Powerful Year-Round Gratitude Tools to Benefit Educators and Children

7 Activities and 7 Tips to Help Educators and Children Use Gratitude Practices to Better Cope with Stress, Manage Emotions, Find Joy, and Experience Increased Well-being

by Katie Raher, PhD, PPS

As most of us entered a career in education, we felt sheer joy from working with children and making a difference in their lives, and we met our work with enthusiasm and optimism. Similarly, when children enter preschool or kindergarten, most children, even the most hesitant of them, have a spark of joy and enthusiasm that comes from learning new things.

Somewhere along the way, after being faced with far too many day-to-day stressors, the joy, enthusiasm, and optimism often wane, being replaced far too often with disengagement, emotional exhaustion, and more (Brenner, 2019; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019).

Since the systemic changes needed to change our educational realities are slow going, we need to turn to strategies that will bring more immediate benefits.

To better equip us to navigate the many stressors that are bound to come our way.

To bring us back to a place where we find more joy.

Gratitude happens to be one major powerhouse that can do just that. Practicing gratitude has been consistently linked to many benefits for our mental health, physical health, and relationships (Algoe, Haidt, & Gable, 2008; Brown, 2012; Emmons & McCullough, 2003):

  • Increased ability to cope with stressors, such as taking active steps to deal with challenges 
  • Decreased experience of upset feelings like sadness, jealousy, resentment, and regret 
  • Enhanced connections and social support, including increased outreach to others in times of stress, building of new bonds, strengthening of existing relationships, and cultivation of more trust
  • Improved wellness, including a reduction in pain symptoms, increased quantity and quality of sleep, and exercise promotion
  • More joy!

Above and beyond these general benefits, studies also suggest that a regular gratitude practice has specific benefits for those in schools (Chan, 2011; Froh, Emmons, Card, Bono, & Wilson, 2011; Froh & Bono, 2011; Froh, Sefick, & Emmons, 2008; Qin, Qu, Yan, & Wan, 2015). For students, gratitude is related to increased generosity, resilience, school engagement, positive attitudes, satisfaction, and sense of belonging. Teachers who practice gratitude are more likely to see increased feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment, and decreased feelings of emotional exhaustion. And in good news, those with extensive trauma histories show significant benefits from a gratitude practice as well (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).

While schools seem to dabble in exploring grateful feelings in the month of November due to Thanksgiving...

The power of cultivating gratitude should be harnessed all year long.

The mounting pressures facing educators and the increasing mental health challenges facing children are certainly not a one-month deal, so we need tools to help us for the long haul.

Now, by no means am I suggesting that you and your students don’t deserve to sit in the very valid hard-to-have feelings that your experiences in education can bring up. In fact, allowing, noticing, and feeling any of your upset feelings will be vital to your well-being, and that of your students.

I am suggesting that a simple gratitude practice can be one powerful antidote to the stressors we face in school, and life.

Pulling from my own experiences, the wisdom of colleagues, and research, here are 7 activity ideas to help you create more gratitude in your school and 7 tips to help you reap the benefits of this practice.

7 Gratitude Practice Ideas for Educators and Children

1. Gratitude Circle. In your large group, go around the cirlce and have people take turns communicating who and what they are grateful for and why. For staff, it can be powerful to start meetings with a brief gratitude practice. For students, you might enjoy creating a ritual of Thankful Thursdays, and start or end the day with a grateful circle. If you have Kimochis® feeling pillows, I've found that passing around the grateful feeling can be a helpful and tangible aid to the process.

2. Gratitude Get-together. Break into small groups (about 4 adults or children), and have each person take a turn "hosting" and receiving spoonfuls of gratitude from the others in the gathering. You might have a lot of reasons to thank the host, or you might not know them as well. In these cases, you can get creative and build your gratitude muscles. Perhaps you thank the host for the smile they gave you when you got to school, or you thank them for going first since you were feeling so nervous. Because it takes so much courage to admit we benefit from others, and to receive expressions of gratitude, I have found that pairing the Kimochis® brave pillow with the grateful feeling helper to be a super beneficial addition to this activity. 

3. Gratitude Journal. Once a week, write down 3 good things in your world that you’re grateful for and why your life is better with them. 

4. Gratitude Letters. Pick 1 person who you’re super grateful for, and write them a letter explaining why. For the most power, call and read the letter to them. If that can’t work, send the letter. This can be done for someone in your personal life, and for someone in your school. Create an opportunity for your students to do the same.

5. Grateful Detectives. As a staff and/or as a class, have people take turns being on the lookout for grateful feelings. What created them? How were they communicated? Have the Grateful Detective(s) of the week share out at a staff meeting, or morning meeting. For kids, you can also have them be Grateful Detectives with their families, and then share the different ways gratitude is honored and expressed in their cultures.

6. Gratitude Wall or Jar. Create a bulletin board or jar with a gratitude theme, and have a place for students and staff to grab post-its (or other fun shapes of paper) and write brief thank you notes to others – both children and adults – at the school. At the end of each month, distribute the thank you notes, and begin building a new wall, or filling a new jar, of gratitude with your school or class community.

7. Gratitude Breaths. Close your eyes or look down (this provides a trauma-informed alternative for those who need it). Take 3 slow, deep breaths. On the first in-breath, think of 1 person you’re grateful for and why, and send gratitude to them on the out-breath. Repeat for the second breath, thinking of someone who makes your experience of school better. On the final breath, send gratitude to yourself for any helpful steps you’ve taken, such as cultivating a gratitude practice and the joy it can bring. For younger children, hand out 3 small objects, such as pebbles, to represent each person, including themselves. Then have the children pick up 1 object at a time, while visualizing each person, breathing, and sending gratitude. As an educator, you may also enjoy taking 1 gratitude breath for a child who lights up your life, 1 breath for a colleague who makes your work more manageable, and 1 breath for yourself for continuing to show up for this invaluable, challenging work. 

