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Gratitude: A Powerful Tool for Your Classroom

Owen M. Griffith

4th Grade Teacher, Author-Gratitude: A Way of Teaching, Guitar Instructor, and Blogger
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Would you like to improve the culture in your classroom and your life? Try gratitude. Based on my ten years of teaching experience, this is the most powerful tool that I know.

Gratitude has empowered me to teach more effectively, appreciate my individual students, grow in my profession, and enjoy life. Utilizing gratitude, I am able to model one of the most important lessons in life, having a positive attitude, especially about the aspects of life that challenge me.

Gratitude Journal

To get started in your classroom with gratitude, I recommend actually writing your own gratitude list for a few weeks and feeling its power. Then you can share your example and start the activity with your students. You might start your gratitude journal with being thankful for being alive, for having food to eat and clothes to wear. If you can think about something related to teaching that you're grateful for, that's even more powerful.

My students use a composition book and start every day by writing five gratitudes. If you have computers or iPads, you might have the students start a file to save their daily gratitude journal. By the end of the year, we each have almost 1,000 gratitudes. I show the students an example or let them see this form:

  1. Thanks for ___________________________.
  2. Thanks for ___________________________.
  3. Thanks for ___________________________.

Once a week, we go around the class and share our favorite gratitude. I am always encouraged and pleasantly surprised by what my students share. I get to learn about things going on in their lives that I might not hear about otherwise. This helps build a positive culture in our classroom.

In addition, I suggest that the students should be specific. For example, instead of writing, "Thank you for lunch," I would write, "Thank you for the tomatoes and lettuce in my salad and for the cool, sweet iced tea with friends," or "Thank you for the nutritious lunch made by loving hands."

Exercising the Muscle

Gratitude seems to work like a muscle, and the physical action of writing a gratitude list helps develop "gratitude muscles." A recent study by Professor Philip Watkins from Eastern Washington University, published in School Psychology Review, showed that those who are the least grateful seem to gain the most from making this effort. That is good news to those us who may find it hard to start a gratitude list.

Sometimes I really challenge the students by asking if they can be thankful for homework or chores. This challenge enables them to see what is good about homework -- that it helps them learn and prepares them for school and life.

In her article "Gratitude Activities for the Classroom," Vicki Zakrzewski of the Greater Good Science Center lists many more gratitude activities to try in your classroom. This year, a new activity that I started in my classroom is writing down gratitudes on sticky notes and putting them on our classroom door, so that we have a positive reminder every time we enter and leave the room. Students will even take this idea home and post gratitudes on sticky notes around their homes, reminding them to stay grateful.

Visible Change

Recent research by two leaders in the field of gratitude and education, Dr. Robert Emmons and Dr. Jeffrey Froh, supports the idea that gratitude improves the lives of students and adults. It illustrates how:

Keeping a gratitude journal on a daily basis helps students achieve the following:

  • Higher grades
  • Higher goals
  • More satisfaction with relationships, life, and school
  • Less materialism
  • More willingness to give back.

For adults, keeping a gratitude journal enables people to:

  • Be more optimistic
  • Experience more social satisfaction
  • Exercise more often
  • Have less envy and depression
  • Have fewer physical complaints
  • Sleep better.

I see these positive changes in my students. One of them saved her allowance and bought gratitude journals for her family. Her mom was in nursing school and very stressed. At the dinner table, they would share their gratitudes for the day and grow as a family. The mom came to me and thanked me for teaching gratitude to her daughter and helping her family. She said it helped her get through nursing school.

Tapping the Potential

Dr. Kerry Howells, a leading researcher into gratitude and education, actually trains teachers to utilize gratitude in the classroom. Watch the following powerful video where she gives examples and evidence of the power of using gratitude in education:

I challenge you to try it yourself and see how it works. My friends who have written a daily gratitude journal for at least two weeks speak positively of the experience. Gratitude has transformed many lives. It is true that our focus can stimulate growth. If I focus on the good and I am grateful, more comes into my life. Conversely, if I complain and focus on the negative, more of that is drawn into my life. For me, the fruit of the focus on gratitude is happiness. Finally, check out Gratefulness.org for extra gratitude resources.

Research

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Doing Good Together™'s picture
Doing Good Together™
Doing Good Together™ offers family-friendly volunteer ideas & fun kindness activities to help busy families grow big hearts.

