Social constructivism may seem like a rather intimidating mouthful but it is actually quite an accessible concept. Essentially, it states that people are social creatures and the acquisition of knowledge occurs through social interactions with others.
Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky was a key figure in the development of the social constructivist approach and he believed that the skills we needed to make sense of the world around us were learned from our interaction with other people (e.g. parents, teachers, or peers). He stated that our most formative experiences involved some form of social contact and that through such contact we develop as individuals. His famous quote summarises this rather concisely: “we become ourselves through others”.
Whilst I do not wholeheartedly subscribe to all of Vygotsky’s work, I do feel that this relational aspect of our individual development is important. Positive relationships at key stages of our development help us to grow and learn more effectively. A child who is raised in an environment of praise and encouragement is likely to grow into a well-adjusted, confident learner. A child raised in an atmosphere of criticism and negativity is likely to develop into an anxious individual who is wary of attempting anything new.
However, it is not just our relationships with our parents or primary care-givers that are important. Our relationships with our peers help us gain an understanding of who we are. Adolescence is about change and experimentation. Teenagers have tendency to change their hairstyle, their wardrobe, their hobbies and interests - this is not mere fickleness, they are trying out new things to see how they feel. They are experimenting with their identity and, ultimately, making choices (both conscious and unconscious) about the adult they will become.
How people respond to individuals at this experimental stage is important. The boy who dyes his hair bright colours and is ridiculed for it by his classmates could well take the message away from the experience that being different is bad.
The girl with a fascination for technology is condemned as being a nerd and stops engaging in a hobby that gives her such pleasure. Such experiences could have a significant impact on the lives of these young people.
The boy who dyes his hair and is accepted by his classmates learns that being different is okay and might grow up to be a famous fashion designer. The girl with the fascination for technology is praised for her interests and grows up to become the next Elon Musk.
Our interactions with others matter. The way in which we respond to other people matters. When we interact with other people, particularly children and young people, we are helping to shape their future selves.
Taigh Sàmhchair: professional counselling and psychotherapy
Hereward Proops MBACP, registered member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy
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