Motivating students to behave in socially competent ways

Motivating students to behave in socially competent ways

Kathryn R. Wentzel

A full appreciation of why students display positive classroom behavior requires an understanding of students’ personal goals, as well as the degree to which these goals are valued by teachers and peers. A caring classroom environment in which teachers and peers support and promote the expression of positive social behaviors appears to play a critical role in promoting students’ adoption and pursuit of positive social goals. In this article, an ecological perspective is introduced as a framework for understanding ways teachers and classmates can create a caring classroom environment and in doing so, contribute to a student’s sense of belongingness and motivate engagement in appropriate classroom behavior. The implications of this perspective for understanding how to promote the development of social competencies across diverse student populations are discussed.

OF CENTRAL IMPORTANCE in discussions of classroom management is the notion that despite individual differences in students’ willingness and ability to behave appropriately, contextual factors also can influence their behavior as they move from classroom to classroom. Where a group of students might be quietly engaged in a learning activity in one classroom, these same students are capable of disruptive and disrespectful behavior in another. In this article, I describe a model based on principles of motivation and person-environment fit to explain why these variations in students’ behavior are often observed. I discuss students’ adoption of social goals to engage in prosocial behavior (e.g., helping, sharing, cooperating) and refrain from displays of antisocial and irresponsible behavior (e.g., breaking rules, aggression with peers) as a critical component of their social competence and overall adjustment to school. This model also highlights the importance of the classroom social ecology in promoting a student’s sense of belongingness and, thus, motivation to engage in appropriate classroom behavior. Potential barriers to some minority students’ ability to experience this sense of belongingness and, therefore, to behave in socially competent ways are also discussed.

Defining Social Competence at School

When thinking about classroom management issues, it is often useful to step back and ask ourselves, what does a well-managed classroom look like and how would we like our students to behave? Discussions of classroom management also focus on the central question of how teachers can motivate students to want to behave in socially competent ways. There is general consensus that desirable student behavior can be defined in terms of the absence of negative or maladaptive outcomes (e.g., aggressive, inattentive, or disruptive actions) as well as frequent displays of normative or positive competencies (e.g., cooperative, compliant, or self-regulated behavior) (Wentzel, 1991b). However, discussions on why students’ displays of socially competent behavior often differ as a function of specific classroom environments are not common. In part, this is due to limited understanding of how social competence develops and can be supported within the classroom environment.

One strategy for extending our understanding of these issues is to adopt perspectives that take into account ways that student characteristics interact with the demands and characteristics of the classroom. For instance, ecological perspectives (Bronfenbrenner, 1989; Wentzel, 2002b) provide several broad criteria that can be used to define classroom-specific social competence and conditions under which students tend to function in socially competent and well-adjusted fashion. First, these perspectives suggest that students are competent when they are able to achieve goals that are valued by themselves as well as those that are valued by their teachers and peers. Second, students should be achieving their goals in ways that are sanctioned by the group, for example getting good grades by studying hard rather than by cheating. Finally, goals should be accomplished in ways that set the stage for other positive outcomes for the student, such as healthy self-concept or further development of skills. For instance, positive interactions with peers, a desirable outcome in its own right, also can enhance the development of a range of intellectual skills such as perspective taking and problem-solving strategies that can enhance intellectual development (Damon & Phelps, 1989).

Of relevance for the present discussion is that these guidelines suggest that students are most likely to be socially competent if they can work to achieve the goals and objectives inherent in the demands of classroom life while at the same time, working to achieve their own personal goals. Therefore, a clear identification of teachers’ and students’ goals is critical if we are to define classroom-specific social competence. Practices that promote the adoption of socially valued goals and the development of positive outcomes for students must also be in place.

In the following sections, goals for education and ways teachers might promote students’ pursuit of these goals are discussed.

Goals for Education

What are the goals for education that are pursued by teachers and their students? Goals for classroom life reflect a wide range of social as well as intellectual outcomes. At the policy level, educational objectives have included the development of social competencies as well as scholastic achievements. Specifically, social behavior in the form of moral character, conformity to social rules and norms, cooperation, and positive styles of social interaction has been consistently articulated in federal mandates as a goal for students to achieve (Wentzel, 1991b).

