It’s one thing to teach kids to say “thank you” when they receive a gift or when someone does a favor for them. But how can we help children understand what gratitude really means, in ways that will make them more likely to feel it deeply, express it authentically, and reap its many benefits?
One way to increase kids’ gratitude is to guide them to not only acknowledge that someone else did something for them, but to also consider why the person did it, what the cost to the person was, and what benefits they have received from it. The idea is that gratitude happens when you realize that another person has intentionally done something that benefits you, especially at a cost to themselves.
This thinking process, which researchers refer to as “benefit appraisal,” highlights the interpersonal nature of gratitude and may help strengthen our relationships. In one study, elementary schoolers who were taught benefit appraisal reported more positive emotions and showed more grateful attitudes and behaviors than other students, both immediately and months later.
In partnership with the Greater Good Science Center and the John Templeton Foundation, Open Circle, an evidence-based social-emotional learning program for students in grades K-5, has added a new component based on the science of gratitude—including benefit appraisal. In addition to incorporating gratitude into their professional development workshops for educators, they developed gratitude lessons and practices for their classroom curriculum for grades 4-5.
The pilot group of teachers who have tried the gratitude curriculum have responded very positively, reporting benefits for themselves and their students such as strengthened classroom relationships and community, higher levels of positive emotions, and more generous and compassionate action.
We are grateful to Open Circle for allowing us to share three sample activities for helping students deepen their understanding and practice of gratitude—along with insights from some of the teachers who have used them.
1. Grateful thinking
Context: This activity is excerpted from the first classroom lesson, in which students discuss the definition of gratitude and learn about grateful thinking (i.e., benefit appraisal).
Materials: Poster displaying the three grateful thinking questions (click here for a downloadable version of Open Circle’s poster, left); grateful thinking worksheets for each student (click here for Open Circle’s worksheet)
Instructions: After talking about what gratitude means, introduce the students to the three grateful thinking questions that they can ask themselves when someone does something for them:
- How did the person’s kind or helpful action make things better for me?
- What did they have to give up to take the action? What effort did they show for me?
- Why might they have taken that action for me? What might they think or feel about me?
To practice grateful thinking, share a scenario such as the following with students and discuss some possible answers to the grateful thinking questions (e.g., “How might Lorenzo’s action make things better for Kyle?”). Record students’ responses on chart paper.
Kyle had a sore foot, so he couldn’t play games at recess. Lorenzo was playing basketball, his favorite sport, when he noticed Kyle, his good friend, sitting on the steps by himself. Lorenzo left the basketball game to sit and talk with Kyle until recess was over.
As a personal extension, ask students to think of a kind or helpful action someone has done for them for which they are grateful. Have them each complete a worksheet that gives them space to describe the action and to answer each of the grateful thinking questions about it.
The teachers who tested this lesson found it simple to implement and enjoyable for the students. One teacher shared, “Most students seemed to find it easy to share about gratitude. They were aware of things they were grateful for.” However, another noted the importance of appropriately facilitating discussions, saying, “We had to move away from being grateful for ‘stuff’ to being grateful for what others do for us.”
2. Gratitude surprise sticky notes
Context: This is one example of a simple gratitude practice that can be used throughout the school day to encourage students’ expression of gratitude.
Materials: Small sticky notes
Instructions: Give students one or more sticky notes to write something they are grateful for about another person in the school community. Ask students to place the sticky note where the person will be sure to see it—for example, on a desk, a phone, or a cleaning cart.
Teachers felt that gratitude practices such as this one were meaningful in going beyond discussion and getting students to take action for gratitude. This practice in particular was rated as very valuable.
3. Gratitude book
Context: As a resource for teachers using their curriculum, Open Circle compiled a list of high-quality children’s books that reinforce the values of gratitude and grateful thinking. Among the pilot teachers, Thank You, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco was one of the most popular.
Materials: Thank You, Mr. Falker; thank-you note materials for each student
Instructions: After reading and discussing the book, in which the author pays tribute to a teacher who believed in her and helped her address her learning challenges, invite the students to write thank-you notes to one of their own former teachers.
As one teacher explained, “Thank You, Mr. Falker served as a powerful tool to help children understand the struggles and challenges many face. It demonstrated the power of kindness and the deep emotional connections to feeling grateful.”
For more information about Open Circle, click here.