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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Habits of Heart: Helping Students Reflect and Act on Gratitude

Maurice Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service

The jury is in and the verdict is that gratitude should be set free. It no longer has to be reserved for special occasions and amazing circumstances. Researchers, led by The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) has Robert Emmons and Jeffrey Froh, have shown that there are benefits to expressing gratitude, even to "counting one's blessings." But doing so takes a bit of practice.

Classroom Activities

What follows are some practical ways you can have students reflect on and express gratitude:

Thank You Cards

Ask students to think of someone in the school who has been helpful to them in some way, large or small, to whom they would like to thank, or express extra thanks. For younger students, you may have to help them think of some different groups of people to consider -- teachers, office staff, custodians, school support staff, and aides. Have students write and/or draw a card that communicates their appreciation for that help. Once completed, arrange for these to be delivered within the school, ideally by the children. Afterwards, discuss as a group how it felt to write to these various people.

Appreciation Journals

Ask students to keep journals in which they make entries each day about things big or small that they appreciate. This can be coordinated with language arts curricula, in that they can be asked to use different writing styles, sentence lengths, vocabulary, etc. to express themselves. Have them review their journals periodically and, ideally, share with one or two classmates. Help students expand the everyday occurrences for which they feel a sense of gratitude.

Where Did That Come From?

In conjunction with ongoing curriculum emphases, pick common objects that you are studying and ask the question, "Where did that come from?" or the related question, "How did that get here?" A good example is an apple. Work backward with your students (using the Internet or other sources when necessary), to trace the path that led that apple to find its way from a seedling to your school. Other common items -- chalk, a ruler, a piece of paper, a musical instrument, a piece of sports equipment -- can be traced back to their origins so that students can develop a sense of appreciation for the many things that had to happen to bring these objects to your school, and to them.

Gratitude Poster/Gratitude Board

Put a Gratitude Poster/Gratitude Board in your room that students can write on. You can have a different gratitude-related theme each month or you can alternative between two themes, for example: "Things We Are Grateful For" and "We Did It!" The first theme is about basic gratitude and it provides the opportunity to broaden students' appreciation for people and things that affect their lives. The second theme is a listing of something a student accomplished and the names of one or more people who helped them to be successful. We want students to recognize the truth of the statement that in success, we stand on one another's shoulders. This does not take away from students' success, but in fact adds to it. Two examples: "I got a B+ on my test because my sister let me study" and "I learned a solo in a song in chorus because Thomas practiced with me."

Gratitude Reflection

The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) has a Gratitude Works program with resources that help bring a variety of gratitude approaches into schools, as well as connecting to the home.

One activity that NASP recommends is a process of reflecting on gratitude. Have students consider the following:

  • Why this good thing happened
  • What this good thing means to you
  • What you can do tomorrow to enable more of this good thing
  • What you learned from taking the time to name this good thing
  • What ways you or others contribute to this good thing

The Rationale

When we promote gratitude in our students -- and in our own children -- we are giving them a great gift. What we understand about the effects of gratitude is similar to what we understand about the benefits of giving up grudges and more generally embracing a stance of greater appreciation. Dwelling in negative emotions --including selfish emotions -- is not the optimal state for learning, growth, or well-being. One of the reasons why writing about trauma is so effective is that it helps dispel the negative emotions involved.

It does not and cannot change unfortunate and sometimes tragic events. But it can help shift perspective toward greater positive engagement with others and with life. So it is with gratitude.

How do you practice and teach gratitude in your classroom with your students? Please share with us in the comment section.

Maurice Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service
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