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Practicing gratitude – it’s not just good for adults!

Updated: Mar 1, 2021

You might be forgiven for thinking gratitude is one of those fads that was talked about everywhere at the beginning of the pandemic when we were all desperate to cling on to something good and it’s a bit flimsy. There is, however, a huge swathe of research to back up that practicing gratitude is a very positive and powerful process.

Expressions of gratitude lead to the release of serotonin and dopamine, and simply put, these feel good neurotransmitters put us in a better mood and increase our overall happiness. Who doesn’t want a piece of that?

At a neurobiological level, gratitude regulates the sympathetic nervous system (associated with fight/flight) that activates our anxiety responses, and at the psychological level, it conditions the brain to filter the negative stuff out and focus on the positive thoughts.

Practicing gratitude is not about being happy all of the time – we can accept that we may be sad sometimes. Practicing gratitude is a way of getting closer to the view that good things still exist around us. It can have a positive impact on many areas of our lives, from enhancing self-love and empathy to reducing stress hormones and supporting effective functioning of our immune systems.

If there’s a way to incorporate it into your class routine, why not take the opportunity to share these benefits with children?

Throw a bit of the science in to bring it to life (never one to shy away from a bit of psycho-education, me!) and to enhance their understanding around how we can look ourselves by practicing simple things each day.

Here are some accessible activities you might consider incorporating…

Gratitude Trees

Individual trees

Print off the attached A4 template. Ask your children to write or draw things that they are grateful or thankful for. You might share a couple of ideas to get them started. There is no right or wrong approach – let the children express themselves in their own ways – the point is to engage with the activity in a meaningful way, whatever that looks like to them. Some may choose to colour their trees and write a few words around it, others may draw objects that they are grateful for around the tree, with others writing lots of words as if they are small leaves – there are doubtless lots of ways to express gratitude using the template.

Classroom (community) tree

You might draw out a big tree for your class one along the lines of the one on the individual worksheet above, and get the children to help paint it. You could then give children a set of leaves each (templates here (plain/green/yellow/red)) and ask them to come up with as many things as they can think of to be grateful for – they can then write one on each leaf, colour/cut out the leaves and stick them onto the tree so you end up with a big, positive display in your classroom.

This might also serve as a useful reference point to help those struggling with ideas for a gratitude journal if you decide to make that a regular activity within your class.

For younger children, Todd Parr's 'The Thankful Book' (here's a YouTube video of him reading it) is lovely for generating ideas and discussion.

Gratitude Journal

Why not start each day with a gratitude journal as a settling in to class activity?

Perhaps each child/young person could be given a small book which they can decorate so they’ve put their personal stamp on it. They could then be invited to write or draw their answers each morning for 5 minutes as they come into class. It doesn’t matter if they repeat the same things a lot, nor if they don’t manage to get all 4 done each day, but of course it’s helpful to encourage them to focus in rather than just repeat exactly the same list each day.

Here are some starting points:

  • “I am grateful for…”

  • “I am grateful to learn…”

  • “I am grateful to eat…”

  • “I am grateful for my favourite…”

If they are struggling to think of or express gratitude in this way, invite them to share 3 good things that happened in the last 24 hours.

Alternatively, here is a simple gratitude journaling template you may wish to use or adapt.

Other books/resources which complement the above activities:

Thanks A Million by Nikki Grimes – a collection of poems highlighting the importance of being thankful. The poems are in different forms. They are beautifully written and remind readers of the goodness of being thankful.

The Circle of Thanks by Stephen Bruchac – a collection of poems inspired by Native American songs.


Emma Spillane is an education trainer and consultant who specialises in attachment and trauma. She is currently taking bookings from primary school settings for 'trauma-informed approach to wider school reopening' training sessions (co-delivered with Bristol Lead Practitioner (Theraplay South West) Catherine Eveness).

Further information about training and consultancy services.

Sign up to Emma's mailing list for useful tips, resources, information and updates on training here.


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