We love the ideas presented here. Too often we get kids (and adults) involved in service, but they serve and move on. With the addition of reflection, those simple behaviors become habits. By focusing on gratitude, you've put "reflection" back into the service equation. Well done! FYI: Along with our many project resources and book recommendations on the subject of gratitude, we offer lots of reflection questions as well: http://www.doinggoodtogether.org/bhf/blog/7-tips-to-avoid-preaching-to-y...).

Owen M. Griffith's picture
Owen M. Griffith
4th Grade Teacher, Author-Gratitude: A Way of Teaching, Guitar Instructor, and Blogger

Thanks for the insightful comment. Your point about using reflection to establish positive habits is powerful.

grouse's picture

Thanks for the information! I will start this in class tomorrow.

Owen M. Griffith's picture
Owen M. Griffith
4th Grade Teacher, Author-Gratitude: A Way of Teaching, Guitar Instructor, and Blogger

Thanks for the comment and for being willing to try it in your classroom. Let me know how it goes. Recently, I have been asking to write 1 longer gratitude in the morning instead of 5 shorter ones. I have them write, "Thank you for ________________________ because__________________." They are enjoying it as we delve deeper into gratitude.

Owen M. Griffith's picture
Owen M. Griffith
4th Grade Teacher, Author-Gratitude: A Way of Teaching, Guitar Instructor, and Blogger

Thanks for the comment. You are right, gratitude does connect us with others, especially our colleagues and students. I start teaching on Monday and I am looking forward to starting some new gratitude activities. Also, soon I will attend a conference at UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center about using a new gratitude curriculum in the classroom. I can't wait to share what I learn. Keep up the good work!

Katie's picture

I am really disappointed in this wave of " Gratefulness" and " gratitude" in education practice. It is based on individualism vs community, it has very religious undertones which is not right for secular state schools, it at core has many flaws and often becomes blame the victum rather than address core problems with school bullying. I have seen this as a parent and as a teacher. Its also very middle class. We need to rethink these ideas in education with more thorough thought and analysis. Particularly find it inappropriate for special needs kids, you're telling them to be grateful? Lets think about this.

Owen M. Griffith's picture
Owen M. Griffith
4th Grade Teacher, Author-Gratitude: A Way of Teaching, Guitar Instructor, and Blogger

Katie,
Interesting comment. Have you looked at the research by Dr. Emmons, Dr. Froh, or Dr. Bono who show that gratitude is not just for individuals, but helps build up the community in schools and increase social bonds? I don't see gratitude as religious or blaming victims, but maybe you are looking at gratitude differently. In my 10 years using gratitude, I have seen it help many students improve academically and socially, as well as helping their families grow closer together. It can also revitalize educators. Currently, more thought and analysis are going into gratitude research as the John Templeton Foundation and the Greater Good Science Center are supporting new research on how gratitude may successfully be used in education. Go to this link: http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/expandinggratitude. It is compelling.

Bruce's picture

Thanks Owen for your ideas about the role gratitude can play in developing community. In their book 'Making Grateful Kids The Science of Building Character', Dr. Froth and Dr. Bono devote an entire chapter to the topic of "Developing Community'. Here are a few quotes from this chapter I found compelling and relevant:
1. "Our research shows that gratitude has the power to ignite an upward spiral of community-centered service. In a longitudinal study we recently conducted with over seven hundred early adolescents, ages ten to fourteen, we found that teens who were more grateful reported a strong send of connection and passion for helping their community"
2. "Encouraging young people to do what sparks their passion and resonates with them and to use their strengths and talents is an ideal way to make them more grateful because it connects them to a larger cause and helps them forge a sense of positive purpose, which is then passed down and helps everyone feel like they're making a difference.
3. "The ultimate function gratitude may serve in human development is helping youth find their own life story for elevating others in important ways and making a difference in the world"

One of the key points of this chapter is the role gratitude can play in helping young people discovery and appreciate their own talents and skills in the act of enlarging themselves in their connection with the 'other' of community can take. They point out that gratitude can be an incredibly important element in allowing the expression of authenticity and the realization that what is most true about ourselves is often revealed in the vulnerability of our relationships to others. So, gratitude is both a tool for building community and unlocking the infamous words of Shakespeare 'to thine own self be true'.

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