Cultivating an Attitude of Gratitude

When we give cheerfully and accept gratefully, everyone is blessed.
— Maya Angelou

May is the month we celebrate National Teacher’s Appreciation Week. So first and foremost we want to thank you, thank you, thank you for all that you do to nurture the minds and spirits of the students in your classrooms. Teaching is a work of heart, and your students are blessed to have such dedicated teachers by their sides on their learning journey.   

We at Infinite Horizons would also like to thank you for being a part of our community of life-long learners. Together we inspire and motivate one another by sharing the most relevant research, pedagogy, and our experiences in education. 

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Thank you for being open to new learning adventures and sharing your successes and lessons with us. 

As you can see, we are overflowing with appreciation; thus gratitude is our newsletter topic of the month. Studies show that those who practice gratitude regularly experience a long list of wonderful benefits (Froh, et. al., 2008). They are physically healthier and have fewer aches or pains. They sleep longer and better. They are more confident, helpful, generous, compassionate, and outgoing. But most importantly – they are happier. 

Of course we all want our students to be happy people, but did you know that their happiness also plays a role in their ability to learn? An article in Psychology Today entitled “What Happy Children and Teens Do Differently” explains that happier children are less fearful and therefore more likely to take risks in the classroom (O’Grady, 2013). Happy, fearless students are more focused on positive outcomes than possible failures. Vygotsky’s concept of the "Zone of Proximal Development” tells us that learning happens when students are pushed slightly out of their comfort zone and provided necessary scaffolding to support their growth. If students are happier and their curiosity is stoked, then they will be much more inclined to take that step into the unknown world to stretch their brains. 

Now that we know about all of the many benefits of nurturing a sense of gratitude with our students (and ourselves), let’s talk about some simple ways to infuse this practice of gratitude into our daily routines. Here are Infinite Horizon’s top 3 ways to help your students cultivate an attitude of gratitude.  

1.  Keep a gratitude journal: Students can use this journal as their bell work when they first enter the room. Ask them to take a few minutes to write down three things that make them happy or for which they are grateful. Studies show that the benefits from practicing gratitude, reinforced through journaling, can be seen in as little as three weeks (the time it takes to form a new habit). It’s important to complete this assignment with fresh eyes every day. There is little benefit from writing the same exact sentence such as “I’m grateful for my friends” every day. Encourage students to write more detailed examples such as, “Ben held the door for me and smiled as I walked into the classroom.” The more specific the example, the more positively the brain will respond.

2.  Create visual cues: The brain has a tendency to get accustomed to every day wonders and comforts. Create “Stop Signs” in your classroom as a reminder to be grateful for the many fantastic things in our lives. You have working lights in the room. Hooray! There is water in the fountain. Wow! (Many American students don’t realize that they have SO MUCH for which to be grateful!)

Here are some examples of visual cues for your classroom:

  • Download a free Gratitude poster from Infinite Horizons.
  • Create a gratitude quilt out of students’ drawings on 3x5 cards.
  • Create a gratitude chain out of links of paper with student notes on them.
  • Create a book or a poster in which students can share the things for which they are grateful.  

3.  Gratitude activities: (The following ideas were taken directly from The Greater Good Science Center. There are even more wonderful ideas for gratitude activities on that site. Check it out!)

  • Gratitude Spies. Play the “Spying for Gratitude” game. At the beginning of the day (or once a week at secondary), have each student choose the name of another student out of a hat without revealing the name. Each student spends the day/week “spying” on his or her chosen person and then shares one thing that he or she is grateful for about that person during an end-of-the-day/week circle. **This game can be fun to play with coworkers and administrators as well! **
  • Gratitude Circle. Begin or end the day sitting in a circle with each person sharing one thing that he or she is grateful for and why. Note: Younger students will need a lot of modeling to explain why they’re grateful for something.
  • Gratitude Surprise Sticky Notes. Give each student one or more sticky notes to write something they’re grateful for about another person in the school community. Then have the students “deliver” the sticky notes by placing them where the person will see it, e.g., a locker, a phone, a cleaning cart. Studies show the effects of gratitude are even greater when expressed to the person who had a positive influence on us.
  • Gratitude Letters: Have students thank those who have positively influenced their academic experience. It could be the custodian who keeps the school nice and clean, the lunchroom staff members who make sure they have food to eat, someone whom they learned from on a field trip, etc. 

David Steindl-Rast, a monk and interfaith scholar, says in his TED talk, Want to be Happy? Be grateful, that practicing gratitude is as easy as crossing the road. All you have to do is stop, look, and then go. Stop: Take a minute to slow down and use all of your senses to take in the wonders around you. Look: Find examples of things that make you happy, make your life easier, or create comfort. Go: Seize the opportunity within the seed of gratitude. Whatever life offers you in that moment - grasp it! Sometimes it is just the chance to enjoy the experience, but other times you’ll be inspired to create or do something special.

We at Infinite Horizons urge you to STOP, LOOK, and GO share an attitude of gratitude with your students. And remember, practice, practice, practice makes for happy people! 

Michelle Leip, with Kathleen Kryza