Promoting prosocial behavior in the classroom and beyond

With an $8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, MU’s Christi Bergin will continue to help teachers throughout the Midwest improve their classroom culture.

Christi Bergin
Christi Bergin

Feb. 6, 2024
Contact: Brian Consiglio, 573-882-9144,

Christi Bergin has devoted 40 years of her life to helping teachers and their students. Throughout her career, she’s noticed two simultaneous trends in the field that seem to be connected: a rise in disruptive classroom behavior, and an exodus of teachers from the profession who leave due to stress and burnout.

To help combat these trends, Bergin, a professor emerita in the University of Missouri College of Education and Human Development, has focused her research on improving prosocial behavior — actions that show kindness, compassion, empathy and respect — in classrooms and communities.

Not only is her approach timely; it works.

Bergin’s decades of research shows that this focus on soft skills improves student engagement, academic achievement, relationships and peer-acceptance while also reducing teacher stress and burnout.

Expanding the benefits from Missouri to the Midwest

Bergin is currently helping fifth grade math and science teachers throughout Missouri tweak their teaching techniques in a way that promotes prosocial behavior in their classrooms. The Prosocial and Active Learning (PAL) grant is a partnership with a professional development center within MU known as eMINTS, or the enhancing Missouri’s Instructional Networked Teaching Strategies.

The results from the PAL grant have been so successful, the U.S. Department of Education has now awarded Bergin and eMINTS an $8 million grant to expand their project into 80 middle schools throughout Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. The five-year project will reach 1,200 teachers and administrators as well as 25,000 students.

“It is critically important in schools that teachers not only focus on math, reading and all the other core subject areas, but they also need to help students become productive citizens,” said Chris Riley-Tillman, dean of the MU College of Education and Human Development. “Dr. Bergin’s work is preventative in nature by training the core skills to make one successful versus reacting after you have problems.”

Minor tweaks, major impacts

One of Bergin’s major takeaways is that well-intentioned systems of reward and discipline could actually be doing more harm than good. For instance, the use of rewards, punishments and bribes, or “points” systems, are often perceived by students as authoritarian or threatening and can actually undermine prosocial behavior.

“Instead, our lab focuses on evidence-based strategies that focus on a specific form of discipline called induction, which means providing children with reasoning for why you’re asking them to change their behavior,” Bergin said. “For example, by saying, ‘You should stop talking because you’re disturbing your classmates who are quietly working,’ instead of, ‘Stop talking or else you will be punished,’ the student learns the idea of empathy by considering how they would feel if another student were to disrupt them rather than feeling threatened by the teacher.”

While the professional development interventions are based in 50 years of research on prosocial education, the practices are not widely applied in the classroom.

“Teachers are trying their best, but we hear from so many of them that are struggling with classroom management strategies that promote prosocial behavior to the point that many no longer assign groupwork because the students just can’t get along,” said Jen Foster, an instructional consultant with eMINTS and former teacher who leads the PAL grant with Bergin. “Our main goal is to raise awareness of what strategies work best for teachers interacting with their students.”

Simple, yet effective strategies teachers can use in the classroom to promote prosocial behavior include:

  • Emphasizing person-specific praise (i.e. “I appreciate you” rather than “I appreciate that”).
  • Pointing out positive behavior being demonstrated in the classroom instead of only pointing out negative behavior.
  • Avoiding a rise in tone of voice when reminding students of specific instructions.
  • Avoiding threats of punishments or the use of bribes.

Bergin added that benefits to prosocial behavior extend far beyond the classroom.

“The world economic forum recently said that, for the rising workforce, there is a significant need for employees with greater social skills and the ability to get along well with others, especially as the workforce continues to become more diverse,” Bergin said. “By emphasizing empathy, kindness and cooperation, prosocial behavior leads to better job stability, better family life, and better acceptance from colleagues and peers.”

While the current PAL grant will end by summer 2024, the new $8 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Education will expand the impact Bergin and eMINTS can make for the next five years and beyond.

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