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Missouri program teaching prosocial skills expands to more classrooms and states

Annette Elizabeth Allen
Special to NPR

A program based on a University of Missouri researcher’s study of “prosocial” behavior in schools is getting a big boost of federal funding — and it’s already made a difference for thousands of students.

Founded in 2018, the Prosocial and Active Learning program is based on decades of study from researcher Christi Bergin. The program trains teachers in new strategies to address classroom discipline problems.

Bergin, who serves as the chief scientific officer of the ProsocialEd Collaborative, told St. Louis on the Air that instead of relying on punishments and incentives, the program hinges on empathy. While adults today likely remember their own teachers deploying threats and rewards, Bergin said, “We actually try to move away from those kinds of approaches we think of as externally controlling the child.”

“In the long run,” she continued, “they can end up undermining children's self-control; ultimately, what we want is children who are able to control themselves.”

In its first five years, the program has reached more than 6,000 students and 150 teachers across 33 school districts in Missouri, Kansas and Arkansas. A new federal grant of $8 million will support the program for another five years and expand into 80 middle schools in Missouri and neighboring states.

It is still common for teachers to use a system of “points” or demerits to create consequences for student misbehavior. Bergin argues that this approach doesn’t teach the student self-control. She explained that the prosocial, or “inductive” approach, would be for a teacher to instruct the student, “You need to get back into your seat because you're disturbing your neighbors and they're trying to get their work done.”

Teaching empathy isn’t just about getting students to think about their own actions. Jen Foster, director of the ProsocialEd Collaborative, pointed out that it’s also about empowering teachers to prevent burnout.

Among Missouri teachers, Foster warned, “We are seeing tremendous issues in teacher recruitment and retention.”

She added: “We're finding that when students are more prosocial in the classroom, teachers are actually able to engage in more challenging, more hands-on, active learning experiences. …We decided to develop this project to address both: How can we help students become more prosocial? And how can we help teachers enjoy teaching more?”

To hear more from Christi Bergin and Jen Foster, and to explore what it means to be prosocial in the classroom, listen to St. Louis on the Air on Apple Podcast, Spotify or Google Podcast or by clicking the play button below.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org.

Copyright 2024 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Danny Wicentowski