Prosocial behaviour: what is it?
Prosocial behaviour is doing something to benefit, help or care for someone else because you believe that other people’s feelings and experiences are important.
For example, prosocial behaviour might be:
- showing kindness by speaking gently to someone
- comforting someone who’s sad or hurt
- sharing things like books or toys
- donating money
- volunteering time
- offering to help someone
- cooperating with other people in a game or task
- showing care for animals and the environment.
Why prosocial behaviour is important
Prosocial behaviour is good for children of all ages. For example, children with prosocial behaviour tend to:
- get along with other people
- feel confident about their relationships with family and friends
- feel that they belong in their communities
- have good mental health and wellbeing.
And it’s good for people and communities because children with prosocial behaviour tend to:
- contribute to their communities
- care for and help other people
- be role models for other people
- be nice to be around
- follow rules that help people get along
- care for animals and the environment.
Prosocial behaviour doesn’t just help your child get along with other people. In the long term, societies that have a lot of people with prosocial values are better at breaking down prejudice, overcoming disadvantage, sharing resources and including everyone. These sorts of societies benefit everyone who lives in them, including your child.
How prosocial behaviour develops
At around 2 years, children start learning that other people think, feel and experience things differently from themselves. Prosocial behaviour develops when children start to see other people’s thoughts, feelings and experiences as important.
Prosocial behaviour starts with small actions that show consideration for others. For example, a toddler might see someone who’s upset, feel upset too and want to comfort the other person or fix the problem.
Older children and adults tend to share, be kind and cooperate because they believe that it’s important to contribute to other people’s and society’s wellbeing.
Helping children develop prosocial behaviour: relationships, role-modelling, practice and praise
A warm, loving relationship with you helps your child feel valued and worthwhile. And when your child feels this way themselves, they’re also likely to see other people this way.
You’re also your child’s most important role model. If you treat people kindly, share, volunteer and help others, your child is likely to want to do those things too.
Children of all ages also need a lot of practice playing and learning to get along with others. They might sometimes need you, or other grown-ups like teachers and sports coaches, to help them resolve differences or see other people’s points of view.
And at any age, your praise and encouragement helps your child develop prosocial behaviour. Eventually your child will do things for others because they believe that behaving this way makes the world a better place.
Prosocial behaviour looks different at different ages. Strategies for encouraging prosocial behaviour depend on children’s ages and stages of development.
Toddlers developing prosocial behaviour
Toddlers often like to help. You can encourage them but also try to be realistic about their behaviour. For example, a toddler might pick up something you’ve dropped, but they might have trouble sharing a toy.
Here are ideas to build on this early prosocial behaviour:
- Stay close by when your toddler plays with other children so you can help children with taking turns or step in if things go wrong. Talk about why taking turns is important.
- Encourage your child’s helpful behaviour, and praise your child when you see it. For example, ‘Can you please pass me that blanket? Thanks, that’s so helpful!’
- Talk about other people’s emotions. For example, ‘Auntie’s sad because she misses Grandpa’. This helps your child learn that other people have feelings and these feelings matter.
- Talk about how your child’s behaviour affects others. For example, ‘Did you hear the noise Kipper made when you took her ball? How do you think she feels? What could you do to make her feel better?’
Preschoolers developing prosocial behaviour
For preschoolers, prosocial behaviour can be helping others. They might also be aware of and care about how other people are feeling. For example, a preschooler might help another child complete a puzzle or tell a grown-up when another child is hurt.
You can encourage your child’s prosocial behaviour with these ideas:
- Keep an eye on what’s happening when your preschooler plays with other children. You can step in if things go wrong or praise children when they work out something together. For example, ‘That was kind of you to listen to each other before you decided what to play. I can see you know how to be a good friend’.
- Praise your child when they put their litter in the bin, and let them know why it’s important. For example, ‘Great job binning that wrapper. That keeps it out of the river, so the ducks won’t eat it and get sick’.
- Talk about things people do that make a difference to others and why this is good. For example, ‘When your baby brother was born, other people were very kind and cooked us meals to eat. That made it so much easier to settle him in to our family’.
- Talk about how your child’s behaviour might affect others. For example, ‘If you have all the crayons in your pile, Karan can’t finish his picture. How do you think he feels? How would he feel if you shared the crayons with him?’
- Give your child opportunities to help or be kind. For example, ask your child to do a simple chore, and then praise them for helping you.
- Talk about the thoughts and feelings of characters in stories or TV shows. For example, ‘Bluey’s happy because her dad gave her a hug. That was a nice thing to do, wasn’t it?’
School-age children developing prosocial behaviour
At this age, children are often very keen on rules. They might show prosocial behaviour by expressing strong feelings about fairness in a game or standing up for another person who isn’t getting a go.
Here are ideas to foster prosocial behaviour at this age:
- Be ready to listen if your child wants to talk about school. This can be a great chance for you to express your family values about things like kindness, respect for self and others, friendships, relationships, problem-solving and so on.
- Support your school-age child’s friendships by asking your child whether there’s anyone they’d like to invite to your home. Give your child prompts about how to be kind to guests. Be available to help, but also give your child and their friend time and space to learn how to get along with each other.
- Praise your child for sharing, taking turns and playing fair. Point out what your child did well. For example, ‘I thought it was respectful and fair the way you shook hands with the other team at the end of the game’.
- Talk about things people do that make a difference to others and why this is good. For example, ‘This is near where our car broke down that time. It was so helpful and kind of Auntie Pat to pick you up so I could wait for the tow truck’.
- Talk about how your child’s behaviour might affect others. For example, ‘Imagine if we only brought enough birthday cake for your friends. How would the other people in your class feel?’
- Give your child opportunities to do helpful or kind things. For example, ask your child to write a card for Grandma in hospital, and then praise them for cheering up Grandma.
- Talk about the thoughts and feelings of characters in stories or TV shows. For example, ‘Standing up to the bullies looks scary. Why do you think she’s doing that?’
Pre-teens and teenagers developing prosocial behaviour
Pre-teens and teenagers are getting better at considering how their behaviour affects others. They might show prosocial behaviour by cooperating in a group for a school project or organising a social gathering.
Here are ideas for encouraging prosocial behaviour as your child gets older:
- Help your child think about how their choices affect the planet as well as other people. For example, ‘I’m not just worried about the water bills. Having long showers is a waste of water. Water is precious for the environment’.
- Encourage your child to form positive friendships by praising your child when you see them being fair, trusting and supportive. For example, ‘Jasper must have loved seeing you and the gang cheering for him yesterday. That’s a good way to be a supportive friend’.
- Talk about things people do that make a difference to others and why you admire this. For example, ‘I think your friend Amalie was brave shaving her head to support kids with cancer. It was great you donated money to support her cause’.
- Talk about how your child’s behaviour might affect others. For example, ‘I’m impressed that you put Mum’s tools away when it started to rain. Mum would have been upset if they’d got wet. Thank you for being thoughtful and responsible’.
- Give your child opportunities to volunteer or be involved in their community. For example, they could support a charity or help coach a junior sport. Talk about why this is important.
- Show your child how to sort out differences with others by managing conflict with your child constructively.