George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social and Emotional Learning

Making Prosocial Behavior Contagious

Simple steps for encouraging classroom behavior that benefits everyone.

May 31, 2019
Student helping another student with learning
©iStock/lisegagne

A boy opens the door for a teacher with a smile. A girl helps a classmate get up after an accidental fall in the playground. A teenager spearheads a movement that includes building a community garden. Psychologists call these acts prosocial behaviors, and educators witness these selfless acts regularly.  

Prosocial behaviors are driven by concern for other people’s well-being. Behavioral scientists have contemplated what drives individuals to commit these acts. Scientists explain that humans are born to care for each other, so these behaviors are evolutionarily advantageous. Another explanation posits that these acts are rewarded during childhood and adolescence by adults who model such behaviors.  

Social learning theorists have long concluded that behaviors that facilitate both negative and positive interactions can be explicitly taught. However, recent research indicates that antisocial behavior is more contagious than helpful acts, and social proximity enhances these effects. Teachers should engage in ways that promote socially desirable behaviors. 

Teach Empathy

Empathy drives prosocial behaviors. Students attuned to others’ feelings who can sense others’ thoughts and desires are more likely to engage in helpful acts. One way to promote prosocial behaviors is by explicitly teaching and modeling empathy. 

Stories are great avenues for launching lessons in empathy, particularly stories that are personal. When I started teaching in the United States, I often told stories of how a whole community came to help me survive my first year in a country that was so foreign to me and where I had nothing. Students loved hearing about how I slept in a donated sleeping bag and managed to eat three meals daily because of the kindness of strangers.  

Create a Climate for Social Interaction 

One of the ways in which empathy, and consequently prosocial behaviors, can be promoted is to emphasize social interconnectedness. Provide opportunities for students that require them to rely on each other to succeed. Students need to see that every individual has something to contribute. For each critical learning goal, the teacher should ask, “How can I create tasks that involve social interdependence? How can I make all students recognize that each individual adds value to the project success because of his or her contribution?” 

A group activity I often use at the start or end of a unit is concept mapping. Each student in a small group is provided cards with key ideas and concepts written on them. The group is in charge of creating a concept map that summarizes the unit. The group members must depend on each other to come up with the concept map that encapsulates the chapter. When the group reports, each member must explain how the cards of a fellow member contribute to the entire concept map. The activity shows the necessity of a contribution by each individual student. Prosocial behaviors result from multiple experiences of connecting with people and realizing that each person has something to offer.

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Use Positive Reinforcements

For prosocial behaviors to take root, teachers must call out the behavior and complement the action. Peer contagion can be used to promote selfless acts. Because the negativity bias causes humans to be more attuned to antisocial acts, a sensitivity for prosocial behaviors should be developed.  

Celebrate with explicit praise. I usually call out the particular action: “Today, I witnessed Maria helping a classmate who accidentally dropped her books. Let’s give her the 10-finger whoo!” The 10-finger whoo, from Whole Brain Teaching, involves classmates wiggling their fingers toward a student while shouting “Whoo!” as an act of recognition. Such simple acts are worth more than any rewards and reinforce positive prosocial behavior. 

Establish a Culture of Kindness and Gratitude

Make kindness normal. Establish a classroom culture where prosocial behaviors are expected. Instead of a laundry list of rules at the start of the year, keep it simple and start with the ethical principles of (1) first, do no harm, (2) act to benefit others, and (3) strive for justice and equity.  

Measuring these constructs can be difficult. How do we measure empathy, or levels of it? How do we measure connectedness? While quantitative, exact measures do not exist and it may take time for the impact to be realized, teaching prosocial behavior yields an environment more conducive to learning. When students commit helpful acts without being prompted, or let the teacher know when some students need more help, we know that our strategies are working.  

Equip Students With the Language of Compassion

Model empathy and prosocial behaviors by paying attention to verbal language. Try the following:

  • What’s going on?
  • Wonder what you were thinking and feeling…
  • What do you need?
  • How can we show ____ that you did not mean what you said?  
  • How can we act more kindly?

Use the language of compassion in the classroom regularly. Since a child must learn to love himself or herself before developing the capacity to act kindly toward others, teach self-compassion. Hurt individuals hurt others. Teach students how to challenge negative self-talk. Every week, strive to check in and listen to each student.  

Prosocial actions can be taught through explicit actions from a caring educator. Build empathy first, teach self-compassion, model caring acts, facilitate regular social interactions, foster social interdependence, and celebrate prosocial acts. Finally, use the language of compassion by striving to listen and understand first.  

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