Change Your Classroom with Gratitude
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, March/April 2016 Issue
By Catherine Hickey, MSEd
Sandra lives in a rooming house and arrived from Honduras last year. She is grateful for clean drinking water. Jasper has chronic arguments with his older brother, yet he is grateful for family. Gerard becomes frustrated and angry when he must do schoolwork. Today, he is grateful for his classroom teacher.
Despite the fact that these students are preoccupied with more than studying for tests, they willingly express gratitude each morning. Often, we forget our students come to class each day with a lot more on their minds than academics. Not unlike teachers, they are encumbered with problems at home, in the community, or simply with themselves. This burden can interfere with the ability to become a successful learner.
I teach students who are struggling with a form of psychiatric crisis, and it is often difficult for them to focus on the positive things in their lives. But my current classroom is very different from the one in which I began teaching almost 20 years ago.
Back then, the focus was primarily on academic catch-up while each child worked with a therapist to maintain emotional stability in preparation for returning to a community school. Although we were very successful, there seemed to be a little something missing. The classroom environment didn’t really allow for the cultivation of teamwork, community, or appreciation—elements now recognized as being closely linked to academic success.
Today my classroom reflects a new feeling of optimism and gratefulness I would never have anticipated. As a result of introducing a greater emphasis on gratitude with my students, our shared school days pulse with a more positive and constructive tone. Often that tone extends into the school day, smoothing the edge of an agitated child.
My students enter a typical classroom every morning, with one major exception. Instead of seeing posters about the Renaissance or the periodic table, they encounter a room adorned with Gratitude Trees. Each tree is strung with brightly coloured hearts that remind students of the many things for which they, and their peers, have expressed gratitude.
As teachers, we are always trying to enhance academic experiences for their students. Figuring out how to present information in fun ways that meet the diverse needs and learning styles of students has become a way of life.
My students come with a very specific set of struggles, but because I have prior knowledge of these struggles, I am able to be in tune with how these challenges interfere with learning. In the past I’ve experienced success using many common classroom strategies, but I’m constantly on the lookout for more.
I yearned to create a more positive tone in my classroom, one that might, for six hours a day, help my kids to feel a little happier and make the classroom atmosphere more upbeat. If successful, maybe this positivity could carry over to other parts of their lives, and even stay with the students after they had left my program and returned to their community schools.
While taking a continuing education class, I came across the article “How to Foster Gratitude in Schools” by Jeffrey Froh and Giocomo Bono, researchers who were studying the impact of gratitude upon youth. In the article, the two discussed the results of several of their studies. One finding in particular really resonated:
“…a recent study of ours found that teens who had high levels of gratitude when entering high school had less negative emotions and depression and more positive emotions, life satisfaction, and happiness four years later when they were finishing high school.”
Incorporating gratitude into my classroom and curriculum just seemed to make sense. Of course, introducing another task into an already burgeoning school day presented its own set of challenges. After doing a bit more reading and research, and discussing it with the rest of my team at school, we decided to experiment with a bit of classroom gratitude and see where it led.
Now each morning, before we start our daily academic schedule, the students set goals for the day. The goals may be academic—completing a particular math project, for example—or they may be behavioural, such as wanting to stay awake. After the goal setting, each student also shares something for which they are grateful.
It is particularly fascinating to hear the spectrum of gratefulness. Sometimes, the gratitude reflects tangible items like shoes or lipstick. Other times it is physical, such as appreciation for good health, breakfast, or sleep. Even more interesting instances occur when a student is grateful for something that might be part of the cause of their difficulties, like an oppositional sibling or argumentative parent.
The concept of appreciation or practicing gratitude is certainly not new. Growing up, many of our parents may have reminded us to count our blessings if we were caught complaining. The expression “the grass is always greener” was another favourite of my Dad’s any time I wished I had a bigger house or better clothes. But even though recognition of personal gratitude may not be new, the recognition of its positive impact on student success is recent.
“If students feel respected and are able to focus on the people and things that they appreciate at school, this should build trust with the very people who are trying to help them. This should, in turn, foster a stronger satisfaction with and a sense of engagement with school.”1
It has been a fascinating and rewarding experience to witness the correlation between the expression of gratitude, the building of trust, and the academic success of my students. Of course, that gratitude and the consequential positive atmosphere are the results of a process.
At first, the idea of expressing gratitude might not only foreign to the students, it can also be uncomfortable. As gratitude becomes part of a daily routine, however, so does the optimistic, safe, and comfortable tone that accompanies it. The daily angst of academia is replaced by a sense of calm. This calm and mutual respect helps make students more receptive to learning, and accordingly, enables the teacher to better meet their needs.
Incorporating gratitude into your classroom will certainly not resolve all of the learning and behavioural issues. But what it will do is begin to replace skepticism with trust, and frustration with engagement. You and your students will become a team whose members appreciate each other and who are better prepared to focus on learning.
Catherine Hickey has taught in the Rockland BOCES Intensive Day Treatment Program in West Nyack, NY for 19 years. She has a MSEd from Iona College, as well as a Professional Certificate in Literacy from St. Thomas Aquinas College in Sparkhill, NY.
1 Bono, G., & Froh, J. J. (2009). Gratitude in school: Benefits to students and schools. In R. Gilman, E. S. Huebner, & M. Furlong (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology in Schools (pp. 77-88). New York: Routledge