When I was a teacher, at the start of each school year I couldn’t wait to try out all the classroom management tips I’d picked up over the summer, convinced that now I had in my pocket the latest techniques that would make my classroom a warm and safe place to learn.
I knew that one of the keys to a caring classroom was encouraging students to demonstrate kind, helpful—or “prosocial”—behavior toward each other. Researchers have found that students who show this kind of behavior: 1) achieve greater academic success, 2) have more friends, and 3) develop better relationships with teachers.
Sometimes my new techniques succeeded; lots of times they didn’t. But as I’ve learned more about the science of prosocial behavior, I’ve been pleasantly surprised that it might be a lot easier to encourage kindness among students than I thought.
For instance, in a 2010 study published in the journal Psychological Science, 18-month old infants were shown photos of household objects, like a tea-kettle. The photos each featured one of four backgrounds: blocks, two dolls facing each other, a single doll, or two dolls facing away from each other.
Turned out the background choice decisively influenced behavior: The infants who saw the dolls facing each other were three times more likely than the infants who saw the other background images to spontaneously help a person in need.
All it took was a gentle reminder of our human connectedness to prompt kids to reach out and help someone else.
When I read this study, I realized that I already had been doing a lot of things that encouraged positive connectedness in the classroom—just like most teachers. But this study and others have pointed me to a few simple, effective, research-based tips for consciously nurturing kindness among students—tips that teachers can start to implement on the very first day of school (if not before!). Here are four of my favorites:
1. When setting up your classroom for the year, hang posters of people interacting with each other. As that study demonstrates, even a subtle image of two people looking at each other can create a sense of connectedness and foster kindness. Such visual cues also let students know that you value this kind of behavior.
2. Greet students on the first day of school—and every day after that—as they enter the classroom. Students are more likely to behave with kindness if they feel a sense of belonging. A study of 158 tenth- and twelfth-grade students found that those who felt connected to their teachers and other students scored higher in empathy—a building block of prosocial behavior.
3. From the first day of school to the last, use a positive, warm tone of voice. Forget the advice to not let them see you smile til Christmas. Students’ prosocial skills increase when they are part of a caring classroom. Modeling kind speech with students tends to have the happy effect of students speaking kindly to each other.
4. To build community in your classroom, give your students chances to help each other. Giving students the opportunity to practice prosocial behavior is one of the most effective ways to promote it. For example, when having them work in cooperative learning groups—an instructional technique that allows small groups of students to work together on a task—inform students that part of their responsibility as members of the group is to help one another. Scientists have found that students who engage more in cooperative learning are more likely to treat each other with kindness.
Knowing how busy teachers are, I find it encouraging that it doesn’t take extra lessons or fancy gimmicks to create a caring classroom community. I’d love to hear about strategies you use to promote “connectedness” in your classroom. Please feel free to share what’s worked for you by posting a comment below or on the GGSC Facebook page. I’ll share some of the responses in a separate post later in the week.
On deck for next week, an important lesson for teachers and administrators alike: How building positive relationships can provide a sense of safety across the school community—a cornerstone of success among students and teachers. In the meantime, please learn more about the GGSC’s new education program, and sign up for our forthcoming education newsletter.