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
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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 Meanwhile, please share how you've noticed the benefits of appreciation in the classroom.

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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 comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Shawn Marez's picture
Shawn Marez
1st Grade Teacher from Gering, Nebraska

I really liked this idea.! After reading this blog, it reminded me of when I was in third grade. We taped paper plates to our backs and wrote something that we liked about that person on their plate. I have always wanted to implement this into my 1st grade classroom. Within our grade level, we have flexible grouping for reading, writing, and math. I work with the below grade level group for reading and writing. I feel these students are the ones who would benefit the most from a lesson like this. The Gratitude Check stood out to me as the easiest to implement at first. I thought I could randomly chose students for them to share something special with. The second part of the Gratitude Check could be done in their writing journal using pictures and labels.
Last February, our classes wrote Secret Admirer letters to the support staff within our school. In our letters, we told them we appreciate all they do for our school and listed one or two specific things they do for our kids. We mailed them from our local post office. The response was amazing. The support staff was thrilled! We talked with our students about not only giving thanks, but how it makes us feel.
Lastly, I strongly agree with teachers expressing appreciation toward students. Each Friday, we have reader awards. I usually start off with the "Rocky" theme. I call each students up to the stage and share something positive about their progress that week. Students enjoy this recognition.
Even though it nice to be recognized by adults, I feel it is more beneficial for peer recognition. If students are taught at an early age to appreciate others effectively, it will carry over to adulthood.
I enjoyed reading this article and finding ways to adapt it to my first grade classroom!

Maria's picture

I believe that modeling is a powerful tool for learning; not only during the "appreciation" lesson, but throughout the day. Students are always listening, and watching our every move. Providing a positive example when you think students aren't watching may be the best lesson of all.
I am going to incorporate this lesson into my morning meetings. This will help create a sense of community within my classroom, and will give students the opportunity to develop communication skills and foster healthy friendships!

Brandy's picture

Thank you so much for sharing your ideas on how to influence a positive learning environement. I agree that this is the first step that an educator has to achieve in order to creating a classroom where learning takes place.

Sharonda's picture
5th grade teacher from Richmond, Va

With all the standardized testing and mandates pressed upon us as teachers, we don't always think about how important it is for our students to have social skills. This information reminded me of how we should think about what we want our students to become in ten or twenty years. I am going to try the activities suggested.

Nina Smith's picture
Nina Smith
Mentor, Teacher Trainer

That is how our brain is wired. There is so much information around us at any given moment that most info is discarded by brain and senses before you even become aware about it.

You know the effect: when trying to get pregnant the streets are suddenly filled with pregnant bellies and moms with kids - does it mean there really are more of them now? Of course not! But that is what your subconscious makes your pay attention to.

Equally important is to guide students' attention to learning, positive thoughts. and the fact how they can choose between these and their opposites. More information about this:

Dr Stan Theron's picture
Dr Stan Theron
Academic Dean emeritus, PolyEthnic Institute of Studies

For more than two decades I have researched and applied the double topic: holistic accelerated second language learning and the negative effects of anxiety and stress in this respect. Your series dovetails with my thinking and I will be using your thinking and writing to augment my own. Thanks a lot

Dr Stan Theron's picture
Dr Stan Theron
Academic Dean emeritus, PolyEthnic Institute of Studies

William James applied some of this in his approach to acting an emotion to produce that emotion as effect of acting it. Nearly 500 years ago Luther wanted to stop preaching on faith as he did not experience it. His mentor Von Staupitz advised: "Preach until you have it!" A similar approach!

Carol Engler's picture

A fine article. Does anyone know the status of Rep. Tim Ryan's social-emotional legislation that he recently introduced to Congress?
Please visit my website where I have harnessed the concepts of social emotional learning:
Carol Engler
Associate Professor
Educational Leadership
Ashland University/Columbus Ohio

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

I particularly appreciate the last point. Kids pay attention to what we do and, for better or worse, they'll emulate us. We have to be the kinds of people we want them to grow into.

Becky Fisher's picture
Becky Fisher
Education Consultant

I wonder how practicing gratitude could be translated into formalized PD? If we, as educators, continue to practice our gratitude in a structured way (such as journaling), we too can turn it into habit and experience the benefits, which will ultimately translate into your last point about leading by example.

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