Kindness may be its own reward, but it seems that teaching children to care for others may also pay off in better results in class.
Children who are kinder and more generous to their classmates score higher in tests and make more progress than those who are less helpful towards their peers, according to a new study.
And the benefits of being kind are even enough to offset the early educational disadvantage experienced by children from deprived backgrounds.
One possible explanation is that children who are seen as kind are more likely to get positive attention from their teachers, while researchers also suggest that the kind of skills involved in caring for others may help in more academic tasks.
Children were assessed on their ability to act kindly or generously towards others, so-called ‘prosocial’ behavior, as part of the study, published today in Child Development, flagship journal of the Society for Research in Child Development.
Teachers were asked to score children on whether they were considerate of other people’s feelings, helpful if someone is hurt and kind to younger children, and whether they volunteer to help others and share readily with others.
These observations were then compared with how the children – all from deprived neighborhoods – performed on three academic outcomes taken between the ages of four and seven: progress towards meeting early learning goals; ability to match sounds with letters, and standardized math, reading and science tests.
Researchers found that children who displayed high levels of prosocial behavior – kindness and generosity – performed better on all three measures.
“Identifying factors that can help children achieve academic success is a crucial step to informing interventions that may reduce educational disparities between children,” said Emma Armstrong-Carter, of the Stanford University Graduate School of Education and lead researcher on the study.
“Supporting positive social behavior may be one way to foster children’s academic success where the odds are against them.”
Developing prosocial behavior in children may help close the disadvantage gap, with students from under-privileged backgrounds tending to have lower educational attainment than their peers, according to the study, carried out with researchers at Leeds University and the Bradford Institute for Health Research in England
Researchers found that neighborhood deprivation was linked to lower academic performance only among children who displayed low levels of prosocial behavior, and not among those with high levels of kindness and generosity.
In other words, teaching children to be kind may mitigate the risk of educational disadvantage in coming from an underprivileged background.
“It is possible that teachers, parents and mentors may be able to help children achieve academic success by modeling, teaching, and fostering the development of helping behaviors,” said Armstrong-Carter.
Researchers speculate that one possible reason for the link between kindness and academic achievement is that the skills involved in activities such as taking another’s perspective provide children with an opportunity to stimulate their own brains.
Fostering positive relationships with others may also give children a support network to help them cope with aspects of living in a deprived neighborhood that could otherwise hinder their development.
Finally, children who help others may be more engaged in the class and may be more liked by their teachers and get more attention and investment in their education, the researchers suggest.
The study looked at 1,175 children from Bradford, England, and the researchers said future studies should explore whether the results apply in different geographic and cultural contexts, as well as the effects of interventions that aim to increase children’s prosocial behavior.