Student Well-Being

Gratitude Lessons May Help Students with Social, Academic Issues, Study Says

By Evie Blad — June 25, 2014 5 min read
Image of a teacher in a classroom full of kids.
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Is it possible to teach children gratitude? And, with so many other competing priorities in the classroom, why would a teacher use valuable time on such lessons?

New research suggests that five, 30-minute classroom discussions that teach children to more deeply analyze what happens when someone gives them a gift or does something nice for them could have measurable effects on their overall level of gratitude. That, in turn, will give them a more positive outlook on life and make them more likely to demonstrate the prosocial behaviors necessary to build supportive relationships with their peers, say authors of a study published in the June issue of School Psychology Review. Put another way:

“Teaching students to respond gratefully to friends who protect them from a bully, encourage them to persist on a task, or offer help on homework can strengthen friendships, increasing students’ satisfaction with school and their chances of succeeding.”

If developed early, that support system can help students leap over personal hurdles that may hinder academic success and prevent a dissatisfaction with school that many middle and high school students experience, the study suggests.

I would add that—in a time when schools are recognizing the value of the “growth mindset” and encouraging students to learn through failure—students may be more likely to ask for help in developing new approaches to challenging concepts if they are more grateful for and reflective about the help that has been given to them in the past. If they aren’t in the habit of understanding that their peers and teachers are willing to go out of their way to help them, it seems more likely that they will give up on lessons that don’t come naturally to them.

Gratitude in Children

Most research about gratitude has focused on adults, with only two past studies on interventions targeted at youth, researchers write. This study tested an intervention on the youngest population to date, 8- to 11-year-old students. The researchers, led by Jeffrey J. Froh of Hofstra University and Giacomo Bono of California State University, Dominguez Hills, tested the intervention in two separate experiments. In the first method, graduate students worked in one school, teaching three classes of 4th grade students five days of 30-minute lessons of “benefit-appraisal curriculum.” Lessons, which didn’t explicitly reference gratitude, used discussions, writing assignments, and role-playing activities. They focused on concepts such as a person’s intent in helping someone, the cost experienced by benefactors when giving a benefit, and understanding the benefits of receiving a gift from someone else. Three other classes in the same grade completed similarly structured control lessons that were focused on “emotionally neutral activities,” the study says.

Researchers gauged the effect of those lessons two days after the intervention was completed by presenting students with hypothetical helping situations (a sister helped me study, for example, or a friend lent me cleats to play soccer).They found that students in the treatment group were more likely to agree, on a 1-5 scale, that the benefactor in the vignette offered assistance “on purpose,” gave up something in order to assist them, and helped the central character through their efforts than were their control group peers. In a separate measure, treatment students were also statistically more likely to rank themselves as grateful, thankful, and appreciative on a 1-5 scale than their peers were. In a final measure, researchers had Parent-Teacher Association volunteers conduct a seemingly unrelated presentation for all of the classes. Teachers then gave students five minutes of free time and gave them the opportunity to write thank-you notes for the presentation or to “just hang out.” While 27 of the 62 students in the treatment group wrote cards, only 15 out of 60 did so in the control group, the study says.

Second Experiment

At a separate school, researchers completed a separate experiment with the same curriculum, teaching one class a week over a five-week span to give students more time to reflect and apply the lessons. They found students in the control group had relatively unchanging responses to the hypothetical situations, while students in the intervention group were more likely to agree with the statements (the benefactor offered assistance “on purpose,” gave up something to assist them, and helped the central character through their efforts) over time. In the second experiment, researchers also asked all students to complete periodic positive and negative effect scales, which asked them to rate on a scale of 1-5 how often they felt a list of 15 positive emotions and 15 negative emotions “during the past few weeks.” While responses for the control group were relatively flat over time, students in the experimental group were more likely to experience positive emotions as the experiment progressed.

Whole-School Effects

So it seems there is some benefit in exploring gratitude in the classroom. But it’s important to note that researchers structured their lessons in an explicit way, asking students to recognize what people sacrifice when they are altruistic, why they do it, and how others may benefit from it.

And the researchers seem to think the positive effects on students might also rub off on teachers, who play a crucial role in the engagement ecosystem. From the study:

“Experiencing and expressing gratitude comprise a simple way to counter negative appraisals of school and increase school bonding and social adjustment ... Evidence suggests that gratitude boosts social cohesion, relational and job satisfaction, and organizational functioning as well. So, the improved behaviors that could ensue from gratitude promotions in schools would likely spread to teachers and staff, encouraging them to work harder for students and prevent burnout.”

The researchers’ conclusions about academic implications relied on past research to connect the dots between gratitude, good behavior, and success in the classroom. I would be interested in seeing a larger-scale study that also tests academic effects of participants over time. Does anyone want to do that study? More importantly, does anyone want to fund it?

Do you have any experience with gratitude interventions? Tell me what do you think.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.