Oct 19, 2022

Why Pro-Social Teaching in Schools Can Help Communities Flourish Across Latin America

Three research projects supporting pro-social development in Latin American schools show the benefits of a human flourishing approach across borders, social class and cultures.

By Benjamin Reeves

Recently, a teacher in a low-income school in the outskirts of one of Brazil’s biggest cities was approached by one of her fifth-grade students. He had a question for her: “How can we be patient? I want to contribute.”

The student, who was generally shy and reserved, according to Josafa Cunha, professor of educational psychology at the Universidade Federal do Paraná, had been paying attention during recent lessons about virtues, including patience. “He was listening to the message, ‘hey, you can do something, and we’re expecting you to do something,’” Cunha says. “So the kid asks for books, and he borrows one of the books used in the lesson plan and tries to read it to his peers during recess.”

When he struggled to get his classmates to pay attention, he went back to his teacher with another question: “How did you get to be so patient? It’s a beautiful thing.”

Cunha cites this episode as an example of how when students are taught about character virtues and pro-social behavior, they internalize it and seek to bring it to their communities. “In each of these activities the skill, the role model, the opportunity to participate needs to be contextualized in the moment, and it needs to be embedded in the way people are living and in schools,” Cunha says. “It’s beneficial for everyone.”

From Brazil’s biggest cities to rural communities in the Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, three recent research projects have demonstrated the profound ways in which human connection and core virtues — traits such as empathy, bravery and forgiveness — can not only be taught to children in an educational setting, but actually serve to strengthen them and their communities in the face of hardships ranging from the coronavirus pandemic to crime to poverty. The three projects each sought to develop pro-social skills in children, but through different means.

In Brazil, one research project used film and art to connect children across social classes and sought to bridge rural and urban divides. Another project in Brazil aimed to improve historically lackluster civics curriculum by engaging students around human virtues. In the Northern Triangle of Central America, researchers operated after school programs and experimented with the inclusion of virtues-based activities within those programs. Not only did all three projects show success, they demonstrated the exciting potential of pro-social education to change outcomes not only for individuals, but for entire communities.

The projects were supported as part of Templeton World Charity Foundation’s Global Innovations for Character Development (GICD) initiative, which broadly seeks to fund “scientifically sound interventions to promote character development in diverse contexts,” according to Ellen Morgan, the Foundation’s principal advisor for the initiative. GICD goes beyond simply funding research, however, and seeks to also promote the uptake of these interventions or innovations, and to build capacity to do better research and implementation of character development. “The explicit geographical focus has always been in the low- and middle-income countries,” Morgan says. “We want to demonstrate the transformative potential of character strengths and socio-emotional skills in actually making people’s lives better.”

In Latin America, the research teams have been working to show the linkages between the development of specific socio-emotional skills and other outcomes, such as education performance, mental health and wellbeing, and other positive behaviors. For instance, the project in the Northern Triangle “has shown that essentially a character-strength curriculum can protect children from the negative impacts of violence or neglect in a way that is more profound than, say, mindfulness or just a normal extracurricular program,” Morgan says. “It’s better than simply having a safe space or simply teaching children to be mindful and regulate their emotions.”

Brazil: Building Character Virtues in the Classroom
Throughout Brazil, in 60 rural, urban, rich and poor schools, researchers engaged with 1881 fourth and fifth graders to understand the factors contributing to students’ social-emotional learning (SEL) and their development of character strengths such as fairness, hope, bravery, teamwork, self-regulation, social responsibility and prosocial leadership. In a 2022 paper published in the journal School Mental Health, the researchers, including Hope College’s Kendra J. Thomas, Josafá da Cunha of the Federal University of Paraná and Jonathan B. Santo of the University of Nebraska at Omaha, noted that teachers’ use of social-emotional learning strategies, “student-teacher relationships and student peer relationships were important predictors of both classroom baselines and the change in character strengths across time.”

In other words, when character strengths are deliberately taught in the classroom and encouraged within the community of a school, students do better overall. While researchers have known this was the case among students in wealthier countries, few studies had existed looking at whether this sort of education would be effective in a Latin American cultural context. Consequently, Cunha and his fellow researchers adapted an English-language curriculum in use in Canada for use in Brazilian schools.

