- About Us
- What We Do
- Programs & Solutions
- Blogs & News
In this article, you will find 5 practical tips with sample language, and actions you can use immediately to teach young children to come to a deeper understanding of gratitude.
When the holiday season rolls around, we are often reminded to reflect on what we have and acknowledge what we are most grateful for. But how do we break down such a big, abstract concept like “gratitude” into concrete practices that our youngest learners can understand and use every day?
The first time I remember hearing the word “gratitude” was probably in early elementary school. I have a vivid memory of little me bringing home a paper cut-out of my hand that I had decorated at school. My teacher helped us think of things that we were grateful for, and we were asked to write them on each of the paper fingers.
I know now that I probably didn’t have a firm grasp on the concept of gratitude, I just knew that each of those things – my family, my friends, my “Oddie” (dolly), mashed potatoes, and my cat – were things that made me happy, and I was glad they were in my life.
I recently shared this memory with my friends, and they also recalled doing a similar activity as kids or answering the question “What does gratitude mean to you?” written by a teacher on the whiteboard. As far as I can tell, the gratitude handprint is still alive and well in schools today. And why not? It's a fun way to learn about what gratitude means, includes counting (5 fingers) and teaches fine motor skills (using scissors and markers). Plus, it looks cute on the fridge.
However, gratitude doesn’t only exist during the holidays. It is an important skill that needs to be nurtured and practiced often, which is why it is so important to teach children about gratitude, empathy, and helping others both in and out of the classroom.
As an educator and an adult, I can think about what I hold dearest to me, recognize the privileges that I have, and acknowledge how I can use them to help others. But that takes a great deal of time, learning, understanding, and reflection.
So, why not start scaffolding big, important concepts like gratitude, empathy, and perspective-taking with children now?
There are so many ways to teach gratitude every day, not just during the holidays. With these tips, practicing gratitude and empathy will become second nature to children in your class and at home.
As the parents, caregivers, and educators of young children, we play important roles as their key socializers. This means that what we say and do around children matters – they soak everything up like a sponge. Take some time to reflect on how and when you express gratitude and think about ways you can more intentionally do so each day.
Modeling behavior you want to see can look like verbalizing thankfulness when others help you:
“Thank you so much for helping me clean up! It means a lot to me.”
Or, taking time each day to share one thing that made you feel grateful:
“I’m feeling so grateful for my friends today. They always make me feel loved, and that is so important to me.”
When children can constructively identify, understand, express, and regulate their emotions, they are more likely to develop compassion and kindness for others. Focusing on children’s social-emotional learning is foundational to their development of empathy, perspective-taking, and gratitude.
Guide children to observe their own changing facial expressions and body language in mirrors, as well as those of their peers and family members.
Practice regulation strategies together and offer choices to calm down so children know what works for them.
Ask children what they can do to help a friend feel better when they are sad or frustrated so they know that helping others matters (and feels good!).
Empathy and perspective-taking go hand-in-hand with gratitude and are foundational social-emotional skills. Support children’s critical thinking and perspective-taking by reading diverse stories about characters that experience different emotions and challenges.
Call attention to the facial expressions of characters and invite children to share their observations.
Ask questions that focus on the different feelings and experiences of others, like:
This can extend beyond storybooks into children’s everyday interactions with their friends, family members, and teachers and can support future problem-solving skills.
You don’t always have to wait for a kind moment to happen to practice gratitude! Planning curriculum activities, intentional games, or activities at home that focus on kindness and sharing can help positively reinforce these behaviors.
Try setting out a limited number of materials and encourage children to use their words to ask for a turn. Play games that involve passing materials and waiting for a turn, while emphasizing moments of kindness.
Pair children together for partner activities that involve working together to accomplish the same goal. For younger children, sit with them as they play and ask them to pass you a toy, then model gratitude by giving thanks. The opportunities are virtually endless!
We are all part of a community, and some members of each community need more help and resources than others. Acknowledging this shouldn’t wait until the holidays! Now is the perfect time to start recognizing what we can do to give back or help others.
Start small by walking around your home or classroom with children and taking stock of all the things you have.
Ask questions to help build empathy throughout the process:
It's important to acknowledge that not everyone can donate or give back, and practicing gratitude is not limited to material things.
We can show kindness and give thanks by writing thoughtful messages or drawing a picture for someone special. We can sing songs together or share a meal to build community. No matter how you choose to practice gratitude, be sure to involve your children, too.