Think back to your time growing up in school.

Do you remember being surprised or apprehensive about differences between yourself and other students in terms of race, class, gender, age, ability, or popularity? Or perhaps you recall being intimidated about communicating with teachers, administrators, counselors? Such differences in social identity—which sometimes involve differences in social power—can make a young person feel different, stressed, and uncertain about their sense of belonging. Those are feelings that can present obstacles to learning, relationships, and well-being.

Today, more and more schools are using social-emotional learning (SEL) practices to help students navigate their differences, see their identities as assets, and build belonging and wellness. Gratitude is a particularly powerful practice because of how it can help nurture positive behaviors, relationships, and self-esteem, according to research.

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However, while gratitude practice can support belonging and well-being, its design and implementation doesn’t always create equitable access for all students.

Equal and equitable are different things. Giving everyone equal opportunity to practice gratitude is not equitable if some people have needs that make the opportunity difficult to take advantage of. Equity is resourcing based on need instead of power. It is making sure everyone gets what they need to be successful even if that means receiving different things.

A critical goal of SEL is to produce healthy individual and group behaviors in face-to-face contexts—not with a screen in between. However, for two years, we’ve been testing whether the use of technology can increase equity in SEL practices. Thus, we’ve put the voices and experiences of the most-often marginalized at the center of the digital gratitude practices we’ve designed and implemented. In fact, we’ve been finding that the use of technology can provide significant potential to increase equity.

To us, equity in SEL practices and gratitude specifically means providing access for everyone by being responsive to their needs and identities, with “everyone” meaning students and staff. Students have a variety of different identities and needs to design for. It turns out staff have their own needs, too. Including and designing for both of these stakeholders can increase equity and impact for everyone.

Developing and testing a more equitable intervention

In the fall of 2017, one of us (Giacomo Bono) conducted a quasi-experimental research study with Leadership Public Schools (LPS) in Oakland, California.  The work studied the impact of a curriculum and web app on two high schools in the Oakland Bay Area. Giacomo developed the curriculum “Thanks! A Strengths-Based Gratitude Curriculum for Tweens and Teens,” as part of his Youth Gratitude Project together with the Greater Good Science Center. GiveThx, a digital thank-you note and reflection tool, was created by Michael Fauteux at LPS.

Students and staff use the GiveThx digital tool in the same way: They pick a person, send them a thank-you note, and select a reason from a word bank of school-determined competencies such as listening, help, and kindness. Users complete reflections to make meaning of their notes and data, and to practice expressing gratitude in general in journal entries. Recipients see all their thx notes in one place online and discover previously invisible patterns of how their actions impact others, which helps them build better relationships and boosts their self-esteem. Schools can integrate the practice everywhere: classes, advisories, and faculty meetings.

Fauteux built GiveThx at LPS with student design teams that prioritized including those with historically marginalized voices and experiences (for example, language learners, young women, LGBTQ youth, special-needs students). They made it clear that users should only be able to thank one person at a time. This removed a performative element from the practice present in face-to-face expressions and on social media. This helped replace extrinsically motivated behaviors (“look at me” and “how many likes can I get for this?”) with the genuine expression of feelings and the disclosure of vulnerability, creating a safe space for students. It created opportunities to bypass traditional social obstacles like popularity, race, class, academic identity, and language and helped students connect across roles, thanking educators in ways they did not feel comfortable doing publicly before. Teachers being able to monitor the one-to-one exchanges made students feel safe.

Designing with equity for students also requires being responsive to youths’ needs and preferences—and that meant the gratitude needed to unfold on their phones. Use of social media has become a ubiquitous phenomenon in the last decade, and surveys show that 95 percent of 13 to 17 year olds have a smartphone or access to one, with almost half online “almost constantly.” However, research indicates that social media may be contributing to rising rates of mental health problems among youth. Thus, there is a need to develop healthy digital citizenship to support personal development and citizenship today.

