Before meeting University of Missouri research professor Christi Bergin, fifth-grade science teacher Amber Lewis was used to managing classroom behavior using rewards and consequences.
Through Bergin's Prosocial and Active Learning project, Lewis discovered a different approach. She began asking students how they would feel if someone was acting unkindly toward them.
Prosocial education helps children understand how their behavior affects others.
"It helped teach my students about empathy by allowing them to put themselves in other people's shoes, and I started to notice a positive change with student behavior in my classroom," Lewis said in an MU news release.
Prosocial behaviors — the opposite of antisocial behaviors— are those that intend to help others, such as kindness, sharing, helping, cooperating and being considerate of others. They're characterized by "a concern for the rights, feelings and welfare of other people," according to the news release.
"Prosocial behavior is any behavior that benefits other people and promotes harmonious relationships," Bergin said.
Using $4 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Education, a team of researchers at the University of Missouri College of Education and Human Development plan to use a virtual ECHO platform to connect with 200 middle school teachers in Missouri, reaching 26,000 students throughout the state.
This "will allow the research team and teachers to discuss prosocial education practices in classrooms with the ultimate goals of improving student outcomes and reducing teacher stress," according to the news release.
Through the ECHO platform, which is widely used in medicine, the researchers will help teachers tweak their practices in ways that support prosocial behavior in children.
The platform allows experts in any particular area to meet remotely with 20-25 practitioners — who can be anywhere in the world — for the practitioners to present cases.
"In the case of education, that's talking about a specific classroom, and the practitioners solve problems and suggest ways to improve practice with one another," Bergin said. "The academic researcher folks chime into that as well, so it becomes this partnership between people who are practitioners on the ground and those who have the kind of deep expertise that you have from conducting research on a specific topic."
The research team includes experts in various fields, including bullying prevention, counseling, special education and child development.
Additionally, a separate grant will "aim to measure the effectiveness of social and emotional learning interventions, such as ECHO, in improving prosocial behavior among students," according to the news release.
One way teachers can improve their practices to promote prosocial behavior is by praising students instead of their actions. Lewis, who teaches at Willow Springs School District in southern Missouri, said the power of praise is a helpful teaching tool she learned from Bergin's research.
"One of the simplest but most powerful things I learned was to say 'I appreciate you' rather than 'I appreciate that' when someone exhibited prosocial behavior in the classroom," Lewis said in the news release. "We need to reward students internally to help them feel proud of themselves without expecting some type of external reward."
Lewis began making a tally mark of how many times a day she praised each student in her class — and it was an eye-opening experience, she said.
"I could not believe that some kids behaved so well yet never get praised because of how quiet they are," she said. "Usually, it is the loud kids that always get noticed for both positive or negative things, but we need to make sure every kid feels valued and is noticed."
Another prosocial teaching practice is to reason with a child instead of threatening or bribing them. Telling the child how their actions affect others will give them a better reason to change their behavior and will teach them a life lesson, Bergin said.
"Not only are you changing behavior in the moment, but you're also giving them some kind of standards they can use in the future when they get into a similar kind of situation," she said.
Promoting prosocial behaviors will reduce teacher stress and burnout and improve student outcomes in the classroom and later in their careers, said Bergin, who is the associate dean for research and innovation in the MU College of Education and Human Development.
"When interviewing potential new employees, employers often report they are looking for people who can work well in teams, cooperate and collaborate with others, listen to people with diverse backgrounds and treat others with dignity," she said in the news release.
Previous research shows prosocial children are better liked by their peers, happier, feel more accepted at school, and get better grades and test scores.
"My passion is helping children behave in a way that is compassionate, thoughtful, kind, considerate and cooperative because it serves them well both in school and in life," Bergin said in the news release.
Teachers interested in participating in this project can contact Bergin at [email protected].