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Fostering Prosocial Behavior in Young Children
By Kathy Preusse

 Competencies for Group Size Article

The Child Development Associates (CDA) competency that can be used for this article is:

To support social and emotional development and to provide positive guidance.

For more information on the CDA competency requirements, contact the Council for Early Childhood Recognition at (800) 424-4310.


This article helps meet the following Certified Childcare Professionals (CCP) professional ability area:

The ability to enhance children’s social and emotional development.

For more information on the CCP certification, contact the National Child Care Association at (800) 543-7161.


According to the National Center for Education Statistics (2001), there are over 21 million children under the age of six in center-based child care programs in the United States. Programs vary in their content, but one of the aspects common to all is the social context in which learning and care occurs. All early childhood teachers have a tremendous responsibility to meet the developmental needs of the whole child, and more than that, to help children develop the prosocial skills necessary to succeed in a group setting, as well as in society.

Social Development in Young Children

From infancy, children are active participates in a complex world. Interactions with parents are the first type of social exchange infants experience. Healthy exchanges create a bond or attachment. Attachment is a sense of connection between two people that forms the foundation for a relationship (Pruitt, 1998). Exchanges such as facial expressions, movements, and verbal interactions help create an attachment or bond. Experts feel that the first year of life is a critical period for bonding. Bonds create a sense of trust that supports an infant’s exploration of the world and serves as a base for future development (Raikes, 1996). “Numerous studies have shown that infants with secure attachments to their mothers and fathers are at an advantage for acquiring competencies in language and in cognitive, social, and emotional development”(Raikes, 1996, p. 59). If attachment does not occur, children may have problems later in life and may display asocial behaviors (Wardle, 2003).


Today, with an increasing number of children enrolled in center-based programs, educators and caregivers play an important role in promoting the development of prosocial skills. “The teacher-child relationship is an extension of the primary parent-child relationship, and teachers invest in building supportive relationships with families around their common interest, the child” (Edwards & Raikes, 2002, p. 12). Many programs have been designed based on the principle that attachment is vital to the social development of young children. Some centers have focused on the importance of attachment and relationships by creating small groups or ‘families.’ In these programs, an early childhood teacher is assigned to a group of children over an extended period of time, sometimes several years, which is called looping. Primary caregivers provide children predictability, consistency and a secure base, which helps promote the development of trust. It is from this base the child can explore his physical and social environment. According to Howes and others (cited in Raikes, 1996, p. 61) “There are multiple advantages of secure-based behavior for infants: infants explore more, have more productive play, and interact more and more resourcefully with adults in group settings when their attachments to teachers are secure.”  Furthermore, children with a secure teacher-child relationship tended to have more positive peer relationships (Raikes, 1996).

During the preschool years, children are developing a sense of independence and capacity for cooperation. As they become more verbal, self-aware, and able to think about another person’s point of view, they become more able to interact with peers (Berk, 2002). Furthermore, children at this age move from parallel play to more advanced levels such as associative and cooperative play. It is through cooperative play that children experience play in groups in which they must set aside their needs for the good of the group (Wardle, 2003). Thus, they are developing positive social skills.


Early social development is complex and closely intertwined with other areas of development: cognitive, physical, emotional, linguistic, and aesthetic. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC; Bredekamp & Copple, 1997) emphasizes the need for socialization and the development of social skills as a vital part of early childhood education. They advocate principles that educators should use as a guide to developmentally appropriate practices. Listed below are five of these principles. As you can see socialization is intertwined and important to each of these principles (as well as the remaining ones not listed).

  • Development and learning occur in and are influenced by multiple social and cultural contexts.
  • Children are active learners, drawing on direct physical and social experiences as well as culturally transmitted knowledge to construct their own understandings of the world around them.
  • Development and learning result from interaction of biological maturation and the environment, which includes both the physical and social worlds that children live in.
  • Play is an important vehicle for children’s social, emotional, and cognitive development as well as a reflection of their development.
  • Children develop and learn best in the context of a community where they are safe and valued, their physical needs are met, and they feel psychologically secure (cited in Bredekamp & Copple, 1997, p. 10).