Parents are rarely asked about their goals for school. However, in a study of several hundred parents of high school-aged students, Krumboltz, Ford, Nichols, and Wentzel (1987) reported that social competence in the form of cooperation, respect for others, and positive interpersonal relationships was nominated by almost all parents as a critical outcome for students to achieve, over and above academic accomplishments. Teachers also have expressed their ideas concerning what well-adjusted and successful students should be like. When describing “ideal” students, middle school teachers have mentioned three types of desirable outcomes: (a) socially integrative characteristics such as sharing, being helpful to others, and being responsive to rules; (b) motivational qualities such as being persistent, hard working, inquisitive, and intrinsically interested; and (c) performance outcomes such as getting good grades and completing assignments (Wentzel, 2000).

Some researchers report that students try to achieve the same positive outcomes valued by teachers (Allen, 1986; Wentzel, 1989). With respect to social goals, most students report frequent efforts to be prosocial (e.g., sharing and helping others solve problems) and socially responsible (e.g., doing what the teacher says), and often pursue these social goals as part of a coordinated effort to achieve multiple classroom goals that also include academic accomplishments. Of particular interest for understanding classroom management issues, Wentzel (1989) found that in contrast to high-achieving students, the lowest achieving students tend to report frequent pursuit of other types of social goals such as to have fun and to make and keep friendships, and a general unwillingness to try to conform to the social and normative standards of the classroom.

In sum, the literature on classroom goals clearly indicates that students as well as teachers value goals for behavior reflecting prosocial as well as socially responsible outcomes. Of additional interest is that students who pursue such goals also tend to display prosocial and responsible classroom behavior, as well as enjoy high levels of social acceptance by teachers and peers. Thus, pursuit of these positive social goals ultimately leads to the support and approval of teachers as well as peers, an important criteria for judging healthy adjustment to school. Moreover, there is ample evidence that students who pursue goals to be prosocial and socially responsible also achieve intellectually, as reflected in classroom grades and IQ (Wentzel, 1991a, 1994). Therefore, pursuit of these social goals appears to set the stage for other aspects of healthy adjustment at school, by supporting displays of socially integrative behavior, the development of positive interpersonal relationships, and enhancing personal attributes such as intellectual development.

The literature also supports the notion that students who pursue goals valued by themselves as well as by teachers also are likely to be competent students. This ability to coordinate and achieve a balance between personal and socially valued goals is especially relevant for understanding school-related social competencies of minority students. Although research on goals of ethnic minority students is rare (cf., Graham, Taylor, & Hudley, 1998), students raised in nonmajority cultures or communities are likely to experience a more diverse set of social goals and expectations than those that are espoused by their school. Therefore, it is reasonable to expect that socially incompetent behavior or low levels of engagement of these students might reflect, in part, the negative motivational effects of these competing, incongruent goals across family, peer, and classroom contexts.

Phelan (Phelan, Davidson, & Cao, 1991) documented that adolescents from various ethnic backgrounds can be categorized according to the degree to which they feel comfortable with and can easily adapt to the multiple demands and goals of parents, peers, and school. Students who reported the highest level of congruence among these potentially competing demands also demonstrated successful adaptation to the academic and social demands of school. Of particular interest is that this group of students was comprised entirely of White children. In contrast, minority adolescents in groups reporting less congruence also expressed strong feelings of alienation and low levels of belongingness.

Of additional importance to a discussion of classroom management is how teachers can establish conditions in their classrooms that promote students’ adoption of these desirable social goals and how to intervene to facilitate positive adjustment when it has not occurred. One obvious target for interventions are students’ interactions and interpersonal relationships with teachers and peers. Indeed, scholars of social development propose that children are more likely to adopt and internalize goals that are valued by others when their relationships are nurturant and supportive than if their relationships are marked by interactions that are harsh and critical (Grusec & Goodnow, 1994). In turn, if goals for socially desirable outcomes have been internalized, efforts to achieve these goals and corresponding displays of appropriate behavior are likely to follow (Wentzel, 1991a, 1994). Ways teachers and peers might facilitate the pursuit of positive classroom goals are discussed in the following section.

