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Student Well-Being Opinion

Gratitude Practices at School That Work (and Why Some Don’t)

4 tips from the latest research
By Giacomo Bono — December 21, 2022 3 min read
How do I develop better relationships with students?
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How do I develop better relationships with students?

A good teacher knows that establishing strong relationships with students is key not only to helping them succeed but also to supporting their own love for the job. One way to develop a rapport with students is to introduce gratitude practices at school.

While research shows that gratitude can support individuals’ mental health and well-being, it’s been difficult to teach gratitude in schools effectively. But my colleagues and I conducted a study in two high schools right before the COVID-19 pandemic that helped improve students’ well-being, mental health, and friendship satisfaction. Participants used a web app called GiveThx, which lets students and teachers send thank you notes to each other privately and to reflect on their patterns of giving and receiving thanks.

Expressing gratitude to others can feel awkward at first—and that deters people from doing it even though sharing and receiving gratitude both have powerful effects. Further, teachers find it hard to develop a regular cadence in the classroom. Here are four things we learned that can help you integrate gratitude practices effectively in schools:

1. Find common ground while celebrating diversity.
Provide opportunities in class to appreciate the diversity of student’s social identities. Differences in race, class, gender, sexual orientation, age, and language can be obstacles to students’ feeling connected to school. Often, positive psychology practices, including gratitude, are done very publicly without creating a space of trust and support for each other simply as humans. This can backfire with young people. Therefore, first make classrooms “identity safe” spaces where different social identities are welcomed as assets, not impediments. Then challenge students to find things that they have in common with each other and with you. People are more comfortable disclosing things about themselves when they see similarities with others. This sets the stage for trust and genuine, rather than hollow, gratitude practices.

2. Decide as a class how you want to show gratitude.
Giving thanks can be done verbally, in writing, and behaviorally (giving high-fives, for example). Discuss how you want to exchange thanks in a way that everyone is comfortable with—and the more options the better. Maybe your class wants a stack of special sticky notes to be able to leave surprise thank yous. Or you and your students might enjoy the challenge of flipping complaints looking for silver linings in daily frustrations or negative events. A popular practice in my research has been posting a strengths poster in class where students describe their top character strengths and classmates add appreciations of them. Deciding together makes it more likely for you and your students to form habits and develop rituals around gratitude in class.

3. Give opportunities to exchange thanks regularly.
Had a good class discussion? Thank contributors and encourage students to do the same when ideas resonate with them. Say why the ideas matter, too. When you make collaborative assignments, praise good teamwork and provide space for students to thank their partner or teammates when the work is done. Appreciate acts of kindness in class and encourage students to give thanks meaningfully—with eye contact—when they’re helped. Students can share their favorite ways to practice with each other, which helps them expand their repertoire.

4. Schedule five minutes every week or two to write in a gratitude journal in class.
Decide with students how everyone wants to keep a journal first, whether it’s on paper or electronic—and teachers should do the exercise along with students. We can be grateful for people, things, relationships, events, pets, basic needs (like food and drinking water), opportunities, health, etc. Encourage students to focus on meaningful details and build up a long list. These can be from their personal life or thank yous given in class. These journals will be great mementos one day. But for now, they help students clarify how their lives are uniquely blessed and, most importantly, about the life they want to live.

If you’re looking for more ways to integrate gratitude in the classroom, you can find curricula for all ages here. Both teachers and students need engaging and caring school communities to survive and thrive today. Put these practices to work and you and your students will recognize each other’s humanity—and discover how all of us can make a positive difference in the world every day.

The opinions expressed in Ask a Psychologist: Helping Students Thrive Now are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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