Social responsibility involves thinking about the group – taking responsibility for others’ well-being and following rules for the common good. Promoting social responsibility may be a key to reducing aggression and victimization among children in schools. While it’s unrealistic to think we can completely eradicate such behaviors, instilling communal virtues in children may help stop aggression from spreading.

Aggressive behaviors at school can be physical acts, like hitting or shoving, or relational acts, like spreading rumors or excluding others. These reflect power dynamics that are common in any social group – but perhaps there are ways to stop aggressive behaviors from spreading and help protect the group from toxic bullying.

Extensive research shows that explicitly teaching children to manage their emotions, in a supportive and structured school environment, can reduce conduct problems and promote prosocial behaviors. It appears that a positive school context can foster social responsibility by signaling the values students should internalize. By teaching children to consider others’ perspectives and fostering a predictable, safe, and supportive environment, we can help children internalize the value of social responsibility.

“Children in classrooms with a more positive climate felt a greater sense of social responsibility.”

My colleagues and I recently published a study of nearly 2,000 Brazilian children across 60 schools. When asked about their perceptions of the school climate, the children told us what they thought of the classroom support, disciplinary structures (how rules are enforced), and socio-emotional learning strategies of their teachers. Children in classrooms with a more positive climate felt a greater sense of social responsibility, and more socially responsible children, in turn, displayed fewer aggressive behaviors.

Although many people believe that stronger rule enforcement will reduce aggression in schools, our research suggests otherwise. More support and emotional instruction foster virtues that enable children to resist spreading aggression. It puts the agency in the hands of the children rather than school leaders, and is a sustainable solution that doesn’t rely on fear. When teachers encourage the development of emotion-regulation and conflict management skills, and schools provide a sense of order and connection, students internalize social responsibility and become motivated to work for the good of the group.

“Interventions designed to nurture social responsibility may reduce victimization and aggression.”

In many cultures, social responsibility is considered a core component of intelligence. In the West, its value is often overlooked. We must hold children to a high interpersonal standard by providing supportive school contexts and explicit socio-emotional education. Schools will never fully eradicate aggression and victimization – any group may have power dynamics that escalate such behaviors – but they can foster virtues that are incompatible with aggression. Interventions designed to nurture social responsibility may reduce victimization and aggression, enabling children to act as agents of positive change.

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