Social Influences on Social Competence and School Adjustment

There are two general mechanisms where students’ socially competent behavior might be influenced by interpersonal interactions and relationships with teachers and peers. First, interactions with teachers and peers can provide children directly with resources that promote the development of specific competencies. These resources can take the form of information and advice, modeled behavior, or specific experiences that facilitate learning. Second, social interactions can facilitate the development of personal, psychological attributes related to the development of social and academic skills. Theoretical models of these latter indirect influences describe the socialization process as one of adults communicating goals and expectations for specific behaviors and then providing a context where these goals are learned and subsequently internalized (Grusec & Goodnow, 1994).

Although a thorough review of work on parenting and children’s social competence is beyond the scope of this article, models of how parents socialize their children are relevant for understanding ways teachers might influence their students’ social adjustment at school. In the following sections, I discuss research on parents as socializers of children’s goals, followed by a description of ways effective teachers are similar to effective parents. Next, literature on peers as socializers of student goal pursuit is discussed.

Effective Parenting as a Model for Teacher Influence

Much research on parental influence on children’s social development has focused on particular styles of parenting. Based on extensive observations of parents and children, Baumrind (1971, 1991) concluded that four dimensions of parent-child interactions could reliably predict children’s social, emotional, and cognitive competence. Control reflects consistent enforcement of rules, provision of structure to children’s activities, and persistence in gaining child compliance. Maturity demands reflect expectations to perform up to one’s potential, and demands for self-reliance and self-control. Clarity of communication reflects the extent to which parents solicit children’s opinions and feelings, and use reasoning to obtain compliance. Nurturance reflects parental expressions of warmth and approval as well as conscientious protection of children’s physical and emotional well-being. Others have argued further that within the context of these secure parent-child relationships, young children develop a generalized positive sense of social relatedness, personal competence, and autonomy. In turn, these positive aspects of self-development then support the internalization of socially prescribed goals and values, such that children learn to regulate their own behavior without adult monitoring.

The empirical literature supports a conclusion that motivational processes related to positive behavioral adjustment to school might be critical outcomes of socialization experiences with adults (Grusec & Goodnow, 1994). Although the preponderance of this evidence focuses on children’s experiences with their parents, it is likely that teachers can influence their students’ motivation in similar fashion. First, teachers define appropriate types of classroom behavior and standards for social as well as academic competence for their students. In doing so, they provide students with information concerning which goals they should and should not pursue, and how this might be accomplished. This communication process is especially important for students who come to school with goals and values that might be incompatible with those of their teachers or peers. Second, teachers who establish contexts similar to those provided by effective parents are more likely to promote students’ adoption and pursuit of goals they value than teachers who do not establish such contexts (Skinner & Belmont, 1993; Wentzel, 2002a).

Teachers as Socializers of Classroom Rules and Norms

Theoretical models developed to explain how teachers promote positive student behavior are quite similar to family socialization models. For example, Noddings (1992) suggested that four aspects of teacher behavior are critical for understanding the establishment of an ethic of classroom caring: (a) modeling caring relationships with others, (b) establishing dialogues characterized by a search for common understanding, (c) providing confirmation to students that their behavior is perceived and interpreted in a positive light, and (d) providing practice and opportunities for students to care for others. Noddings’ notions of dialogue and confirmation correspond closely with Baumrind’s parenting dimensions of democratic communication styles and maturity demands.

Empirical findings are beginning to provide substantial support for these models. For example, perceived support and caring from teachers has been related to young adolescents’ pursuit of goals to behave prosocially and responsibly (Wentzel, 1994). Moreover, in a recent study of perceived support from teachers, parents, and peers (Wentzel, 1998), perceived support from teachers was a significant and positive predictor of students’ pursuit of goals to adhere to classroom rules and norms, whereas perceived support from parents and peers was not related to pursuit of these goals. Of further interest is that when asked to define caring teachers, middle school students make clear distinctions between characteristics of teachers who care and those who do not (Wentzel, 1997). Specifically, students tend to describe caring teachers as those who demonstrate democratic and egalitarian communication styles designed to elicit student participation and input, who develop expectations for student behavior and performance in light of individual differences and abilities, who model a “caring” attitude and interest in their instruction and interpersonal dealings with students, and who provide constructive rather than harsh and critical feedback. In contrast, teachers who do not care are described most often as demonstrating maladaptive communication styles (e.g., yelling, interrupting), and communicating low expectations by not providing explanations or individual help.

