Sugar, Then Salt: Making Constructive Criticism Taste Better

No one likes to be criticized, especially when it comes to something as intimate as writing. Those of you who have had to endure such criticisms over and over again may at one time felt victimized by this harsh practice but are now thankful for the honesty because it made you a better–more complete–writer. I’m no stranger to these criticisms myself. In fact, I can’t tell you how many times my mom, the English teacher, would correct my phone etiquette: “Yes, this is she, NOT this is her”. (Mom, is that right?) As an adult, I’m grateful for these types of corrections. As a kid, I’d rather take an F in a class than have a teacher tell me I was wrong. So I know firsthand what it’s like to be in my students’ shoes. That’s why I’m extremely careful of how I approach this act of constructive suggestion, as is now the PC term of art. I always start with a compliment. Then a small correction. First, compliment. Then, complaint.

This “sugar, then salt” technique works in most situations where conflict is imminent and emotions run hot. Having a problem teaching your three-year old to put away his toys? Sugar: “Aaron, you are such a good helper!” Salt: “It makes me sad when you don’t put away your toys before nap time.” Having a problem in your relationship? Sugar: “It makes me feel special when you take the initiative and make plans for us in advance.” Salty Sugar: “I would like you to work on planning a date night for us so I can look forward to spending quality time with you.” Some would call this manipulation, but I think it’s just a way to sweeten the personal critique that no one wants to hear but needs to hear.

As a person who works with kids struggling in school due to a learning difference, behavior challenge, or social skills concern, I know that they need all the positive sugar they can get because their confidence is so depleted. Once the confidence is under control (like we talked about here) we can then work on correcting the grammar, formatting essays appropriately, organizing thought processes into a cohesive sentence, comprehension, inference, and the subtleties of writing for your audience. Behavior Support equals Academic Success.

As with anything, balance is important. Pouring on the sugar without any salt, however, is a slippery slope to mischaracterization of self, thinking that everything you do is the best. If you never have to practice grace under pressure (self-regulation), then you never get a chance to learn how to appropriately deal with disappointment– a required lesson in school and in life.

So Parents and Teachers: if you’re not already employing the “Sugar, Then Salt” method, give it a shot. You may find that it’s a successful way to teach your children and students the art of communication in a sticky situation.

Christine Terry, J.D., is the Founder of Terry Tutors and Creator of the One Comprehensive Support Service for The Struggling Student. Want to Know More? Head on over to

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