Making Space for Gratitude: 12 Ideas for Schools During Challenging Times

Thank you heart

Learn how schools can make space for gratitude in the classroom, among staff, and in family partnerships. This article includes strategies, resources, and research on the benefits of gratitude in schools.

In the midst of so many challenges during another school year marked by the COVID-19 pandemic, it may seem difficult to start conversations about gratitude in your classroom or school. Yet finding ways to celebrate gratitude and appreciation can be a powerful tool that yields many benefits, such as:

At the same, gratitude can show educators what's working. For example:

  • Student appreciations of classmates may highlight qualities that a teacher might have overlooked.
  • Staff appreciations may inspire colleagues to try something new.
  • Taking time to hear what's working for families may yield some important insights.

The following ideas highlight some ways to shine a spotlight on gratitude, with considerations that will ensure that English language learners (ELLs) and multilingual families are part of these activities.

Additional ideas, including tips for starting a personal gratitude practice, are available in the resources at the end of the article. The resource list also includes information about the research around gratitude in education.

Ideas for Students

1. Introduce the concept of gratitude and related vocabulary words.

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Before starting a gratitude activity:

  • talk about the meanings of words such as "grateful," "gratitude," and "appreciation"
  • ask students to brainstorm student-friendly definitions for these words
  • ask ELLs to share the meaning of "thank you" in their language
  • make a display with "thank you" written in different languages, including in your students' languages (Thank you to Amanda Goman for sharing this idea on Twitter!)

You may wish to invite students to teach their classmates how to say "thank you" in their home languages. Talk with them about this beforehand, however, so as not to put students on the spot.

In addition, share models of sentence frames, messages, and notes that you might use in the activities below, such as:

Thank you for _______________.

___________ helped me by _______________.

I would like to express my gratitude for... 

Quick tip

Tiffany Gordon, an ELL specialist and WIDA Fellow, color codes her sentence frames so that students know what they are reaching for in terms of language.  

Video: Using sentence frames with ELLs

ESOL specialist Sheila Majdi from Arlington, VA explains what a sentence frame is and how she might use this strategy with ELLs.

2. Talk about gratitude during circle time or advisory period.

One way to start conversations about gratitude in the classroom is to make it the focus of circle time or discussions during homeroom or advisory periods. Some topics could include the following:

Can you think of a time when…

  • a classmate helped you
  • a teacher or other adult at the school helped you
  • a relative helped you
  • a neighbor helped you
  • someone helped you during a difficult time
  • something you are grateful for
  • someone thanked you for something you did

You could also do a series of conversations with different themes each day during a "Gratitude Week" to explore the topic more in-depth.

Project idea

Using student responses, you might wish to create a "thankful tree," inspired by Daniel Tiger's "Thank You Day" story and episode.

Video: Finding a new friend after Hurricane Maria

When Nelson Rodriguez left Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, he quickly found a new friend in his teacher in Syracuse, NY, Jesus Ortiz. In this special video, they both remember the day they met and talk about the bond they formed.

3. Use writing prompts.

Use the prompts from activity #1 in a writing activity. Students could try different options based on their level of language proficiency:

  • draw their responses
  • write short sentences about their responses
  • write a journal entry about their experiences

To support students' writing:

  • Share examples of the kind of response you are looking for.
  • Help students brainstorm their ideas with a graphic organizer.

Video: Brainstorming a journal assignment with high school ELLs

Learn how high school ELL teacher Michelle Lawrence guides her students through the brainstorming process as they prepare to write a journal.

4. Write thank-you notes.

An additional extension activity is to write thank-you notes with your students. For example, students can write a thank-you note for:

  • a person they mentioned in activity #1
  • someone who has helped the class in some way
  • a group of people in the community who has been helpful during the pandemic, like first responders

Brainstorm ways to deliver the messages, either in person or via the mail.

Sharing sample letters

Share sample letters with students so they can become familiar with the format. Here is a very basic template:

Dear ____,

Thank you for ______. This helped me because _____.

Sincerely,

Video: How thanking awakens thinking

Dr. Kerry Howells, a researcher specializing in gratitude and education, suggests that the key to creating fully engaged learners is to create an attitude of gratitude.

