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How to Teach Gratitude to Students: 8 Ideas for Thanksgiving (and Beyond!)

Child in yellow sweater and glasses holds up thank you card.

Wondering how to teach gratitude to students? Creating art projects, reflecting on self-gratitude, and modeling gratitude in the classroom can help.

Theories of positive psychology and how affirmative reinforcement in the classroom can impact students are growing. And along with them, research showing the benefits of regularly practicing gratitude is also expanding to reveal new insights on how thankfulness can impact mental health.

From educating students on the physical health benefits of gratitude to offering reminders about how being thankful isn't just a one-way street, there are many activities that demonstrate the power of showing appreciation in the classroom.

Further Reading: 5 Tricks to Save a Derailed Lesson Plan

With Thanksgiving around the corner, here are eight ideas on how to teach gratitude to students this year.

1. Educate on the Health Benefits of Gratitude

For many students (and adults), saying "thank you" has always been something we were told to do. Beyond politeness, though, many don't realize just how important gratitude is for our well-being. This can be a powerful starting point for teaching students about gratitude in your classroom.

 

According to various studies curated by Healthline, a regular gratitude practice can:

  • Reduce stress and anxiety (and help anxiety-prone students experience fewer negative emotions and deepen friendships, according to the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley University)
  • Improve immune system health
  • Boost self-esteem
  • Promote better sleep
  • Reduce burnout and fatigue

Educating your students about the physical and emotional benefits of gratitude could help lay the groundwork for your other lessons and activities.

2. Enlist the Senses

It's a friendly reminder as well as a powerful lesson: we often forget to say thanks for the little things, such as our health, the lunch we were able to pack that day, or even our five functioning senses.

As a starter gratitude lesson, ask students to clue into their five senses. Have them list three things they're grateful they can see, feel, hear, taste and smell. You might combine this with a short meditation or mindfulness activity.

Mindfulness activities work great as a series of "Do Nows"—tasks students can do as soon as they arrive in the classroom, without the teacher's direction. There's one for each day, and it's naturally progressive in the sense that most students have little trouble coming up with something they're grateful to see or feel. Taste and smell, on the other hand, might require some critical-thinking skills.

3. Create a Gratitude Map

Remind students that surrounding themselves with positive influences helps enhance character and develop new skills. Creating a gratitude map can help marry the concepts of modeling those we admire and saying thanks.

To create a gratitude map, have students:

  • Write down one to three people who demonstrate gratitude on a regular basis on the left side of the page.
  • List all of the positive qualities these people demonstrate that they admire on the right side of the page.
  • Draw lines between the person's name and the qualities or traits that person might have developed as a result of their willingness to be thankful for what they have.

You can even ask older students to connect gratitude to behavior on a deeper level with short written response questions.

4. Start a "Random Acts of Kindness" Initiative

The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation offers plenty of resources for teachers determining how to teach gratitude to students, including free lesson plans. These tools, which aim to "make kindness the norm," are an amazing addition to your gratitude lesson plans or culture-building initiatives at school.

Random acts of kindness at school could include writing a thank you letter to a friend, including someone in a game at recess, holding a door, or picking up litter. You might even ask your colleagues if they need help with anything students could volunteer for.

5. Remind Students About Self-Gratitude

Being grateful for who you are and what you have to offer is just as important as serving others or saying thanks for your belongings. Make sure your students know that gratitude isn't a one-way street and that being grateful for one's own efforts or characteristics isn't selfish or vain, either.

Lessons about self-gratitude are best done as a self-reflection exercise. As part of the activity, try talking to each student individually about their gifts. Teachers who point out what students do well help boost their self-esteem levels, according to the American Psychological Association.

6. Have Students Keep a Gratitude Journal

Science shows us both gratitude and journaling are potent antidotes to mental health issues like anxiety and depression. Journaling can also reduce stress, boost the immune system, and improve physical health, according to NBC News.

A gratitude journal can be as simple as writing three things you're grateful for each day, or it can be more in-depth, using critical thinking or open-ended questions. Just keep in mind, journaling tends to be more powerful when students don't feel like their teacher is going to read what they wrote. Giving them time to write personally and then leaving the option to share is likely the best option.

7. Make Gratitude Art

Making gratitude art is a fun, hands-on way to engage students and put little reminders around your classroom or school emphasizing the importance of saying thanks.

Some fun gratitude projects you can do include:

  • Creating a gratitude family tree
  • Building gratitude dioramas with miniature crafted figurines of the people and things they're grateful for
  • Collaborating on a large gratitude sticky note or note card mosaic

Students with fewer inclinations toward art can work together to build a gratitude jar or box for your classroom.

Further Reading: Can We Teach Happiness to Students?

8. Walk the Walk

Thanksgiving is a wonderful time to focus on the power of saying thanks. Ultimately, though, showing appreciation throughout the year and setting an example for students is the best way to drive lessons home.

Your students, whether subconsciously or consciously, are always looking to see how you're walking the walk—and being grateful is no different. Just know, your students will be grateful for you and your efforts to reinforce such an important topic in your classroom and school.