Subsequent work has demonstrated that students who perceive their teachers to display high levels of these caring characteristics also tend to pursue appropriate social and academic classroom goals more frequently than students who do not (Wentzel, 2002a). Specifically, middle school teachers were assessed with respect to Baumrind’s (1971) parenting dimensions of control, maturity demands, democratic communication, and nurturance, as well as to their modeling of positive motivation toward learning. With regard to classroom behavior, students who perceived teachers to have high expectations for achievement (maturity demands) also reported frequent pursuit of goals to behave prosocially and responsibly. Students’ perceptions of negative feedback (lack of nurturance) was the most consistent predictor of low levels of prosocial behavior and high levels of irresponsible behavior.

Of direct relevance for this issue of TIP is that students’ perceptions of these teaching dimensions were related to students’ pursuit of positive social goals and to competent classroom behavior for girls and boys, and for White as well as African American students. This latter finding is particularly intriguing given that the African American students were describing White teachers. Therefore, at least for young adolescents, race does not appear to act as a lens through which most students interpret the type of teacher behavior assessed in this study. If students come to school with goals that are not completely compatible with those of their teachers, the establishment of a caring classroom climate might play a critical role in motivating them to pursue teacher-valued goals.

Based on this literature, it is clear that teachers can play a critical role in motivating students’ pursuit of positive social goals. Are teachers aware of their potentially critical role in this regard? Little is known about how teachers define their roles as socializers of student behavior. In a recent interview study, however, middle school teachers offered a variety of things they did in the classroom that they considered to be important (Wentzel, 2000). Half of the 20 teachers mentioned promoting social-emotional development as an important part of their job, 40% mentioned instruction and establishing positive teacher-student relationships, and 33% mentioned classroom management and the teaching of learning skills. When asked about ways to be a “caring teacher,” prospective teachers tend to mention the establishment of positive teacher-student relationships but not styles of teaching or classroom management strategies (Weinstein, 1998). These latter findings are especially important in their suggestion that although most teachers recognize the importance of establishing a caring relationship with students, a more integrated notion of how teachers can care for their students in pedagogical as well as social ways might be a necessary component of teacher training efforts.

Peers as Socializers at School

In comparison with adults, little is understood about ways children positively influence each other’s development. In fact, interactions with peers have been viewed most often as having a potentially negative impact on the pursuit and achievement of educational goals (Berndt, 1999). In the classroom, however, students provide each other with valuable resources necessary to accomplish various social as well as academic tasks (Sieber, 1979). Students frequently clarify and interpret their teacher’s instructions concerning what they should be doing and how to do it, and they provide mutual assistance in the form of volunteering substantive information and answering questions (Cooper, Ayers-Lopez, & Marquis, 1982). Classmates also provide each other with information by modeling social competencies (Schunk, 1987), and communicating standards for behavior through the course of day-to-day interactions. Can parent or teacher models of socialization be used to understand peer influence on social goal setting and behavior? Like adults, children articulate sets of goals that they would like and expect each other to achieve. Although specific aspects of peer contexts and interactions that lead children to pursue these peer-valued goals are not well understood, students have been observed monitoring each other by ignoring noninstructional behavior and responses during group instruction and by private sanctioning of inappropriate conduct (Sieber, 1979). In this manner, the group enforces individual efforts to achieve common goals that represent both social and task-related outcomes. Cooperative learning activities also can provide contexts in which peers hold each other accountable to certain standards of conduct.

