child to step up and manage it, to squash it and to stamp it out.
Slightly uncomfortable skills to teach… maybe
The stepping up skills that require a child to lean into an interaction they have an emotional response to are these; assertiveness and persistence. For most, when something confrontational happens we tend to move away from it. We hope that it will be a one off, that it will go away or if we ignore it that it won’t happen again. Leaning in means acknowledging the emotional impact and doing something to manage it; reacting actively – hence being called reactive skills.
As a parent or teacher, it can be – and feel – uncomfortable watching a child assertively managing a situation. It draws attention to the event and to the child which may feel awkward – or even cause some social blips to happen. However, it is an essential skill and one children are learning to use for good – and not for evil in the early years of playing.
What can reactive skills look like, sound like and morph into?
Assertiveness – meanness, aggression, bossiness, hysterical emotional arousal, manipulative whining – these are all sure signs that attempts at assertiveness have gone wrong. Right from early play experiences with other babies, tiny little ones will want to assert themselves. Use of available resources (like play equipment) can often lead to heated interactions. It’s important to monitor but not step in too soon when these interactions happen. You see, the child who aggressively snatches the bucket and declares it theirs only – ever until the end of the world as we know it – will get a reaction from the child they’re playing with. This could be tears, shouting, a bit of argy-bargy – and they will learn (hopefully) to moderate their interaction as a result. Their proactive responses will pop up – like empathy, resilience and cooperation.
Some children just don’t seem to learn the skills to moderate their attempts at assertiveness and this can lead to bullying behaviours creeping in over time – so it’s very important that children learn how to manage themselves through their little squabbles as they play. While it can be very annoying for any adult in proximity, this behaviour is essential for children to experience and manage if they’re going to be able to step up to the nastiness of bullying one day.
Persistence – strange that it’s a reactive skill. Persistence is that attribute that comes out when a child is challenged – by a friend, by the demands of a task or even by boredom. Having a go, not getting it completely right and reacting in a way that ensures another attempt. We see little ones practicing their persistence as they learn to master their big feelings. We’ve all seen the small child building the block tower and wanting it to stand taller than themselves – and then it falls over just as they get it to shoulder height. Persistence done right means having a big feeling – like frustration – and then having another go. This is a reacting actively to a challenge – and something we want more and more of as a child grows.
Through their everyday play experiences – especially the ones involving construction or creation, little children are learning this essential stepping up skill. Persistence is far more indicative of a child’s success than their IQ because it fuels their learning and one day it will fuel their career. What’s the link to bullying prevention? Well, most children we know who tease or engage in the more noxious bullying behaviours are pretty persistent themselves. The push and poke, looking for a hole in the emotional armour of the child they’re focused on. The persistent child is the one that manages their frustration and anger and doggedly pushes back until the offending child gives up and moves on.
This is a difficult skill to teach children and one that needs a specific focus.
Assertiveness = Choice of words + tone of voice + strong and confident body language
It is easy for the emotionally aroused child to tell a long story of woe in a dismal tone with body language that screams – do it again, I’m an easy target. So, if you’re going to teach assertiveness there has to be a discrimination made between that and aggression, being overly dramatic and being very, very whiney. Choose a simple and powerful social deterrent – the favoured one in schools is usually, ‘Stop it I don’t like it.’ Demonstrate and feedback on short, sharp sentences that aren’t long stories. Demonstrate and feedback on tone of voice – and of course do the same with body language. In Module 1 – Sticking Up 4 Me; Beating Bullying & Taming Teasing we teach this using the Six Step Stick Up 4 Me. A very useful anti-bullying tool for all children to learn.
When children are playing and sticking up for themselves, there’s a perfect opportunity to shape that interaction into a socially reactive skill that will be useful over their lifetime and most certainly if they come up against the bullying behaviours of others.
The best way – play. Play, play and more play. Playing by the rules. Playing games requiring cooperation and collaboration. Playing games that require emotional regulation. This is the best way to build that handy life skill of persistence and we have to wonder whether children are getting enough of this at school and at home because giving effort instead of giving up – well, that’s needed in every aspect of life including fending off bullying.
Play more card games and board games, build more block towers, create more games where problem solving is required because these are very simple ways for children to learn and bank their persistence skills.
Play – it’s essential in the early years for learning and life success
Children NEED to play. The casual observer may look on and think it’s a waste of time – time that could be better spent learning – and nothing could be further from the truth. Play is learning – it’s learning about learning behaviours and learning for life.
Bullying happens – in every school and in many homes and if we really want children to manage it then we need to let them spend that valuable time in their early years playing so that they can arm themselves with the proactive and reactive skills that they’re going to need in buckets over their school years – and over their life time too.
This blog is preceded by Part 1 which examines the proactive skills developed through play – you may wish to read that too. We encourage you to share this widely – bringing more play to the early years of education is a must. It is the way in which our little ones are getting ready for the rigours of the classroom and playground – and it’s even preparing them for their working and home life one day too.