As I was reading Designing a Prosocial Classroom by Christi Bergin, memories from my years as an early childhood teacher flooded my mind...
After gathering my three-year-olds on the rug, we talked about safe ways for our class to get to the park. Our class is going to the park, I began. Lets review how we can all get there safely. What will we need to do? The children offered responses: We need to walk together on the sidewalk. No running. We have to stop at the corner. Having this conversation was a well-established community ritual for the class.
Usually, our walk to the park was safe and uneventful. On this particular day, however, as soon as we stepped out of the building onto the sidewalk, Benjamin took off running down the block. Upon seeing this, I instructed the class to stay with Harriett, the assistant teacher, as I quickly told them, Im going to take giant steps down the block to catch up with Benjamin and make sure hes safe.
Benjamin dramatically put on the brakes at the corner. When I reached him, I bent down on my knee so that we were eye-to-eye. Then I said, Benjamin, you ran down the hill. He responded, Suzanne, you are not the boss of my legs. You cant tell them which way to go. To which I replied, Benjamin, you are absolutely right. So now you tell your legs to turn around and go back up the hill. While we go to the park, you can sit in Karens class and have a conversation with your legs about safer ways of getting to the park.
Bergins book thoughtfully returned me to the space where teachers and children are constantly negotiating, navigating, leveraging, and creating meaningful interpersonal relationships, relationships that can promote or inhibit the well-being and future direction of learners of all ages. The vignettes Bergin highlights in her book reinforce the power that teachers and schools have over children and adolescents and how they can understand and use that power to promote sustainable good in and for those they teach.
If ever we needed the wisdom offered in the 183 pages of Bergins book (including an additional 50 pages of endnotes), we need it now. As schools continue to grapple with national standards, the Common Core, evidence-based outcomes, standardized testing, data-driven instruction, academic preschool, charter schools, and the privatization of public education, the inequities of the educational playing field continue to privilege some children and shun others. All of this is taking place in the context of a nation whose moral and ethical compass is askew and whose leadership proudly models divisiveness, self-indulgence, and verbal attacks. In this environment, Bergins work is right on time.
Society has come to a point where the growing norm is that people are more inclined to send a text than have a face-to-face conversation. Communicating with others, hearing and seeing each others point of view, and knowing how to respond in ways that further communication rather than shut it down are skills that may not come naturally; rather, they may need to be intentionally taught and developed.
Bergins book offers teachers and school communities a thoughtful presentation of the what, why, and how of actually designing prosocial classroom environments. It is divided into two parts: Part One, What is Prosocial Behavior and Why Does it Matter? and Part Two, What Specific Approaches Create More Prosocial Classrooms? The presentation is accessible and the layout of the book is visually clear. It values and draws from the voices and experiences of real teachers and students from elementary, middle, and high school, as well as parents. It is also research-based and makes connections between theory and practice.
Bergin defines prosocial behavior as:
Any behavior that benefits others or promotes harmonious relationships. It is about the quality, not quantity of interactions with others. It is a vital part of the larger concepts of non-cognitive skills and social-emotional learning. Prosocial behavior includes kindness, compassion, collaboration, teamwork, and cooperation, but none of these behaviors alone encompasses prosocial behavior. (p. 14)
Citing her own research and the research of others, she lists 16 prosocial behaviors you might see at school which were identified by elementary to high school students as well as teachers and parents of two- to five-year-olds. For those who may try to trivialize ideas such as kindness and promoting the best in others or who believe that schools and classrooms should focus solely on cognitive development, Bergin offers research findings that challenge and refute that position. Research has shown that as early as preschool, students who practice prosocial behaviors are more academically successful.
Bergins work accurately depicts the landscape in which schools and classrooms find themselves and the challenges they face. For example, she calls attention to how race, class, and gender affect the ways in which students are seen and treated. There is much attention given to discipline and the multiple factors that affect student behavior. Building prosocial classrooms takes much modeling and practice, both of which Bergin also addresses in detail. Additionally, the reflection and discussion segments invite the reader to engage in deeper conversation about the issues raised in each chapter.
Varied audiences can use this book. It offers a wealth of resources if, for example, a school needed to make an argument to the district office in defense of their prosocial pedagogy, approaches to teaching, or curriculum development. Teacher educators would find this book useful in a variety of courses, including curriculum planning, student teaching seminars, human development, foundations, and teaching methods. A principal looking for a unifying set of beliefs and activities in which to engage her staff can use this book as the foundation of a professional development experience for staff. Part Two of the book would be particularly helpful here.
Just as in the famous song, as a teacher of young children, its all about the Benjamins. The Benjamins of the world taught me so much about who I was as a teacher, what I needed to learn, and how willing I was to learn from and with them. The Benjamins made me look and look again at my practice. The Benjamins encouraged me to be the best teacher I could be for them.
Early in my career when Benjamin darted down the block, it was important for me to invite him into a conversation about his behavior, to hear his point of view, for him to have power in the situation, and for us to work out the situation in a way that would leave him feeling whole and not broken, able to make better choices going forward knowing that he and I had a harmonious relationship. Id like to think that back then I was a teacher who endorsed and used prosocial behaviors in my work with young children, even if I didnt know that term at that time. Surely I could have benefited from reading Designing a Prosocial Classroom in the early days of my teaching, and I am confident that todays teachers and school administrators will benefit from this book. As they understand and incorporate the practices suggested by Bergin into their classrooms and school communities, the true benefit will be the ongoing, sustainable good in the lives of their students, even long after they leave the place called school.