5. Set up an appreciation station.

This is a great way to shine a spotlight on positive things that are happening in the classroom or beyond. You could set up a board (either in the classroom or online) where students can post thank-you notes to their classmates and teachers. These could be posted on colorful post-it notes or note cards. Students can add to the board over time whenever they think of a new example to add. Examples might include:

  • Fiona helped me study for the test.
  • Ms. Robertson told me about a great book!

This blog post from Engaging and Effective shares ideas for creating an appreciation station.

Note: Talk with students about the importance of treating this activity, and their school community, with respect. Let them know that any inappropriate notes will be removed.

6. Set up appreciation mailboxes.

In this activity, each student creates an envelope, folder, or "mailbox" in which classmates can leave an anonymous note of appreciation, such as, "You are a good soccer player," or "Thank you for making me laugh."  The point is to find something positive for each person in the class. This can be a one-time activity, or something that is set up for much of the year (after students have gotten to know each other better). Again, it's important to stress the importance of respect with students before starting this activity or the activity below.

7. Create appreciation webs.

Another variation on the above idea is an appreciation web. Each student writes their name in the middle of a blank sheet of paper. Students then pass their papers in one direction and each student writes something they appreciate about the student whose paper they have in front of them. Then students pass the papers again until all students have contributed to each student's paper.

8. Read a story about gratitude.

ThankU: Poems of Gratitude

The books on Colorín Colorado's Stories About Gratitude booklist highlight gratitude and appreciation across a variety of settings and cultures. These will make great read-alouds and for discussion.

9. Use appreciation as part of instruction.  

Teacher David Olio regularly gives his students note cards and asks them to write down a way in which a classmate helped their learning. This highlights students' contributions for him and the class — and offers some opportunities for informal assessment as well.

Ideas for Staff

10. Make space for gratitude and appreciation among the staff.

Highlighting gratitude and appreciation among staff members, especially during yet another taxing school year, can make a big difference in the staff dynamics. While it may take time for some staff members to warm up to this idea, sincere expressions of gratitude can go a long way in contributing to more collaboration, and as teaching coach Elena Aguilar writes, a more positive school culture.

Here are some ideas:

  • Set up an appreciation station in a staff lounge or departmental office where staff can post thank-you notes.
  • Set up public appreciation stations near places where different staff members work, such as the cafeteria, nurse's office, or guidance office.
  • Start meetings with an appreciation focus — for example, start with a round robin where each attendee shares something that another staff member did that they appreciate, or ask staff to volunteer examples.

In the same way that sharing success stories and celebrations among staff can lead to "a-ha" moments, this can also inspire some creative thinking and highlights some important contributions that might otherwise be overlooked.

Ideas for Families

11. Look for ways to emphasize gratitude in school-family partnerships.

There are many ways to make gratitude the focus of school-family partnerships. Here are some ideas you can try. Remember that all communication with multilingual families should happen in families' home languages and that families have a right to information in their home language.

  • Send positive messages home and make positive phone calls. This can be a high-yield strategy that benefits student behavior, mental health, and family partnerships. Teachers who make positive phone calls home often report better behavior and partnerships with families that benefit students, families, and teachers alike. For multilingual families, you can talk with a family liaison about the best way to communicate, use a language line, or try an app like TalkingPoints.
  • Thank families for ways they are contributing to the school or their students' education, whether in individual conversations or school-wide communication. This highlights positive steps and is a small but important way to acknowledge the stress that many families are still under during the pandemic.

You can also invite families to:

  • send in thank-you notes for a staff member who has helped their children
  • email or text messages that the school can compile
  • share examples with family liaisons who can pass them along to colleagues
  • post a note on an outdoor appreciation station

Ideas for the School Community

12. Consider a school-wide gratitude campaign.

If you want to go big, you might try a school-wide campaign to highlight gratitude in different classrooms and spaces throughout the school. For example, you could:

  • set up a school-wide appreciation station can highlight contributions by students and different staff members throughout the school
  • invite families to send thank-you messages to staff
  • encourage individual teachers to use appreciation activities in their classroom

You can even share your experience with other schools or the local media to highlight the impact the gratitude campaign is having. This might just inspire others to do the same!

Closing Thoughts

Gratitude can be transformational, and small acts and message of gratitude can ripple outwards in big ways. Start small and build on your successes — now and all throughout the year!

Research on gratitude & education

Gratitude in the classroom

Personal gratitude practices

Resources for families

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