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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Building Social and Emotional Skills in Elementary Students: The Power of Appreciation

Randy Taran

Filmmaker, Project Happiness

In this nine-part series, we will look at important factors that influence the happiness and social and emotional learning of elementary school age children. These factors are very useful in helping students learn, manage emotions and increase empathy. Each blog features one letter of the acronym HAPPINESS:

H = Happiness
A = Appreciation
P = Passions and Strengths
P = Perspective
I = Inner Meanie, Inner Friend
N = Ninja Mastery
E = Empathy
S = So Similar
S = Share Your Gifts

In this article, we’ll explore appreciation, which is a pillar of happiness and one of the fastest ways to shift a student's mood and perspective. The definition of appreciation is "gratitude; thankful recognition." Developing gratitude helps students to focus on what is working in their lives, and also to train their minds to notice the good things that are all around. Learning to appreciate even the little things in life, such as a sunny day, a smile or a good meal, improves one's outlook substantially, and helps to develop a more optimistic and resilient attitude. What we focus on is what grows -- and gratitude promotes positivity.

Accentuate the Positive

Cultivating gratitude, which leads to positivity, is important in that it has a direct relationship to learning. According to Shawn Achor in his book The Happiness Advantage, "The brain at positive is 31% more productive is than the brain at negative, neutral or stressed." In addition, the hormone dopamine that floods the system at positive opens up the learning centers of the brain.

Gratitude works on two levels. It is one of the quickest ways to shift your perspective on perceived problems (external) and it is also an antidote to the inner "critic mind." If individuals are grateful for the small things, then the bigger issues can seem less daunting. On the inner level, when people practice noticing the good in others, they tend to be less judgmental with themselves -- that's important too!

In the classroom, the APA reported a recent study about the effects of gratitude on students aged 10-14. When comparing the results of the least grateful 20 percent of the students to the most grateful 20 percent, they found that, by the end of the four-year period, students with the most gratitude had:

  • gained 15 percent more of a sense of meaning in their lives
  • become 15 percent more satisfied with their lives overall (at home, at school, with their neighborhood, with their friends and with themselves)
  • become 17 percent happier and more hopeful about their lives
  • experienced a 13 percent drop in negative emotions and a 15 percent drop in depressive symptoms

The study concluded that increases in gratitude over a four-year period were significantly related to improvements in life satisfaction, happiness, positive attitudes and hope.

Teaching Gratitude

The good news is that gratitude is something that can be taught. The more that gratitude and appreciation are practiced, the more this perspective becomes second nature. The scientific explanation is that repeated behavior changes the neuropathways of the brain. When specific skillsets are learned and practiced, they strengthen the happiness centers in the brain.

Here are some easy ways to bring the benefits of gratitude and appreciation to your classroom:

  1. Consider starting each day with a Gratitude Check-In. Students can either tell the person next to them or write in a gratitude journal three things they are thankful for that day. Scientific studies have shown how this quick activity can bring significant results. It's a simple and effective way to shift a student's mind to positive, which enhances learning and gets the day off to good start.
  2. Have students write a gratitude letter to someone who has influenced or touched their lives in a positive way, someone who has inspired them or who has been especially kind and caring. Ideally, the student would deliver the letter in person and watch the person's face as they read it. Then it is the student who should be prepared for hugs and appreciation! If it is not possible to deliver the letter, the mere act of writing it (or for younger kids, just speaking it) has proven benefits as well.
  3. Another powerful facet of appreciation is when teachers express appreciation to students. This "thankful recognition" can be expressed for many reasons, including when students help out in the classroom, help another student in some way, or even when they pay attention in class. It reinforces what is expected in class and, more than that, it rewards cooperation, kindness and initiative. These are behaviors and attitudes that directly help with classroom management. When students are recognized for positive behavior, it contributes to creating a contagiously positive atmosphere. Who could argue with that? Look for reasons to express appreciation to students, and you may be pleasantly surprised!

Find lesson plans and additional resources at projecthappiness.org. Meanwhile, please share how you've noticed the benefits of appreciation in the classroom.

Project Happiness: SEL Curriculum for Elementary Students
From Project Happiness, this 9-part series includes social and emotional learning curriculum for elementary school students.

Comments (15)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

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Heather Michael's picture
Heather Michael
Elementary Art Teacher from East Hartford, Connecticut

Walking around my school I hear students make comments like "I hate my life" or "today is the worst day ever." I personally try to teach students to change their mindset.
In my school we teach to the three P's, which are being positive, polite, and productive. I find that students seem to have the most difficulty with the positivity piece. They become so fixated on the negatives in their lives. I work to develop relationships with my students in which I can talk to them freely about the positives in their lives that they should be appreciative and grateful for.
Beyond simply talking about appreciation I demonstrate it by pointing out my "special helpers" of the day and rewarding them with "panda tickets." I rotate through the class, searching for new helpers each day, students whom may have demonstrated leadership or assisted another classmate with their work. I make sure to recognize these students and clarify why I am appreciative of their help.
By teaching students appreciation and gratitude I have developed stronger classroom bonds. Students recognize the variety of gifts and talents that their classmates hold. Students value and appreciate one and other. By maintaining a positive attitude and a high level of appreciation for each other, students seem less likely to put each other down in my room. Inside my walls they work as a family, helping each other reach their goals. Prior to taking the time to teach appreciation and gratitude, I noticed a lot more disrespect and devaluing of their fellow students.

Randy Taran's picture

Heather, what an inspiring example of using appreciation to bring out the best in your students. By recognizing the students who are helpful to others, and clarifying why you are appreciative of their help, you are modeling gratitude, positivity and respect. Your students are picking up on it, no doubt. Love the "panda tickets" too :) Thanks for your comment.

Stacie's picture
Stacie
Tutor in CT elementary school

I really want to try this lesson with my students. I have many different reading groups which i will have to adjust but I have one particular student I teach social skills and I think this will be great! On another note, the first staff meeting we had our principal had us watch Shawn Achor's youtube piece on Happiness and it was amazing! Thanks for the lesson!

Heather's picture

I thinki this is a great idea. It is useful for children of all ages. The fact that gratitude can be taught is excellent. I work in a very hard, at-risk district and sometimes gratitude may not be taught at home, but the thought of having it be a part of my classroom is very encouraging. I am excited to try this out!

Heather's picture

I thinki this is a great idea. It is useful for children of all ages. The fact that gratitude can be taught is excellent. I work in a very hard, at-risk district and sometimes gratitude may not be taught at home, but the thought of having it be a part of my classroom is very encouraging. I am excited to try this out!

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