Q: My daughter's fifth-grade teacher has students keep a "gratitude" journal. She says it's part of their "social-emotional learning" curriculum. Isn't that more for Sunday school?
A: Not really. There's no one place to express gratitude or learn its power. Being grateful helps kids maintain perspective about what is going right in their lives.
"Writing in a journal is an easy avenue for self-expression for preteens," says Carol Lloyd, the executive editor of GreatSchools.org. "Expressing gratefulness releases oxytocin -- a brain chemical that promotes trust, attachment, generosity, calmness, security and reduces stress."
In addition, "as the holidays arrive, it's a good thing that a teacher might ask students to reflect on what they're thankful for," says Marissa Gehley, a retired California youth counselor. "When we model gratitude, we show kids that we recognize what's good about the people we interact with every day."
A sense of gratitude is a "battery charger. It can help young people focus on positives instead of negativity," says Gehley. "Thanking someone for something can change a child's attitude for the better in an instant."
Professor Adam Grant at the University of Pennsylvania and other researchers have discovered that expressing gratitude can help kids become happier, healthier, less-stressed students who enjoy stronger social relationships.
Lloyd says more and more schools are integrating social-emotional learning, often called "soft skills," into the school day because "research shows that learning how to boost self-awareness, get along with each other, empathize, self-monitor and manage one's temperament can boost academic success. Learning to be grateful is an important aspect of self-awareness."
Lloyd likes the advice of Tim Kasser, the author of "The High Price of Materialism." He encourages parents and educators to foster in kids an "inward richness" instead of a shallow consumerism. One way to do this is to practice being grateful.
Lloyd, drawing on Kasser's work, offers these tips to parents who want to foster a "gratitude attitude":
-- Model values you want your child to hold. "If you spend your time working long hours, shopping a lot, talking about money, you are modeling that materialistic aims in life are important. Your child will imitate those values," says Lloyd.
-- Reduce your child's exposure to materialism. "I like the guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics: No screen time for children younger than 2, and less than two hours per day of screen usage for older kids," notes Lloyd.
-- Critique advertisements with your kids. Research shows that when kids see ads and adults make factual or evaluative comments such as, "Those commercials are intended to sell," or, "That commercial is wrong; the actual toy doesn't work like that," kids' desire for the product declines.
-- Model gratitude in an emotionally genuine way. Let your daughter see you thank her teacher for a lesson she loved or thank the supermarket clerk for noticing a torn package. Thank your daughter for clearing the dishes. Be thankful at dinner or at bedtime.
"It could be in line with a religious belief, such as saying grace, or it could be secular," explains Lloyd.
When you model gratitude, she says, "you help create an emotional habit -- biochemically and neurologically -- that will shape your child's responses in a positive way."
For more tips on fostering gratitude, go to greatschools.org.
(Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)