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Perhaps most controversially, the students insisted that users not be able to reply to thank-you notes in the system. They argued that they already had chat apps and that allowing replies would dilute meaning in the process. Importantly, they hoped this would encourage face-to-face replies instead.

The results of this design process were exciting. Participation frequency and quality increased significantly for all students, especially those who were more marginalized. Capturing evidence of thanks in one place that had previously floated away after being spoken aloud helped students see the impact of their behaviors on others: nurturing healthy behaviors, relationships, and self-esteem. Ironically, the technology component increased greater offline interaction by breaking down barriers and catalyzing connections made through the app.

A main goal of our GiveThx study was to evaluate if using the curriculum and tool together was effective. The study, to be published online in the Journal of Positive Psychology for a special issue on positive interventions this spring, shows that the combination of the curriculum and digital tool produced significant positive results: more satisfaction with life and friendship, a stronger sense of belonging, and less stress, anxiety, and depression.

Why does this matter? Because most of the interventions we’ve tested to date involve face-to-face communication in a classroom setting. While that’s fine for many students, it’s difficult for some.

Sixth-grader Hector is one of those students; he has a language processing disorder. His special needs, and his worry about how others perceive him, make public expression challenging. Standard gratitude practices—like shoutouts or appreciations in circle work—were particularly hard for him. With the best of intentions, gratitude practice in this case wouldn’t just fail to meet his needs. It would actually do unintentional harm by exacerbating his concerns, increasing his anxiety. Having the chance to express gratitude differently was critical to provide Hector access to the practice.

It worked for Hector. He sent his teacher this note through GiveThx: “Thanks Ms. Diaz for working with me every day. Your kindness and help make me think about being a teacher when I grow up.”

The thank you startled his teacher. “He never would have shared that with me face-to-face,” says Ms. Diaz.

Teaching gratitude across identities

Hector’s special needs are just one aspect of his identity. He and other students navigate a multitude of characteristics that make SEL practices, and gratitude specifically, easier or harder.

Identity, however, can create significant social barriers to belonging and well-being. Race, class, gender, language, academic performance, popularity—the characteristics are many and challenging to navigate. One of the most significant at LPS had to do with views on masculinity by some of the school’s young men. The Greater Good article “Do Men Have a Gratitude Problem?” helps explain the phenomenon: Men can be reluctant to express gratitude out of fear that it shows a need for assistance, which can be viewed as a weakness by some. The GiveThx app “gives young men a chance to express feelings that they do really have but aren’t always comfortable sharing,” says another teacher, Mr. Rummel in Richmond, CA.

Dorothy Steele and Becki Cohn-Vargas write about the importance of addressing different identity needs and creating “identity safe” spaces where they are welcomed as assets instead of impediments. Their work heavily influenced the design process of GiveThx at LPS. When considering gratitude practice at school, public gratitude expression can feel less safe for students with different identities.

This poses a significant equity issue because many students who especially stand to benefit from practicing gratitude personally and interpersonally are left out otherwise. GiveThx was created with a diverse set of students and educators that intentionally included often-marginalized voices and experiences as a way to increase inclusion. Having the process be text-based created an opportunity for everyone to be able to participate. Each student had time to think, write, and share, whereas only a handful tended to express themselves during public shoutouts. This was particularly important to language learners and students with learning challenges, creating new opportunities to nurture belonging.

“I just didn’t realize some of these people even knew who I was,” says a student named Maria. “I feel like they see me and that they actually appreciate the things I do.” A language-learner student named Luis says, “Receiving thanks from other classmates made me feel like I was welcomed in the community and it made me feel happy.”

We have found so far that the research-based curricular practices provided effective tasks for teachers to facilitate with their students. At the same time, the digital tool provided a safe and easy way to establish a practice routine. Our results suggested that the combination of the two mattered for increasing equity for students, staff, and the schools overall.

