In a previous blog, I pointed out that students learn more in positive, upbeat classrooms.  The effect is even more powerful for at-risk students. The best SEL approaches emphasize increasing prosocial, rather than decreasing antisocial, behavior. 

Kids in a line engaging in a jumping competition outside

There are a lot of SEL programs marketed to schools. Nationally, school districts invest about $640 million and a great deal of teacher professional development time on SEL programs that crowd an already-full curriculum. Yet, purchasing an SEL curriculum program may be unnecessary. Research suggests that tweaking simple, daily teacher-student interactions can be powerful enough to substantially improve students’ prosocial behavior. Teacher behavior makes a difference. In fact, a large study found that the effect teachers had on their students’ social skills was greater than the effect they had on their students’ achievement.

So how do you create positive, upbeat classrooms full of students who are prosocial toward each other? Research suggests that you use these approaches:

  1. Give students specific praise when they behave prosocially. “Thanks for [sharpening Darius’ pencil … getting a book for Henry … picking up Cora’s paper].  You are such a helpful person.” Try to make sure every child in the class is praised for kindnesses toward classmates. Many studies have found that such praise increases prosocial behavior in preschool to high school. Despite such evidence, praise is not used often enough in many classrooms. We easily get caught up in criticizing misbehavior rather than praising kindnesses.  If we can reverse that and focus more on praise, students’ prosocial behavior rapidly increases.
  2. Use inductive discipline to correct misbehavior. This is a type of discipline in which the teacher gives students reasons for changing their behavior, rather than penalties.  Particularly powerful is “victim-oriented” induction, where the teacher points out how a student’s misbehavior affects others. This discipline approach focuses students’ attention on others’ well-being.  It helps students learn to self-control by teaching them principles for governing themselves. 
  3. Form positive teacher-student relationships. Students work harder, are more engaged, and learn more in classrooms where they have positive relationships with their teacher. You can form positive relationships with your students by being fair, kind, warm, and sensitive toward students, perceiving interests and needs, and respecting the agendas of your students.
  4. Create an emotionally upbeat classroom.  If you’ve ever been angry, sad, or anxious you know that negative emotions interfere with thinking and learning. The same is true for your students. On the other hand, positive emotions prepare students to be open to learning.  Teachers strongly influence the emotional tone of their classrooms. They can make a classroom more upbeat by doing each of the preceding three things, as well as responding constructively to students’ emotions, helping students use effective coping strategies when they are consumed with negative emotions, using humor appropriately, and talking about emotions during the natural course of events.

If you are teaching online, rather than onsite, the same strategies apply. For example, you can take a few minutes in your online class period for age-appropriate relationship-building activities such as having students identify something they have in common with you and each other, or share out their “good news/success” of the week.  For another example, you can have students share an act of kindness they performed and praise them for it. “You are such a kind person to help your little brother like that.”

Teachers can readily learn to increase their use of these strategies. Members of our team at the University of Missouri College of Education are currently working with groups of teachers to support these skills in a project we call “PAL Classrooms.” If you’d like to be part of the PAL Classrooms project, email me  at You can find more detail about how to enact these strategies in my book “Designing a Prosocial Classroom: Fostering Collaboration in Students from PreK-12 with the Curriculum You Already Use.”

Dr. Christi Bergin is associate dean of research and innovation at the University of Missouri College of Education. She is a co-founder of the Network for Educator Effectiveness.

The Network for Educator Effectiveness (NEE) is a simple yet powerful comprehensive system for educator evaluation that helps educators grow, students learn, and schools improve. Developed by preK-12 practitioners and experts at the University of Missouri, NEE brings together classroom observation, student feedback, teacher curriculum planning, and professional development as measures of effectiveness in a secure online portal designed to promote educator growth and development.