“It seeks to provide kids with skills that can help them to, for example, listen better, negotiate conflict, and so on,” Cunha says. “The program also provides a common language so that supportive adults in the school community and in the broader community are consistently responding to the kids’ requests for support.” He says a critical component in the curriculum’s success is that “kids start to learn a social process where they will be supported, but that there’s also a next step where they can also make a difference in the issues around them.”

The Northern Triangle: Developing Character Strength in Afterschool Programs
The Northern Triangle, the region of Central America which includes Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, faces several interlocking social challenges, including high poverty, high rates of organized crime and narco-trafficking, violence, impunity, and official corruption. In many areas, children in particular suffer the worst consequences and are often targeted for recruitment by criminal organizations, beginning at a young age, or they witness the toll of violence and poverty on their family. Taken together, these factors push those who are able to try and immigrate north, yet many more remain behind without the means to leave. Within this context, El Salvador-based NGO Glasswing International and The World Bank’s development research group, with backing from Templeton World Charity Foundation, set out to understand how after school programming could help protect children from these social travails and whether social-emotional programming could further improve outcomes for them.

The researchers and Glasswing, which had pioneered after school programming in public schools in the region, studied the innate character virtues which were prioritized by children in each nation and developed a curriculum, called Character Strengths Development (CSD), which aimed to support development of these character strengths. Interestingly, in all three nations children reported “courage” as being the character strength they believed was most important, a result which had not been predicted by prior research, followed by “hope.” “This makes a lot of sense,” says Maritza Trejo, regional director of education for Glasswing. “These children live in very difficult circumstances in that every day it takes a lot of courage just to get up and go to school.”

Glasswing then deployed the curriculum in public schools in each of the three nations and studied outcomes for students at four sets of schools — those without after school programs, those with programs but which didn’t focus on character strengths, those with afterschool programs which included a mindfulness component, and those with after school programs which encouraged development of character strengths using the CSD curriculum. After school programs which encouraged character strengths, “made a difference,” Trejo says. “We all have character strengths, but there’s always that invitation throughout the program to think about how you can cultivate those character strengths.” The students who were in the CSD-based afterschool programs had better relationships with their peers and improved grades. “Just giving students access to the vocabulary to write about different character strengths was very helpful.”

Brazil: Art Breaks Down Boundaries and Encourages Prosocial Connections
Brazil is an incredibly diverse country in terms of class, race and geography. The lives of children in rural farming communities in many ways could not be more different than those in the nation’s biggest cities. The lives of indigenous people may vary greatly from the descendants of European settlers. By the same token, children in the favelas and wealthiest neighborhoods of those cities lead radically different lives and rarely cross paths. Yet bringing children together across these gulfs is vital for the flourishing of a society. So, Rita de Cacia Oenning da Silva and Kurt Shaw, executive directors of Usina da Imaginção, set out to learn whether and how art — including drawing, sculpture, music, conceptual art and especially filmmaking, could be used to build connections between children.

It wasn’t an easy process. Filmmaking is an inherently collaborative process, and during the middle of the project, the pandemic struck. The children couldn’t work together in-person. Instead, Shaw and da Silva orchestrated a series of remote productions. The children worked together collectively to create stories, based on prompts developed by the researchers, and then they were coached in how to individually film their shots, so that they could be knitted together into sequences and ultimately short films. Despite the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, the researchers found, based on interviews with participants, community leaders, and teachers one year after the conclusion of the project, that each of the four communities “participating in the project report higher levels of social interaction between rival groups, better understanding of the challenges that face the other, and reduced social tension and prejudice.”

“We were trying to stimulate empathy with all children during the pandemic, but not just among the participants, but with all sorts of kids,” Shaw says. “And there was a dialogue among the kids. We made films with each one of them, reflecting on what their months of work with art had taught them and encouraged empathy for other children.” In the second phase of the project, the children were challenged to design a city that they felt would encourage meetings with children outside of their social bubbles. (There is now a proposed law to incorporate children’s voices into local zoning and urban planning as a result.)

The researchers made a special effort throughout the program to incorporate indigenous Amazonian epistemology. “The basic ethical and epistemological commandment of Amazonian indigenous people is that you have to look at the world through the eyes of the other,” Shaw says. “We found fiction is a tremendously powerful way to do that. And it was important, first of all, as a way to inspire empathy among children from very different social classes and different regions. We took advantage of the fact that we were doing it online and included children from all over Brazil.” In terms of human flourishing, Shaw adds that the project helped not only promote character virtues, but also helped them understand what “children defined as human flourishing.”