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Grateful Schools, Happy Kids

New research finds that gratitude helps younger kids and at-risk students to be happier and more resilient.


As the holiday season comes to a close, kids may have heard and thought more about gratitude at school. Maybe they’ve written something they’re thankful for as a school assignment. Sure, it’s a nice exercise, but does being grateful really make a difference?

Research shows that it does. Practicing gratitude increases students’ positive emotions and optimism, decreases their negative emotions and physical symptoms, and makes them feel more connected and satisfied with school and with life in general.

But most of these studies have been done with upper-middle-class students. The results raised the question: Would these findings hold true for other types of students, particularly younger kids or kids in high-risk situations?

Making young kids more grateful

Jeffrey Froh is a pioneering researcher of gratitude in youth. He and colleagues tested a new kind of gratitude curriculum for elementary school children (ages 8–11), the youngest studied thus far.

First, children learned about the three types of appraisals that make us feel grateful:

  • that someone has intentionally done something to benefit us
  • that providing this benefit was costly to them
  • that the benefit is valuable to us

After one week of daily half-hour lessons, these students showed significant increases in grateful thinking and mood—the lessons worked. Also, when all the children were given the chance to write thank-you notes to the PTA after a presentation, the students wrote 80 percent more notes than kids who didn’t receive the lessons, showing that their enhanced gratitude translated into more grateful behavior.

In the second part of the study, researchers delivered the curriculum over five weeks, with one lesson per week. The students’ outcomes were tested right after the program ended and then several more times, up to five months later.

Compared to kids who didn’t get the lessons in gratitude, these children showed steady increases in grateful thinking, gratitude, and positive emotions over time. In fact, the differences between the two groups were greatest five months after the program ended, indicating that the gratitude lessons had lasting effects.

Working with at-risk youth

In another recent study, researcher Mindy Ma and colleagues looked at gratitude in African-American adolescents (ages 12–14) in low-income, low-performing urban schools.

They wanted to know if, in this kind of high-risk environment, gratitude would help protect them from stresses faced at home and school. Surveying almost 400 students from three different middle schools, researchers found that those who were more likely to feel grateful to others also scored higher on academic interest, grades, and extracurricular involvement; those who appreciated the positives in general scored lower on risky behaviors like drug use. One factor, positive family relationships, was associated with both types of gratitude. In other words, at least for this group of students, moral-affect gratitude seemed to enhance the positive conditions of their lives, while life-orientation gratitude seemed to buffer against some common high-risk pitfalls.

Future studies should include experiments with programs—such as Froh’s new curriculum, perhaps—to test the effects of teaching gratitude in at-risk populations as well. This might give us all something more to celebrate in the New Year! 


Excerpted from Greater Good, the online publication of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center

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