Prosocial behaviors are crucial to children’s well being. Thus, it is our responsibility as early childhood educators to provide opportunities for the development of necessary social skills.


Play is a common form of interaction between and among children. “Children do not construct their own understanding of a concept in isolation but in the course of interaction with others” (Bredekamp and Copple 1997, p. 114). Some of the social skills fostered through play are the ability to work towards a common goal, initiating and/or keeping a conversation going, and cooperating with peers. Attachments are formed with other children of similar interests and can lead to friendships. Friendship can be defined as “a mutual relationship involving companionship, sharing, understanding of thoughts and feelings, and caring for and comforting one another in times of need” (Berk, 2002, p. 377). Many of the social skills children develop at this time are listed in this definition. As social skills become more developed, friendships and interactions can become more complex.


Prosocial Skills

Prosocial behaviors allow a child to interact with adults and children in a successful and appropriate manner (Wardle, 2003). The interaction should be beneficial to one, the other, or both parties involved. An added component is the “individual’s ability to perceive the situation and be aware when a particular set of behaviors will result in positive outcomes” (cited in Cartledge & Milburn, 1986, p. 7). According to this, a child needs more than specific skills. A child also needs the ability to navigate specific situations.


Prosocial behaviors can be grouped into three distinct categories: sharing (dividing up or bestowing), helping (acts of kindness, rescuing, removing distress), and cooperation (working together to reach a goal)  (Marion, 2003). Other experts include showing sympathy and kindness, helping, giving, sharing, showing positive verbal and physical contact, showing concern, taking the perspective of another person, and cooperating. Kostelnik et al. (1988) placed prosocial behavior in two categories: cooperation and helpfulness. The authors defined cooperation as the act of working together for a common goal. Helpfulness was defined as the act of removing distress from another person.  

Developing Prosocial Skills      

Many experts have looked at the process of developing prosocial skills. A child must develop cognitive competencies, emotional competencies, and specific skills in order to develop prosocial behavior (Marion, 2003). For example, in order to share a child must have:

  • The cognitive ability to recognize him/herself as able to make things happen.
  • The emotional capacity to empathize with the other person.
  • The ability to perform a specific skill.

It is the combination of these three elements that result in the formation of a social skill such as sharing.

Another expert, Vygotsky, viewed socialization as two fold. First, cognition is related to social engagement, and secondly, language is a critical tool for communication within a social context (cited in Berk & Winsler, 1995). Vygotsky emphasized the importance of sociodramatic play. Play is a means by which children interact, but it is also through this social interaction that cognitive development occurs. Researchers have found that preschoolers who spend more time at pretend play are more advanced in intellectual development, have a higher capacity for empathy, and are seen by teachers as more socially competent (Berk & Winsler, 1995).


The development of prosocial skills can be viewed as a three-part process. In the recognition step, a child must be able to determine if someone needs help. Secondly, the child must decide whether to help or not to act. Thirdly, a child must act by selecting and performing an appropriate behavior for that situation (Kostelnik et al., 1988).


Crick and Dodge looked at the social problem solving aspect of social development (cited in Berk, 2002). They developed an information-processing model that looked at 1) a child’s ability to engage in several information-processing activities at a time, 2) a child’s mental state, and 3) peer evaluation and response. They listed the activities a child must do in order to deal with the problem and come up with a solution. They are:

  • Notice social cues
  • Interpret social cues
  • Formulate social goals
  • Generate possible problem solving strategies
  • Evaluate probable effectiveness of strategies
  • Enact response (cited in Berk, 2002, p. 378).

In addition, the child must have knowledge of social rules, memory of past experiences, and expectations for future experiences. Lastly, peer perspectives and responses to a child’s problem solving techniques greatly impact future interactions between the children involved (Berk, 2002).


The Teacher’s Role

It is the teacher’s role to facilitate and encourage prosocial behaviors, provide activities that foster appropriate skills, provide necessary assistance, and develop a social network that supports children in their efforts. Teachers must provide activities that help children identify various social skills and help them understand why the skill is needed (Johnson et al., 2000).


