Five Gifts from a Grateful Heart

Celebrating Valentine's Day

Posted Feb 08, 2013

Give a box of chocolates?  Send a dozen roses? Does it really matter what you send or what you say by sending it? A New York Times article by John Tierney, A Serving of Gratitude May Save the Day, is instructive for teachers. The science of gratitude proves that cultivating an “attitude of gratitude” improves sleep, increases subjective happiness, decreases anxiety and depression, and promotes kindness. Researcher Nathan DeWall found that grateful people act less aggressively because thinking and acting in grateful ways requires empathy for others. Another gratitude researcher, Dr. McCullough reports, “…More than any other emotion gratitude is the emotion of friendship.”

For all of these reasons, and because the friendship at school is determinative, teachers should explicitly teach the attitude of gratitude. Valentine’s Day is the perfect day to begin! Derived from the gratitude research, I offer ten active learning activities.

The emphasis is on action because children and adolescents express their thankfulness in words and their gratitude by actions. Teachers can also infuse academic learning standards into the lessons from expressive language standards to reading comprehension standards, and all lessons can be customized for grade levels K-12.

1. Emotion Cards - There are some colorful and engaging emotions cards available commercially. Students are given these cards to distribute when a particular positive emotion is observed in a round robin exchange throughout the day or week. Students report/graph the results at end of the day/week and then begin again. Students can also create their own cards about a particular emotion and deliver it to a person who exemplifies that emotion: courage, kindness, or joy. If students create their own cards, they can individualize the cards to offer examples of the emotion observed. If students exchange cards in a classroom, the teacher assigns every student another student to observe and identify the  emotion that student exhibits that inspires the card.

2. Strength Cards - There are powerful strengths or virtue cards that teachers can distribute throughout the day when strengths are demonstrated. Like emotion cards, students themselves can also distribute them or create their own to distribute. A variation on this activity is using baseball trading cards or historical figure trading cards that identify the celebrity’s strength and sharing it with another when that same strength is observed.

3. Letters - Students identify a person to whom they are grateful for a very specific reason. They write a letter to that person and, if possible, deliver it to that person. Variations of the activity can include making gratitude certificates or coupons for that person. Older students can use social media to create a message of gratitude to share digitally.

4. Books - Assign students to a book club. Books for every age and interest level about gratitude abound. Books such as the Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, Grateful: A Song of Giving Thanks by John Buccino, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin, or 14,0000 Things to Be Happy About (or grateful for) by Barbara Kipfe. Collect the books in a gratitude center and have students read and vote for their favorite one.

5. Stories - Students draw from a box to select an emotion or strength. Sitting in  small group, they tell a personal story based on the emotion selected. Students might also create gratitude journals or diaries, with daily or weekly entries, and read selections from their journals aloud. Students might prompt the story using: Gratitude in a Jar or Gratitude for Teens in a Jar by Free Spirit Publishing. Older students may tell stories about a core strength that modulated strong emotion.

Finally, teach your students the art of grateful by role modeling it for them. Every chance you get say, “Thank you.” Say “thank you” for every simple, kind, thoughtful gesture. Say “thank you” for every small contribution and inconsequential skill. I knew a principal who wandered school hallways looking for negative actions not taken to appreciate: “Thank you for not throwing that paper on the floor.”

A Penn State postmaster dispenses happiness with the mail. For more than a decade, he has found way to appreicate every person who comes to his counter:

On Valentine's Day this year, offer a dozen thanks to those for whom you care and those in your care

Words of appreciation and acts of gratitude have fewer calories then a dozen chocolates and cost less then a dozen roses. 


Read: Tierney, J. (November, 2011). A serving of gratitude might save the day, New York Times.

Read: Kipfer, B. (2007) 14,000 Things to be happy about. New York: Workman Press.

Visit: Robert Emmons Lab at the University of Davis.

Visit: C. Nathan DeWall, Social Psychology Lab at the University of Kentucky

Visit: Michael McCullough, Evolution & Human Behavior Lab at the University of Miami

Learn: The Greater Good Science Project (2012). Expanding the science and practice of gratitude. Berkley: University of California.

Journal: Price, C. (2009). Journal: Gratitude. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

Consider: Free Spirit (2008). Gratitude in a jar.

Consider: Free Spirit (2008). Gratitude in a jar for teens.

Consider: The Virtue Project (2012). Virtue reflection

Consider: Bright Spot Games (2012). Feelings in bloom game cards

Consider: Parr, T. (2012). Feelings flash cards. San Francisco: Chronicle Books

I would love to hear from you. How will you celebrate Valentine’s Day in your classroom? Have you ever developed or delivered a positive psychology lesson on gratitude? Was that lesson based on reading, writing, arithmetic, service, or some combination of all? Global studies? Economics? Art? Do you have a favorite book about gratitude that you have and recommend? Most importantly, how do you share your grateful heart with your students?


My book, Positive Psychology in the Elementary School Classroom, will be available in early March 2013 and is the first in a series intended to help teachers build positive psychology classrooms.

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