Indeed, socially responsible behavior in the form of helping and sharing knowledge and expertise is an integral part of the cooperative learning process (Ames & Ames, 1984). As with perceptions of caring teachers, students’ perceptions that their classmates care about them also have been related consistently to positive aspects of school adjustment. In particular, perceived social and emotional support from peers has been associated with pursuit of academic as well as prosocial goals (DuBois, Felner, Brand, Adan, & Evans, 1992; Wentzel, 1994). Interestingly, perceived support from peers appears to be more strongly related to the goal of being prosocial than is perceived support from parents and teachers (Wentzel, 1998). Students also have specific ways in which they define caring from their peers. Of relevance for the present discussion is that young adolescents characterize caring peers at school as those who provide academic help and emotional support (Wentzel, 1996).

Finally, educators are well aware that peer interactions are motivators of positive outcomes only insofar as the peer group has adopted adult standards for achievement and norms for conduct. However, findings suggest that although negative peer influences can often be quite strong, they can be superseded. For instance, it appears that if students enjoy supportive relationships with parents or teachers, peer influence is often minimal. Therefore, with respect to practice, interventions to offset the often negative influence of peer groups and gangs might be especially successful if children have access to adults who can instill a sense of autonomy, mutuality, warmth, and guidance into their relationships with these children (Heath & McLaughlin, 1993). In addition, because peer group membership tends to change frequently, suggesting that influence by a particular group might also be fairly transient, student access to adult relationships that are stable and predictable over time also should contribute positively to teachers’ efforts to intervene.


A full appreciation of why students display positive forms of classroom behavior requires an understanding of a student’s personal interests and goals, as well as the degree to which these are valued by teachers and peers. Students must be able to achieve goals that result in social integration, such as the smooth functioning of the social group, social approval, and social acceptance. At the same time, they must also pursue goals resulting in positive developmental outcomes for the self, such as the achievement of personal competence, feelings of self-determination, and feelings of social and emotional well-being (Bronfenbrenner, 1989). Implicit in this ecological perspective is that personal attributes such as the ability to coordinate multiple goals, motivation to behave in prosocial and responsible ways, and concomitant social-cognitive skills can make critical contributions to social competence at school. In addition, those classroom conditions that support and promote the expression and development of personal attributes as well as goal attainment must also be in place. Creating a caring classroom environment in which teachers enforce rules consistently, communicate expectations for self-reliance and self-control, solicit children’s opinions and feelings, and provide positive expressions of warmth and approval appears to be critical in this regard.

Of particular interest for this issue is that the underlying psychological processes that contribute to social adjustment appear to be similar for all students regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or other contextual and demographic variables. However, the degree to which these processes influence successful adjustment might vary as a function of minority status. For instance, the ability to coordinate personal goals with those of others might be more important for the adjustment of children from minority backgrounds than for children who come from families and communities whose goals and expectations are similar to those of the educational establishment (e.g., Phelan et al., 1991). Peer relationship skills might be especially important for adjustment in schools where peer cultures are particularly strong or where collaborative and cooperative learning is emphasized. Similarly, definitions of competence along with corresponding social goals and values are likely to vary as a function of race, gender, neighborhood, or family background. It is clear that researchers need to focus on more diverse samples as they continue to study issues of school adjustment and classroom management. Expanding our database to include the voices of underrepresented populations can only enrich our understanding of how and why children make successful social adaptations to school.


Allen, J.D. (1986). Classroom management: Students’ perspectives, goals, and strategies. American Educational Research Journal, 23,437-459.

Ames, C., & Ames, R. (1984). Systems of student and teacher motivation: Toward a qualitative definition. Journal of Educational Psychology, 76, 535-556.

Baumrind, D. (1971). Current patterns of parental authority. Developmental Psychology Monograph, 4(1, Pt. 2).

Baumrind, D. (1991). Effective parenting during the early adolescent transition. In P.A Cowan & M. Hetherington (Eds.), Family transitions (pp. 111-164). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Berndt, T.J. (1999). Friends’ influence on students’ adjustment to school. Educational Psychologist, 34, 15-28.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1989). Ecological systems theory. In R. Vasta (Ed.), Annals of child development (Vol. 6, pp. 187-250). Greenwich, CT: JAI.

