Beyond Minding Manners: Teaching Gratitude as Attitude

We want our students to grow to be happy people.

Benedictine Monk David Steindl-Rast, author of several books on gratefulness, begins his TED talk exploring the connection between happiness and gratefulness. He asks, “Is it really the happy people who are grateful?” His answer is, essentially: no, it is grateful people who become happy. “Please” and “thank you”—the words of gratitude, reflect manners, but they do not necessarily reflect a thankful attitude, the attitude which builds a foundation for a happy life. Robert Emmons, leader in the sciences on gratitude, teaches psychology at the University of California, Davis. He suggests tangible gratitude activities for early learners. He says, “You can also use concrete reminders to practice gratitude, which can be particularly effective in working with children, who aren’t abstract thinkers like adults are.”

The Gratitude Jar: He goes on to describe a family who used a gratitude jar to collect loose change to donate. This gratitude jar can can be adapted several ways for the classroom. Have student fill the jar throughout the day or week with a special item (stickers, paper stars, wrapped candies, feathers). Use the “filling” as a reward—as something we are excited and happy to do. Then, when the jar is full, the class will “thank” a student or staff member and present it as a gift. Students who bring in a show and tell item or birthday treat may be thanked with this present. Then, start again!

The Thankfulness Journal: Emmons also advises to keep a gratitude journal—an activity which teachers can lead children in, daily, and put on display as a class gratitude list.

Pipe Cleaner Game: Another thankfulness game uses colored pipe cleaners, straws, or bright popsicle sticks. Children pick a pipe cleaner from a teacher’s hand. Each color corresponds with a category (school, home, playtime, bedtime, friends). A student picking a red item names something from the red category to be thankful for.

These practical ways to participate in thankfulness turn “thank you” from manners to action.