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In other words, the psychoeducational top-down component of the curriculum helped teach the science of gratitude, various strategies, and reasons for practicing gratitude; whereas the bottom-up app component let users practice gratitude autonomously so they could personally experience its influence on their social interactions with others and self-awareness. Through the combination of curriculum and app, friend satisfaction, well-being, and belonging increased, while perceived stress and symptoms of social anxiety and depression decreased. Ironically, the technology piece increased greater offline interaction by breaking down barriers and catalyzing connections made through the app.

“For people you don’t usually talk to or have a good connection with, you can send a friendly message and maybe become better friends,” says Myra, a student.

Three benefits for educators

“It felt so good to be recognized and thanked,” says Ms. Diaz. “I was really surprised.”

Equity in school-based gratitude practices means meeting the needs of staff in addition to those of students. Our work to date reveals three major takeaways in this area.

1. Teacher well-being. The regular stresses of the job can reduce educator effectiveness. Educators working in higher-need communities have an added challenge. About half of U.S. schoolchildren have experienced some form of trauma, and educators experience a secondary form of trauma from working with them. Mitigating these effects and improving the well-being of educators are critical for schools to be able to sustainably support student needs.

Including staff in the GiveThx digital tool provides opportunities for students to connect with staff in ways that may be less likely in person because of students’ concerns that expressing thanks in person could be uncomfortable. It is particularly effective for administrators who are not in front of students regularly and for staff, such as office managers and custodians, who are not often included in such programs. This can also help inter-staff relationships. Integration of giving practices into staff meetings and routines creates space for teachers to connect among themselves and develop better connections with administrators, which can sometimes be difficult to build.

2. Student differentiation. Educators need ways to support the variety of needs students bring to school with them. Language learners, shy students, those with different literacy levels, and special-needs students are just a few identity aspects that can challenge teachers. Integrating research-based practices from the Thanks! curriculum into GiveThx created an opportunity to better meet these needs. Translation, speech-to-text and text-to-speech, and a nonverbal and non-public space to express thanks are examples of ways the technology complemented the best practices to provide more equitable access by meeting specific needs.

Educators have little time and a lot of asks of them. Checking 120 physical journals in a high school English class is literally a heavy task. Being able to quickly see every note and reflection students write digitally allows for more sustainable facilitation by teachers and quicker coaching of students in their gratitude practice. Using a digital tool also enables teachers to see a social heat map of participation to better identify socially isolated students and intervene. Choosing specific practices to facilitate to increase inclusion based on data was a big deal for teachers. Providing students with data on whom they’ve thanked and how often empowers teachers to share responsibility with them for making decisions driven by a desire to increase greater inclusion.

Integrating the work into existing practices better meets teacher and student needs. For example, process checks after partner and group activities, thanking peers for behaviors that make work go well, opening and closing routines to appreciate each other, and dedicated thanking and reflecting during advisory are types of uses that complement existing teacher activities, do not require finding new time for implementation, and provide in-context practice to increase relevance. Taking an integrated approach is something that Stephanie Jones and Harvard’s Graduate School of Education EASEL Lab suggest is effective (see their “kernels of practice” work).

3. Professional learning. To support social-emotional learning in students, adults must develop the capacity themselves first. This kind of approach creates sustained professional learning over time that allows for opportunities to build understanding in an iterative way as teachers implement a program. Integrating the practice into professional routines (for example, weekly staff emails, faculty and department meetings) makes the learning organic and efficient. Furthermore, implementing gratitude not as an intervention but rather as a core schoolwide positive recognition practice creates greater buy-in and effectiveness by not putting the work on the teachers’ shoulders alone but rather by sharing responsibility for the practice.

The field of youth gratitude is young. But how you practice it matters. Putting equity at the fore to increase access for students and staff is key. Ensuring that gratitude practices nimbly fulfill the needs and enjoyment of adolescents matters (see Lyubomirsky’s “person-activity fit” idea). Nudging teenage students to disclose and work through personal issues during the school day matters. Teachers and staff having opportunities to truly “get” their students and improve rapport matters. This produces powerful cultural norms to support social-emotional skills and success for everyone at schools—and hopefully beyond. That may just be what the world needs right now.

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