I've hopefully convinced you of the value of this practice. Any amount of time dedicated to gratitude will hopefully bring you some of the tremendous benefits that have been associated with this practice. And if you're like me, you'd like to optimize the practice to most fully reap those benefits (Brown, 2012; Lyubomirsky & Della Porta, 2010; Marsh, 2011).

7 Tips to Maximize the Benefits of Your Gratitude Practice 

1. Focus more on people you’re grateful for than things you’re grateful for.

Example: I’m grateful for Ms. Williams. > I’m grateful for this ream of paper. 

Don’t get me wrong – plenty of us in education are super grateful for some basic things like copy paper! Research just suggests that focusing on the lovely people who made sure we have access to those things is going to better serve you and your well-being.

2. Be specific and go for depth rather than breadth.

Example: I’m so grateful Ms. Ramirez created the lesson we could share and made copies of the materials for my class too. > I’m so grateful for Ms. Brown, paper, food …

Example: I’m so grateful for Aliya because she always takes turns with me to decide what we will play at recess. > I’m grateful for friends.

Of course, with children, you'll be supporting them in a way that adjusts to their developmental needs, and we can still have a goal to expand and deepen their gratitude practices over time. 

3. Move beyond saying what you’re grateful for. Also explain why you’re grateful.

Example: Thank goodness Mr. Ingue fixed the copy machine before I got there today, so I didn’t have a copy jam. I started my day so much calmer because of it and really saw a shift in how things went with my students this morning. > I’m grateful for Mr. Ingue fixing the copy machine.

Example: I'm so grateful Bren used his Kimochis® Keys to Communication today instead of yelling and hitting, because I could see how much more he was able to connect with friends, our lessons went so much more smoothly, and I feel like my hard work is paying off. > I'm so grateful Bren didn't yell and hit today.

4. Be sure to take note of the pleasant surprises within the ordinary parts of your day.

Example: I’m so grateful Jaidon started his day by telling me he had a hard morning and needed some space while he had some sad feelings. His day and our class' day went so much better now that he's feeling more comfortable communicating his feelings and connecting with me. 

5. Consider how things would be without your blessing, or remember the problematic past.

Example: Ms. Brown makes me feel so comfortable sharing how hard a time I’ve been having with my students and never makes me feel judged, even when she gives me ideas. I remember the comments I used to get from my old admin and how I always felt so isolated and ashamed. I’m so blessed to now have someone who always makes sure I feel heard, understood, and valued.

6. Keep it fresh and meaningful.

Some research suggests that writing in a gratitude journal just once a week > Writing in a gratitude journal 3 or more times a week…though this isn’t conclusive just yet, practicing gratitude just once a week is likely to get you some great benefits.

7. Don’t forget yourself.

Example: I am so grateful that I had the courage to set a boundary today. I really didn’t want to take on the extra committee duty because I’ve been feeling so swamped already. And I’m so grateful that I listened to my intuition and said no.

So…What tools and tips are you and your school already using to cultivate a gratitude practice? What is a new idea you want to try - for you, colleagues, and students? How might you modify these ideas to best meet your needs? 

I hope you can make gratitude a consistent part of your Constant Love and Learning journey. Keep me posted on how it goes!

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Algoe, S. B., Haidt, J., & Gable, S. L. (2008). Beyond reciprocity: gratitude and relationships in everyday life. Emotion (Washington, D.C.)8, 425–429.

Brenner, E. (2019). The crisis of youth mental health. Available at: https://ssir.org/articles/entry/the_crisis_of_youth_mental_health [Accessed November 21, 2019]

Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. New York: Gotham Books.

Chan, D. W. (2011). Burnout and life satisfaction: does gratitude intervention make a difference among Chinese school teachers in Hong Kong? Journal of Educational Psychology: An International Journal of Experimental Educational Psychology, 31, 809-823.

Emmons, R. A., & Mishra, A. (2012). Why gratitude enhances well-being: What we know, what we need to know. In Sheldon, K., Kashdan, T., & Steger, M.F. (Eds.) Designing the future of positive psychology: Taking stock and moving forward. New York: Oxford University Press.

Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 377-389.

Froh, J. J., Emmons, R. A., Card, N. A., Bono, G., & Wilson, J. A. (2011). Gratitude and the Reduced Costs of Materialism in Adolescents, Journal of Happiness Studies, 12.

Froh, J. J., & Bono, G. (2011). Gratitude in youth: A review of gratitude interventions and some ideas for applications. Communique, 39, 26-28.

Froh, J. J., Sefick, W. J., & Emmons, R. A. (2008). Counting blessings in early adolescents: An experimental study of gratitude and subjective well-being. Journal of School Psychology, 46, 213-233. Qin, Y., Qu, S., Yan, J., & Wan, X. (2015). The Role of Life Satisfaction and Coping Style in the Relationship between Gratitude and School Belonging. International Conference on Economy, Management and Education Technology.

Lyubomirsky, S., & Della Porta, M. (2010). Boosting happiness, buttressing resilience: Results from cognitive and behavioral interventions. In J. W. Reich, A. J. Zautra, & J. Hall (Eds.), Handbook of adult resilience: Concepts, methods, and applications (pp. 450-464). New York: Guilford Press.

Marsh, J. (2011). Tips for Keeping a Gratitude Journal [online] Greater Good. Available at: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/tips_for_keeping_a_gratitude_journal [Accessed November 21, 2019].

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. (2019). Educator confidence report. [online] Available at: https://www.hmhco.com/educator-confidence-report Accessed November 21, 2019].

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