The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) pointed out that “preschoolers are capable of engaging in truly cooperative play with their peers and forming real friendships. However, development of these important social skills is not automatic for children. They need coaching and supervision to learn and maintain appropriate behaviors with others” (cited in Bredekamp & Copple, 1997, p. 116).


How can teachers help children develop the skills and behaviors needed to act in a prosocial manner? According to NAEYC the classroom is a place to learn about human relationships. Children should have the opportunity to:

  • Play and work with others
  • Make choices and encounter the consequences of those choices
  • Figure out how to enter play situations with others 
  • Negotiate social conflicts with language
  • Develop other skills that characterize socially competent human beings (cited in Bredekamp & Copple, 1997, p. 118).

Facilitating Positive Interactions

Teachers can facilitate positive play interactions for children through the use of a variety of strategies. These strategies include: 1) emphasizing cooperation rather than competition, 2) teaching games that emphasize cooperation and conflict resolution, 3) setting up classroom spaces and materials to facilitate cooperative play, 4) using literature to enhance empathy and caring, and 5) encouraging social interactions between children of different abilities whether it is social, emotional, or physical (Honig & Wittmer, 1996). Research has shown children benefit greatly from effective, positive play situations. Klein, Wirth, and Linas (2003) listed several approaches for facilitating quality play situations. These approaches include:

1)      Focusing on the process by asking exploratory questions.

2)      Building on children’s interests and elaborate on their play

3)      Labeling emotions and feelings that children are expressing through their play.

4)      Providing materials that encourage and extend exploration.

5)      Providing open-ended materials such as blocks or pretend props.

Howes and Stewart (cited in Honig & Wittmer, 1996) found that children who are involved in high-quality care and have supportive parents learn how to recognize and regulate emotional signals when playing with peers.

Helping Children Make Choices      

Teachers should help children make choices and deal with the consequences of their decisions. The teacher’s role is to plan activities that help children think through a problem. It is also necessary to repeat the learning activity or similar activity several times (Kostelnik et al. 1988). Through this repeated step-by-step process children can learn how to identify the different path choices, apply reasoning to the process, and formulate a decision.


Promoting Entry into Play Groups    

Young children frequently need encouragement to enter playgroups, whether it is to enter an ongoing group, initiate a contact with a friend or being approached by others. Children enter playgroups in a variety of ways, some more successfully than others. Preschoolers tend to enter groups in one or a combination of ways: 1) approaching and watching with no verbal or non-verbal attempt to participate, 2) starting the same activity as another child and blending into the ongoing activity, 3) making social greetings or invitations, 4) offering informational statements or questions, 5) making overt requests to join, or 6) approaching and trying to control group or get attention (Ramsey, 1991).


Preschool playgroups can be fluid, with children entering and leaving quite frequently. Teachers can respond to these already formed groups to “insure the equal participation of all children, help the group work towards a desired goal, and enrich the activity so that all the children can have a meaningful role” (Ramsey, 1991, p. 120). In some instances teachers may prefer arranging playgroups. This helps reduce children’s anxiety and widens their range of contacts. Again, equal and active participation by all members and a common goal are important (Ramsey, 1991).


Helping Negotiate Conflict

Teachers need to help children develop negotiating skills to handle conflict situations. Children must use social problem solving skills to resolve issues in a matter that benefits them and is acceptable to others (Berk, 2002). Marion (2003, p. 56) suggested six steps for teaching conflict resolution:

  • Identify and define the conflict.
  • Invite children to participate in solving the problem.
  • Work together to generate possible solutions.
  • Examine each idea for how well it might work.
  • Help children with plans to implement the solution.
  • Follow up to evaluate how well the solution worked.

Peer mediation is another strategy used by teachers to negotiate conflicts. Peer leaders are seen by other children as being credible and serve as role models (Wardle, 2003). This method is used most effectively in elementary schools because of the skills required to implement the process. The “friendship table, or talk-it-over table,” is suggested for preschoolers. The teacher’s role is to remove the children to a neutral site, and facilitate the conflict resolution process (Wardle, 2003, p. 393).   


