Science says it’s natural for people to focus more on negative thoughts than on positive ones. Emotions like fear, doubt, and shame produce stress chemicals in the brain, which drive negative thinking. This can be even more true for children, who are still navigating their places in the world.
One way to shift negative thought patterns is to develop an attitude of gratitude. Gratitude means recognizing and appreciating the many wonderful people, experiences, and things in our lives.
When children and adults practice gratitude, they spend less time dwelling on negative thoughts and emotions. They celebrate the present and magnify positive emotions.
Research shows that gratitude offers powerful benefits, including:
- More joy, pleasure, optimism, and happiness
- A higher sense of self-worth
- Greater stress-resistance
- More generosity and compassion for others
- Stronger immune system
- Better sleep
Practicing gratitude is a skill that leads to improved social, emotional, and physical health. Of course, we would all love for our students to enjoy these benefits.
The good news is that gratitude can be intentionally cultivated. Here’s how to help your students harness the power of gratitude:
Keep a Gratitude Journal
Teach children to recognize and appreciate small moments of joy and beauty throughout the day using a gratitude journal.
Once students create a gratitude journal, set aside a few minutes daily for them to write in it. Ask students to record anything they saw, felt, or experienced that day that they’re thankful for. It could be something as simple as a smile or a hug from a friend, pancakes for breakfast, the sound of birds singing, or getting to play a favorite game at recess.
After students finish writing, discuss their moments of gratitude as a class or in small groups. Talking about what they’ve written provides a double dose of positivity, and sharing gratitude is a great way to connect with others.
In multiple studies, keeping gratitude journals for 30 days or even less has resulted in long-term positive benefits. One study, for example, split 90 undergraduate students into two groups. For just three days, one group wrote about intensely positive experiences while the other group wrote about a control topic.
A full three months later, the gratitude group still demonstrated better mood levels and fewer illnesses.
Keeping a gratitude journal teaches students to appreciate and actively notice the small joyful, beautiful moments scattered throughout their day.
Have a Gratitude Ritual
Similarly, have students create a gratitude ritual. At the same time each day (e.g. before bed, after arriving at school, during lunch), they identify 3-5 things, people, or experiences they were grateful for that day.
They can speak, write, or simply think through the exercise. Like the gratitude journal, the gratitude ritual creates space for students to slow down and focus on gratitude. When we don’t intentionally practice gratitude, it’s easy to take things for granted or fail to notice the good that’s all around us.
Write Gratitude Letters
Ask students to identify some of the people they appreciate the most. Then, have students write thank you letters (or, if they’re very young, draw thank you pictures) describing why they’re so grateful for these individuals.
This exercise can also spark a class discussion:
- Who are you grateful for in your life?
- Why are you thankful for this person?
- What can we do to show people that we appreciate them?
Have students deliver the letters, sharing a positive experience of gratitude and love with meaningful people in their lives. Find a gratitude challenge bulletin board here.
Create a Gratitude Jar
In a prominent classroom location, set up a large jar and some strips of paper. Encourage students to write down what they’re grateful for on the slips of paper, fold them up, and place them in the jar.
Students can add to the gratitude jar at the beginning of the day, the end of the day, or when they’re finished with their work. Explain that they can be grateful for anything, big or small, and provide examples:
- A friend letting you borrow a pencil
- Reading a favorite story at circle time
- Laughing with a parent on the way to school
- Learning something new
- Sharing goodbye cuddles with your dog in the morning
- Having pizza for lunch
At the end of the week or month, read through the slips of paper to reflect on what you and your students have appreciated.
Being of service to others increases gratitude, self-esteem, sense of belonging, and overall happiness. Give your students opportunities to be helpful by:
- Taking on a class project, like beautifying the school garden
- Identifying a class cause, like helping people recover after natural disasters, and brainstorming what you can do to help
- Holding canned food or clothing drives
- Giving students class jobs (e.g. door holder, greeter, snack helper, encourager, materials manager, playground helper, etc.)
Whether students help their class, school, community, or the world, they’ll exercise their gratitude muscles and increase their sense of self-worth.
Celebrate often. A celebration doesn’t have to be a full-fledged party. It can be as simple as announcing, “Today we’re grateful for __________. Let’s celebrate!” and having everyone applaud or high five.
You can celebrate a kind act offered by an individual student, a milestone reached as a class, something fun that everyone enjoyed that day, etc.
Celebrations can be incorporated into other activities on this list too. For example, after reading through the slips of paper in your gratitude jar, clap, high five, and celebrate all the gratitude your class has experienced that week or month.
Alternatively, have students take turns choosing something they would like to celebrate. Leading a weekly gratitude celebration can even be a class job.
Often, we only celebrate big moments or special occasions. Show your students that we have reasons to celebrate every day.
Cultivating gratitude is all about making time to notice and appreciate people, experiences, and small moments daily.
Even when we aren’t feeling especially grateful, going through the motions of practicing gratitude triggers positive feelings.
And taking just a few minutes to practice gratitude each day significantly improves your health and overall well-being.
Yes, it’s really that simple—and that powerful.
They say laughter is the best medicine, but gratitude is pretty potent too. Help your students experience a daily dose of gratitude, and you’ll shift their perspective, increase their joy, and improve their lives.
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