MU research aims to promote kinder student behavior, reduce teacher stress

Roger McKinney
Columbia Daily Tribune

Kinder, gentler middle school students leads to less stressed teachers. A University of Missouri professor and her team have techniques for teachers to achieve those outcomes.

That's the goal of their MU research project, anyway.

Christi Bergin, research professor in the MU College of Education and Human Development, has a $4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to help teachers promote prosocial behavior in their middle school students.

She's recruiting 200 middle school teachers in Missouri, who will reach 26,000 students.

Prosocial behavior is the opposite of antisocial behavior, Bergin said. Examples include politeness, kindness and sharing.

The teachers will learn techniques developed through research, Bergin said. It won't add anything to teachers' already busy days.

"We don't take up any space at all" in the school day, Bergin said. "We're calling it an 'interactional' approach. We're tweaking the way we treat kids."

Christi Bergin

Praising students is one method, but teachers need to be aware of how they're using it, she said.

"One of the easiest things to change is praise," Bergin said. "But teachers need to praise all of the students in the class."

Too often, teachers praise the same students repeatedly, she said.

"It's often very eye-opening when you keep track of it," Bergin said.

How teachers praise students also is important, she said.

"With that praise, we work on praising the child and not the behavior," Bergin said.

For example, a teacher would tell a student they're a nice person instead of telling them they did something nice.

"It's quite powerful," Bergin said. "It changes children's self-image."

It's the teacher telling a child they appreciate who they are instead of saying they appreciate something they did, she said.

Another technique is how teachers use discipline.

"The most powerful thing is to use discipline in which you reason with kids about how their behavior affects other people," she said.

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Previous research shows that children who use prosocial behavior are better liked by their peers, happier and get better grades. The more positive classroom climate also should benefit teachers, Bergin said.

"By helping students develop social skills, it can help reduce teacher burnout," she said.

Middle school is the beginning of antisocial behavior in students, she said.

"We definitely see a drop-off in prosocial behavior in middle school that continues in high school," she said.

Shy and introverted students also can be prosocial. They're not mutually exclusive, Bergin said. She said there are many antisocial people who are extroverts.

There are many other researchers working on the project with her, she said.

Bergin is still recruiting middle school teachers for the four-year project. Those interested in participating can email her at