With “character” hogging the education spotlight, it is easy to miss interesting psychological strategies eager to get some stage time in schools. One that particularly interests me is “gratitude”.
“Gratitude” is more than just vacuously exclaiming how brilliant everything is. Rather, it is an appreciation of what we have as opposed to what we want.
Studies suggest that being more grateful could enhance our energy levels, optimism, mood and empathy, as well as improving mental health and reducing anti-social behaviour. Research carried out by California State University in 2012 found that “gratitude played an important role in many areas of positive mental health of the teens”.
“Increases in gratitude over a four-year period were significantly related to improvements in life satisfaction, happiness, positive attitudes and hope,” according to Giacomo Bono, who is a professor of psychology at the university. Bono’s study followed 700 teenagers growing up in New York and found that grateful teens were more likely than their peers to be happy, less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol and less likely to have behaviour problems at school.
‘Appreciation is infectious’
My experience of teaching pupils who have moved to the UK’s education system from a foreign country has given me further evidence of how gratitude can go on to have positive effects on a group.
The Polish teenagers I have taught in Glasgow generally seem genuinely grateful to experience our education system and always seem surprised that their new classmates don’t share their commitment to education. Their appreciation rubs off on other pupils who previously had taken their education for granted.
In the classroom, practical examples of the benefits of gratitude can easily be found. Previously, I have explained the finances behind a student’s education to pupils as a direct way of giving secondary-age schoolchildren a measure of how to value their education and, therefore, show gratitude for it.
However, in reality, I have never had a pupil respond: “Wow, the state spends £4,000 a year on the education I am throwing away as I consider it pointless. I must really start to value what I have been given for free.”
Nevertheless, highlighting how someone has sacrificed time or pleasure for their benefit, such as the pupil-support assistant who brought in their lunch or another pupil who allowed them to take their turn on the computer, does give them pause to think.
In an attempt to make this more systematic, one of my classes has recently started a gratitude journal, the classic method used by adults to promote gratefulness.
Each day the class list five things that they are grateful for. I am pleasantly surprised that, despite their grumbles, this group of generally cynical teenagers have all taken the task very seriously. I have seen a genuine sense of innocent gratefulness occur. “My mum”, “riding my bike” and “The Prodigy” (the techno band, pictured above, rather than a gifted individual), have all featured in different top-five lists.
After a couple of weeks of doing this, the class seemed to settle down more quickly to work, with fewer complaints, and the overall mood in the classroom appeared to be brighter; although, granted, that may have something to do with the first hints of summer and the upcoming holiday as well.
Something else that I noticed was fewer members of the class asking to go out to the toilet. Could this be because the pupils are feeling a bit less stressed and don’t feel the need to escape for a few minutes?
Gratitude journals can also be expanded for pupils to post what they feel grateful for on to the classroom wall.
It may sound a little too woolly for some, but my students have thrived as a result of my focus on gratitude. And for that, of course, I am very grateful indeed.
Gordon Cairns is an English and Forest School teacher in Glasgow