With the holidays upon us, many teachers use this time to encourage students to express the spirit of generosity and kindness—and with good reason: it’s not only a selfless way to help others, research suggests it can also help them enhance their own relationships, health, and happiness.
But encouraging the spirit of giving among your students doesn’t have to start and end with holiday-time. The key, though, is for teachers to create a classroom environment that fosters children’s natural altruistic tendencies—which researchers have documented in children as young as 14 months.
Here are some research-based suggestions for educators on how to do just that.
1. Create a connected classroom—and I don’t mean digitally. Scientists have found that our instinctive capacity for kind behavior is brought out when we feel an emotional connection to others—the operative word being emotional.
The best way to create that emotional connection? Through your efforts to establish a safe and caring classroom and by making students responsible for their part in creating that environment.
Both you and your students need to help everyone feel safe to express ideas, take chances, and even to fail. Rather than having criticism and punishment be the norm—which will only bring out defensiveness and other negative behavior in students—work together to make kindness and understanding the classroom rule. As they develop a stronger sense of belonging, students’ innate altruism will flourish.
As all teachers know, however, building this kind of community takes time—sometimes a lot of it. Marilyn Watson’s Learning to Trust, one of my all-time favorite education books, is a brilliant example of how one teacher struggled and eventually succeeded in building a caring classroom community with students whose challenging backgrounds made it very hard for them to express their natural goodness. The best part of the book? The honest and realistic portrait of how difficult and how long it can take for students and teachers to build relationships based on trust and care.
And building this type of “connected” classroom does more for students than strengthen their generous impulses; it may actually improve their grades. One of my favorite studies from the lab of SEL researcher and expert Kim Schonert-Reichl showed that 4th and 5th graders had higher math scores when they exhibited both self-control and felt their classroom peers accepted them.
2. Prime students with the language of connection. Numerous studies have shown that it doesn’t take much to bring out altruistic tendencies in people. For example, one study found that reading the word “love” was enough to make people more compassionate toward others. Another study discovered that participants who wrote a few sentences about a loved one were more likely to sit next to a stranger—a good technique for reluctant student learning partners!
As a simple journal assignment, have students write a handful of sentences about a family member or friend who cares about them. Following the methods of the writing study I describe above, ask them to list the specific similarities between themselves and their special person. Or encourage students to use positive words that describe their connection to this person, such as friendship, kindness, helpfulness, compassion, giving, etc.
Research has also found that telling stories about extraordinary acts of kindness can inspire altruistic behavior. So pull out your Chicken Soup for the Soul books and any favorite YouTube videos of kindness—like this “Pay It Forward” one from Life Vest—or, even better, ask students to share their experiences of kindness.
3. Do NOT reward altruistic behavior! I wince every time a parent or teacher tells me how their school hands out tickets to students “caught” being kind and then rewards them with gifts or recognition. Or, perhaps even worse: a school that sets aside a special lunchroom table decorated with a tablecloth and silverware for kids who are nice!
Rewarding children for kind, helpful—or “prosocial”—actions goes against everything researchers know about developing these tendencies in students. To start, children don’t necessarily need encouragement to help others. A study published just this year found that children as young as 21 months will help another person without being asked to do so.
Perhaps the most convincing argument comes from another study where researchers found that 20-month olds who were offered a reward for helping behavior were less likely to help again than those who didn’t receive a reward.
Instead of offering rewards for good behavior, schools should convey the importance for everyone in the school—students, teachers, parents, staff, and administrators—to behave kindly towards one another, then create the conditions to help them actually do it! If students see the adults behaving in this way and if they understand that they are responsible for their part in creating a caring and safe school community, then they will be intrinsically motivated to act on their natural proclivity for altruism.
That human beings are naturally inclined toward altruistic behavior is one of the most important—and beautiful—scientific findings I know of. The holidays often remind teachers of the joys that can come from nurturing these generous tendencies. But the science of altruism helps us see that kids’ compassion and kindness needn’t be limited to this one time of year.
Wishing all teachers everywhere a very warm and relaxing winter break.