Promoting Self-Control

Teachers should provide as many opportunities for young children to develop other necessary skills needed to achieve social competency. Self-control is one of the skills. Harter and Shaffer (cited in Marion, 2003, p. 56) said, “Self-control is an essential part of how children learn, is important in a child’s growth and development, and is fundamental in preserving social and moral order.” Self-control or self-discipline refers to the ability to internally regulate one’s own behavior rather than depending on others to enforce it (Kostelnik et al., 1988). Children demonstrate self-control when they 1) control their impulses, wait, and suspend action, 2) tolerate frustration, 3) postpone immediate gratification, and 4) initiate a plan and carry it out over time (Marion, 2003).

If it is an internal process, how can teachers foster the development of self-control? Kostelnik et al. (1988) suggested four strategies:

  • Use direct instruction to let children know what are appropriate behaviors, inappropriate behaviors, and alternative behaviors. For example, restricting certain behaviors (“Five more minutes on the swing.”) or redirecting children’s behaviors (“Don’t bounce that ball inside. Go outdoors instead.”).
  • Model right from wrong so children can learn by example. Modeling can be non-verbal (returning library books on time) or verbal (“I’m petting the kitten very gently.”).
  • Introduce logical consequences to influence future behavior (“Wear an apron so paint doesn’t get on your shirt.”). 
  • Integrate emotions, development, and experience to help children make an internal map. A child can use this chart to categorize past events, interpret cues, envision various responses, and then respond appropriately (“When you share the chalk with Tommy it makes him happy.”).

Self-control evolves over time. Teachers should provide repeated experiences for children to practice self-control and refine their behavior.

Environment and Curriculum

The teacher’s role should include preparing the classroom environment for optimal prosocial learning opportunities and providing a comprehensive curriculum that enhances the development of prosocial skills. Opportunities for prosocial skill development should be evident in all classroom areas. To illustrate, here are some examples:

  • Placing marble mazes (or other exploratory activities) in the science area that can be played by two or more children. Encourage verbal discussion as well as problem solving.        
  • Introducing a variety of books that deal with perspective taking, feelings and emotions in the literacy corner.        
  • Arranging the housekeeping area to include a dollhouse with people of many cultures represented.        
  • Providing rainbow ribbons in the music area so children can come together in dance to express themselves.        
  • Placing giant floor puzzles in the manipulative area so that children can work together towards a common goal.        
  • Playing a parachute game where cooperation is necessary during large motor times.        
  • Promoting helping skills and acts of kindness by setting up opportunities in the dramatic play area such as a pet hospital.        
  • Preparing muffins and sharing them as a cooking experience.        
  • Including open-ended materials in the block area.        
  • Facilitating play groups for those reluctant to join in.        
  • Setting up bath time for baby dolls in the sensory table. Model caring and helping behaviors.        
  • Supplying paint, brushes and a very large piece of paper for the whole class to make a mural in the art area.        
  • Displaying children’s work in the classroom at their level.     

Teachers must also implement curriculum that emphasizes prosocial themes and concepts. Activities and experiences should focus on the development of self-worth as well as respecting others .One such curriculum is Moonie’s Kindness Curriculum which is distributed by Children’s Kindness Network ([email protected]). The curriculum emphasizes respect for self, family, friend, community, animals, and the environment. Activities included promote kindness, caring and sharing (Herr et al., 2004).


Prosocial behavior is essential to the well being of children. Children must learn to act in an appropriate manner, one that is both beneficial to them and to others. With so many children participating in group settings, positive interactions are a necessity. The development of these skills allows children to interact with others in a socially accepted manner.


The development of prosocial skills begins in infancy with the development of healthy attachments to parents and caregiver(s). The early years are the time for children to develop prosocial skills by interacting with other children. Moreover, it is the role of early childhood teachers to facilitate the development of these behaviors in young children. Positive play opportunities, modeling, coaching, optimal room environments, and carefully designed curriculums lay the foundation.


Kathy Preusse is the Senior Instructional Specialist and the Head Teacher for the Child and Family Study Center at the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie, WI.



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