Teaching students gratitude

flowerMany adults have discovered the social and emotional benefits of practicing gratitude in their daily lives.

Practicing gratitude also yields social, emotional and learning benefits for children, according to a new study in School Psychology Review.  The study reports that children as young as 8-11 can benefit from an  intervention that teaches them to appreciate what teachers, peers and their schools do for them.

“Experiencing and expressing gratitude comprise a simple way to counter negative appraisals of school and increase school bonding and social adjustment,” write the researchers.

“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.”

Rather than asking students to merely record what they are grateful for, this intervention, created by the two lead authors, Jeffrey Froh and Giacomo Bono, develops children’s cognitive awareness of beneficial social exchanges in their everyday lives (i.e. grateful thinking).

“People feel grateful when they acknowledge receiving an intentional act of kindness from a benefactor,” the researchers write.  “Specifically, they experience gratitude in response to benefits that (a) they perceive as valuable to them,  (b) were provided intentionally and altruistically (rather than for ulterior motives), and (c) were costly to the benefactor.”

In the first of two studies, 122 elementary school students participated in the gratitude intervention  every day for one week.  In the second study, 82 elementary school students participated once a week for 5 weeks. Psychology graduate students provided instruction on the social-cognitive aspects of gratitude.  Graduate students were not aware that the study was focused on gratitude, a word that was not attached to the research. They taught structured lesson plans focused on understanding a benefactor’s intention, understanding the cost to the benefactor and appreciating the benefits of the gift received from the benefactor.

Students in both studies scored higher on measures of benefit appraisals and grateful attitude. Measures used in Study 1 were the Gratitude Adjective Checklist, benefit appraisal vignettes and a behavioral measure the week following the intervention.  When the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) provided a multimedia presentation one afternoon, teachers suggested to all students that they write a thank you card to the association during 5 minutes of free time.  Children were told this was strictly voluntary. They could write a thank you card or just “hang out.” Some 80% more participants in the study 1 intervention wrote thank you cards than the controls.

Students in Study 2 showed increases in grateful thinking, gratitude and positive affect. The peak difference between controls and the experimental group occurred 5 months after the start of the intervention, suggesting somewhat lasting effects.

Previous studies have examined the effects of other gratitude interventions on older children.  This study examines the impact on younger children at a time  that is critical for developing relationships.

“Past research has found that positive interventions might be less successful at younger ages, possibly because youth do not engage with or internalize the activities as much as older participants,” the authors write.  “This curriculum, however, shows that breaking up a concept like gratitude into digestible pieces might allow it to resonate with younger age groups.”

In a companion commentary in School Psychology Review, two reviewers note that Cicero said “gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” While all children are pressed to say “thank you”,  the ability to understand emotions and to take the benefactors’ perspective are necessary for authentic gratitude.

Researchers Froh and Bono are the authors of “Making Grateful Kids: The Science of Building Character.”

“Nice Thinking!  An Educational Intervention That Teaches Children to Think Gratefully,” by Jeffrey J. Froh, Giacomo Bono et al., School Psychology Review, 2014, Volume 43, Number 2, pp. 132-152.

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