The Science Behind Being Grateful

Click to listen to Episode 12 of EPSD PD Podcast

We just wrapped up the Thanksgiving holiday and just around the corner in a few more weeks will have our winter holiday break.  This provides a great time in our lives to refocus and reflect on what we are grateful for. 

In this episode of EPSD PD Podcast you will hear the voices of students throughout the district.  You will hear what students from Kindergarten through 12th grade are grateful for and what research supports about how expressing gratitude improves health and wellness.  One of the Global Outcome competencies for students is social emotional and physical wellness.  For that reason, it is important that we teach our students about the importance of gratitude for their own wellness.  

Research published by Psychology Today describes the top 7 health and wellness benefits of expressing gratitude:

  1. It increases mental strength and cognitive processing. 
  2. Improves self-esteem.
  3. Improves Sleep.
  4. Increases empathy and reduces aggression.
  5. Improves overall psychological health.
  6. Increases physical wellness.
  7. Improves relationships and increases positive relationships with others.

That is why I made my way to each of our schools to provide opportunities for students to express their gratitude about school.  I set up my microphone in the lunch room and let students come up and express what they are grateful for at school.

There is no doubt about it that expressing our gratitude makes us feel good.  I enjoyed watching the smiles get bigger and bigger on the faces of these students as they shared their gratitude toward each other. Sharing our gratitude with each other can build relationships between students and teachers and help us understand one another and with understanding one another comes compassion which is a Global Outcome of ours and when conflict does arise the likelihood of building empathy increases.

The Negativity Bias

As humans, we are all negative thinkers.  Don’t beat yourself up about it. It is part of your evolutionary past and it is the way that all of our brains work.  It is supported by loads of evidence and research and is just the way we humans are.   It is called Negativity Bias.

Our brains have what neuroscientists call Negativity Bias.  This means our brains are built with greater sensitivity to unpleasant news, information, and experiences.  Zaretta Hammond writes about negativity bias and its implications on learning in a book many of us have read called Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain.   Our brain remembers and responds to negative experiences up to 3 times more than positive experiences. This originates from our limbic system (our reptilian brain) designed to be on the lookout for threats to our safety and psychological well-being.  That is why in our teacher preparation programs we were taught for every corrective or negative feedback we give a student, we should also give 3 pieces of positive feedback. That didn’t come out of nowhere, there is research behind why to do that.

One of the things our brain does when we get stressed, anxious, or feel a threat to our limbic brain is produce large amounts of cortisol.  Cortisol is a hormone in the brain that puts a stop to learning and information processing for at least 20 minutes and can stay in the body up to 3 hours.  Keep this in mind in the classroom when your students are upset, they can’t really access their brain for the next 20 minutes. This is why an inclusive environment and positive relationships is so important!

We have a tendency to lean toward the negative in every aspect of our lives.  But once we are aware of this and can identify it in our thinking, we can change it. Be aware of your negativity bias, and one of the best ways to counteract this in your brain is by routinely expressing gratitude. In Alex Korb’s article The Grateful Brain and in an article by Jessica Stillman called Gratitude physically Changes Your Brain they both cite research studies that suggest by practicing gratitude you can train your prefrontal cortex to appreciate and retain the positive and happy thoughts and deflect the negative ones.

Tips for the Classroom

  • Teach students the difference between grateful and thankful.
  • Take some time for students to verbally share what they are grateful for and listen to each other.  You could add it to a restorative circle conversation. 
  • Pick a student each day and share with them why you are grateful for them.  Follow up with a phone call or email to their parents expressing why you are so grateful for their child.
  • Tell a coworker why you are grateful for them. This will go along way in building the culture of your workplace.
  • Create a grateful wall in your classroom where students post pictures and stories of what they are grateful for.  You could do this on Schoology or SeeSaw or they could make a Clips video to share.
  • Keep a grateful journal or have your students keep a grateful journal.  Write down every day something or someone or an experience you are grateful for.
  • Volunteer somewhere and do some service learning with your students.
  •  Be conscious of your thinking and your students thinking and recognize negativity bias.  Being aware of your brain’s negativity bias allows you to counter it every chance you get. 

Elena Aguilar blog on how Gratitude Can Fuel School Transformation she suggests many different tips for how to routinely express gratitude and the impact it can have on changing the culture and climate of schools.

If you have other tips for the classroom, please share them by commenting on this blog post!

Published by Ruby Bode

Assistant superintendent of Estes Park School District.

2 thoughts on “The Science Behind Being Grateful

  1. In my Bobcat Advisory, we celebrate GratiTuesday. Students write a note or message to someone or journal about what they are grateful for each week on Tuesday. Not everyone takes the opportunity seriously, but many students do send messages out or journal.


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