Image Source: Lynn DeVries

What is Gratitude

Let’s pause for a moment to examine the definition of gratitude. The word gratitude is derived from the Latin word gratia, which means grace, graciousness, or gratefulness (depending on the context). According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, practicing gratitude supports social emotional learning competencies for social and self-awareness.

Research has shown there are many benefits to practicing gratitude. In a study by Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami, they asked participants to journal on specific topics over the course of 10 weeks. One group wrote about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week. A second group wrote about daily irritations or things that had displeased them, and the third wrote about events that had affected them (with no emphasis on them being positive or negative). The people who journaled about gratitude were found to have improvements in health and well-being, including increased energy levels, improvement in sleep quality, lowered blood pressure, less symptoms of pain, and feeling a greater sense of joy. Click here to read more on how Practicing Gratitude Can Increase Happiness.

Gratitude as a Mindful Practice

Practicing mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way, on purpose in the present moment and non-judgmentally (Jon Kabit-Zinn). Another definition states, “Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention here and now with kindness and curiosity, so that we can choose our behavior” (Dr. Amy Saltzman). Practicing gratitude can bring you to a more present-moment awareness and similarly, gratitude can lead to living in the present.

Mindfulness in Gratitude is the topic of the week for a class I am teaching for childcare professionals, Cultivating Healthy, Intentional, Mindful Educators (CHIME). The CHIME Program provides education and guidance on how to incorporate mindfulness and reflective practice into your daily routine, teaching and care giving. Engaging in mindfulness and reflective practice has many benefits for health and well-being of both providers and young children — including reduced stress, improved emotion management, better sleep quality, increased focus and attention, and enhanced relationships.

In my CHIME class, participants kept a gratitude journal for two weeks. After the two weeks, the early childhood teachers also noted a sense of greater happiness amongst themselves and others in their workplace. Another activity I modeled in the CHIME class was to make a gratitude necklace or bracelet. We selected beads that resembled a person or thing we are grateful for and shared among the group as we strung the beads. For example, I chose the blue bead as I am thankful for the fair weather and clear blue skies. The teachers will replicate this activity with preschool children.

Harvard Medical School suggests Giving Thanks Can Make You Happier and “Gratitude is a way for people to appreciate what they have instead of always reaching for something new in the hopes it will make them happier or thinking they can’t feel satisfied until every physical and material need is met. Gratitude helps people refocus on what they have instead of what they lack. And, although it may feel contrived at first, this mental state grows stronger with use and practice.

WAYS TO NURTURE GRATITUDE

Writing Thank-you-Notes or Emails

This practice can cultivate your relationships with others and help you to feel happier too. Don’t forget to send or deliver the message personally. I keep a bulletin board in my office, and it has pinned to it the special thank you notes that others have written to me. This little gesture of gratitude is a gift to the heart.

Keep a Daily Gratitude Journal

Keep the journal where it is handy to reach at a specific time each day, perhaps in the morning or in the evening. Write down 1, 2, or 3 things you can be grateful for each day. The things you write about do not have to be grandiose things or events, it can be the little things, hidden often in plain sight. It is important to stop and reflect on how this practice is going after about 2 weeks. What do you notice about your health and well-being?

Pray or Consider Thanking a Higher Power

Consider the practice of thanking a higher power to cultivating gratitude.

Mindfulness Meditation

Find a Gratitude Meditation Practice centered on what you are grateful for.

GRATITUDE PRACTICES FOR YOUNG CHILDREN


Julie A Reiss, author of Raising a Thankful Child from NAEYC says, “Teaching manners is a fine art of modeling but not always the making of meaning. Raising thankful children is a fine art of helping them make their own meaning.” We can model manners and ways to say thank you when appropriate, but it may not have meaning for children until later. Reiss suggests that learning to say thank you is not the same as being thankful, and that our role as caregivers is to model appreciation and reflect those genuine feelings back to the child.

What Does Modeling Gratitude Look Like for Young Children?

Here are some suggestions from Rebecca Parlakian and Sarah S. MacLaughlin, Nurturing Gratitude (Zero to Three, 2020)

  • Show appreciation to your children. Slow down and observe more closely. You’ll see things you appreciate about your kids—then tell them! Appreciation can be an even more powerful motivator than praise. Sharing appreciation is a strong way to feel connected to one another.
  • Show appreciation for others. Never underestimate the power of your words and actions. Your children are paying attention to the way you treat others, whether it’s friends, neighbors, a teacher, or the cashier at the market. They hear your tone with the salesperson on the phone. You set a great example when you model kindness, generosity, and gratefulness in your own everyday interactions.
  • Use the word “grateful.” Children need to learn what this new word means. Explain that being grateful is noticing something in your life that makes you happy. “I’m grateful that it’s sunny today because it was raining yesterday.” Mention gratitude when you’re doing an everyday pleasant activity, like hanging out at the playground or eating watermelon on a hot day. Pause and say, “I’m so grateful for this day!” or “Wow, this is fun!” Your enthusiasm will be contagious.
  • Make a Thankful Tree. Cut a tree trunk from cardboard or construction paper. Tape to a wall or window and cut out some leaf shapes. Ask your child to think of something they are thankful for and write one on each leaf. Then tape the leaf to a branch. Add your own “thankful things.” Have your child ask family members what they’re grateful for and add them to the tree.
  • Share stories of thankfulness, gratitude, and generosity.

As with any mindfulness practice, mindful gratitude practice does take time. The benefits may not emerge immediately, but rather gradually occur over time, and children will need to be exposed to genuine appreciation and to feel appreciated themselves. How do you practice gratitude?


LYNN DEVRIES, EXTENSION EDUCATOR | THE LEARNING CHILD

Peer Reviewed by Amy Napoli , Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist and Kara Kohel Extension Educator, The Learning Child

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