Cooper, C.R., Ayers-Lopez, S., & Marquis, A. (1982). Children’s discourse during peer learning in experimental and naturalistic situations. Discourse Processes, 5, 177-191.

Damon, W., & Phelps, E. (1989). Strategic uses of peer learning in children’s education. In T.J. Berndt & G.W. Ladd (Eds.), Peer relationships in child development (pp. 133-157). New York: John Wiley & Sons.

DuBois, D.L., Felner, R.D., Brand, S., Adan, A.M., & Evans, E.G. (1992). A prospective study of life stress, social support, and adaptation in early adolescence. Child Development, 63,542-557.

Graham, S., Taylor, A., & Hudley, C. (1998). Exploring achievement values among ethnic minority early adolescents. Journal of Educational Psychology, 90, 606-620.

Grusec, J.E., & Goodnow, J.J. (1994). Impact of parental discipline methods on the child’s internalization of values: A reconceptualization of current points of view. Developmental Psychology, 30, 4-19.

Heath, S.B., & McLaughlin, M.W. (1993). Identity and inner-city youth. New York: Teachers College Press.

Krumboltz, J., Ford, M.E., Nichols, C., & Wentzel, K. (1987). The goals of education. In R.C. Calfee (Ed.), The study of Stanford and the schools: Views from the inside: Part 11. Stanford, CA: School of Education.

Noddings, N. (1992). The challenge to care in schools: An alternative approach to education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Phelan, P., Davidson, A., & Cao, H.T. (1991). Students’ multiple worlds: Negotiating the boundaries of family, peer, and school cultures. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 22,224-250.

Schunk, D.H. (1987). Peer models and children’s behavioral change. Review of Educational Research, 57, 149-174.

Sieber, R.T. (1979). Classmates as workmates: Informal peer activity in the elementary school. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 10, 207-235.

Skinner, E.A., & Belmont, M.J. (1993). Motivation in the classroom: Reciprocal effects of teacher behavior and student engagement across the school year. Journal of Educational Psychology, 85, 571- 581.

Wentzel, K.R. (1989). Adolescent classroom goals, standards for performance, and academic achievement: An interactionist perspective. Journal of Educational Psychology, 81, 131 – 142.

Wentzel, K.R. (1991 a). Relations between social competence and academic achievement in early adolescence. Child Development, 62, 1066-1078.

Wentzel, K.R. (1991b). Social competence at school: Relations between social responsibility and academic achievement. Review of Educational Research, 61, 1-24.

Wentzel, K.R. (I 994). Relations of social goal pursuit to social acceptance, classroom behavior, and perceived social support. Journal of Educational Psychology, 86, 173-182.

Wentzel, K.R. (1996). Motivation in context: Social relationships and achievement in middle school. In J. Juvonen & K.R. Wentzel (Eds.), Social motivation: Understanding children’s school adjustment (pp. 226-247). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Wentzel, K.R. (1997). Student motivation in middle school: The role of perceived pedagogical caring. Journal of Educational Psychology, 89, 411-419.

Wentzel, K.R. (1998). Social support and adjustment in middle school: The role of parents, teachers, and peers. Journal of Educational Psychology, 90, 202-209.

Wentzel, K.R. (2000). Teachers’ beliefs about pedagogical caring. Unpublished manuscript, University of Maryland, College Park.

Wentzel, K.R. (2002a). Are effective teachers like good parents? Interpersonal predictors of school adjustment in early adolescence. Child Development, 73, 287-301.

Wentzel, K.R. (2002b). The contribution of social goal setting to children’s school adjustment. In A. Wigfield & J. Eccles (Eds.), Development of motivation (pp. 221-246). New York: Academic Press.

Weinstein, C.S. (1998). “I want to be nice, but I have to be mean”: Exploring prospective teachers’ conceptions of caring and order. Teaching and Teacher Education, 14, 153-163.

Kathryn R. Wentzel is a professor of human development at the University of Maryland, College Park.

COPYRIGHT 2003 The Ohio State University, on behalf of its College of Education

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group