The Pros of Prosocial

Focusing on positive behaviors benefits student well-being and achievement.

Topics: Social Emotional Learning, Health and Wellness

A classmate was having trouble with his math assignment, so Jamir helped him. Later, there was a mess on a lunchroom table, and Jamir cleaned it up without being asked to do so.

Jamir is a “prosocial” student. He is kind, encourages others, and works cooperatively. This might surprise the principal at his former school, where Jamir was often suspended for fighting and was failing academically. The school he attends now, however, improves student behavior through prosocial education, despite being located in a high-poverty neighborhood.

What Is Prosocial Education?

Prosocial education is a type of social-emotional learning (SEL) that focuses on promoting behavior that benefits others or improves harmony with others. Prosocial behaviors include comforting a peer, complimenting classmates, helping others with schoolwork, making sure everyone is included, settling disagreements, and sharing. It is the opposite of “antisocial” behavior such as bullying, denigrating, or cheating.

Prosocial education differs from SEL programs that focus on reducing misbehavior. Even if your school enacts a program that successfully reduces antisocial behaviors, it doesn’t necessarily mean that prosocial behavior will increase. Yet, the reverse is true: When you increase prosocial behavior, you can reduce antisocial behavior and increase achievement.

Research studies from preschool through high school indicate that the more prosocial a student is, the higher the student’s academic achievement tends to be. You might assume this is merely correlational—that cooperative students “do” school well. However, studies indicate that prosocial behavior might actually lead to higher achievement. When teachers help students improve their social skills, the students’ grades and test scores rise even when there is no academic aspect to the intervention.

Research also suggests that if you place a student in a classroom with prosocial classmates, the student is more likely to earn higher grades and test scores than if the same student were placed in a less prosocial classroom. Furthermore, students who interact more with prosocial classmates become more helpful and cooperative themselves over time. Kindness is contagious.

Another exciting aspect of prosocial education is that it might help narrow the achievement and discipline gaps often associated with low-income and minority students. Prosocial education is not a substitute for resolving the social injustices that lead to such gaps, but it can provide at-risk students with safe spaces to learn.

Enhanced Positivity

It’s easy to imagine how a prosocial behavior such as helping another student with classwork can promote learning. But how do nonacademic kindnesses—cleaning a lunchroom table, carrying things for a teacher, showing a new student to the gym—promote learning? Research says that it does so by building positive emotions, social connections (teacher-​student and student-student relationships), and engagement in learning (Fig. 1).

Let’s examine each factor:

Positive emotions. When students behave prosocially toward one another, they feel positive emotions. As a result, prosocial students tend to be happy, cheerful individuals who help others become more positive. Positive emotions motivate students to learn, open themselves to new information, and participate in activities. When students experience positive emotions in the classroom, they become more creative, work harder, and persist through challenges.

Social acceptance. When you feel supported, liked, and accepted by colleagues, it becomes easier to participate in your work. The same is true of students. Research finds that students who behave prosocially are better liked by classmates and have healthier friendships, which leads to higher grades and test scores. Prosocial students also have better relationships with teachers, which is a strong predictor of grades, test scores, motivation, and emotional well-being.

Engagement in learning. When students feel cared for in the classroom, they are more likely to show interest in schoolwork, work independently, listen, pay attention, stay on task, follow class rules, cooperate, take learning risks, work hard, and actively participate in learning activities—all of which support learning.

Effective Prosocial Strategies

Strategies to integrate prosocial education don’t have to add substantial expense or time to an already full curriculum, and they are easy to implement. One teacher who used the strategy outlined here said she was “blown away” by how quickly students responded. “I never realized how much my behavior affects students,” she said. “Not that my behavior is bad, but small, positive tweaks made a big difference with the kids.”

Three simple strategies can increase your students’ prosocial behavior, a 2018 study from the co-authors says:

Praise students when they behave prosocially. After Sofia helped a new student find the gym, a teacher told her she was a “nice and helpful” girl. Beaming, Sofia responded, “I like helping.” Praise increases prosocial behavior among all age groups. In a 2016 study, the number of praise statements students received from their teacher in a five-minute period at the beginning of the school year was predictive of the students’ increased prosocial behavior months later.

Use inductive discipline to correct misbehavior. Inductive discipline focuses on giving students reasons to change their behavior instead of focusing on punitive measures. Particularly powerful is “victim-oriented” induction, when the teacher points out how misbehavior affects others. This approach teaches students to attend to others’ well-being, creating empathy. It also helps students internalize your values, exercise self-control, and guide future behavior, while communicating respect. In contrast, penalty-oriented discipline (e.g., stop that or you’ll go to the office) undermines prosocial behavior and increases antisocial behavior over time.

Form positive teacher-student relationships. Teachers can develop positive relationships despite challenging behaviors by behaving prosocially toward students. Prosocial teachers are sensitive, perceive interests and needs, have warm interactions, and respect the agendas of their students. Positive teacher-student relationships are especially powerful but less common among at-risk students.

Teachers can easily increase their use of these three strategies. In a 2009 study, Head Start teachers were coached to use praise and inductive discipline in the classroom, and prosocial behavior among at-risk students doubled in just a few months’ time.

Research shows a clear link between prosocial behavior and achievement, and its benefits are most powerful for students at risk for low achievement. And not only can prosocial education boost achievement and improve behavior, but it can also improve the school climate, making teachers and students alike happier and better prepared for life.

Christi Bergin is associate dean for research and innovation at the University of Missouri College of Education.

Sara Prewett is an assistant professor of educational, school, and counseling psychology at the University of Missouri.