Every parent wants his or her child to do well in school. They help the kids with their homework, volunteer in the classroom, do everything they can think of to help their children succeed. But what type of elementary school education actually leads to older kids who do better in school? Typically students are tested at the beginning of the year and the end of the year, and if they improve, their educational program is labeled as successful. This type of assessment, though valuable, sheds little light on what happens in the long run.
A team of researchers led by Gian Vittorio Caprara sought to measure educational progress over a longer period of time, five years, to see what factors were most important in student achievement (Gian Vittorio Caprara, Claudio Barbarnelli, Concetta Pastorelli, and Albert Bandura, University of Rome; and Philip Zimbardo, Stanford University, “Prosocial Foundations of Children’s Academic Achievement,” Psychological Science, 2000). They studied four separate cohorts of third graders, tracking them all the way through the eighth grade. By studying separate cohorts—groups of same-aged kids starting in different years—they hoped to eliminate possible impacts of historical events on a group (for example, a group starting in September 2001 might have a significantly different profile from a group starting in a different year, due to the impact of the attacks of September 11).
When the kids were third graders, they were asked to rate themselves and their classmates on measures of prosocial behavior (cooperativeness, helpfulness, sharing, and kindness) and aggression (fighting, hurting, and teasing). Teachers also rated each child and assessed academic achievement. The same measures were taken when the kids reached eighth grade, five years later.
The graphic below shows the significant correlations the researchers found:
What’s most surprising about the results is that prosocial behavior was a more important predictor of future academic success than academic achievement. When the impact of prosocial behavior was accounted for, academic achievement in third grade did not significantly contribute to academic achievement in eighth grade. Further, the influence of third grade aggression on eighth grade academic achievement was nonsignificant.
Caprera et al. also point out that prosocial behavior is not simply a substitute for general intelligence. Intelligence correlates only weakly with prosocial behavior, accounting for just 16 percent of the variance in prosocialness. They suggest that fostering academic achievement over the long term might have more to do with establishing an environment in school where kids take an active role in helping each other learn.