Research tells us that gratitude promotes well-being and life satisfaction, but is the practice of gratitude appropriate for very young children?

To find out more, we speak to gratitude advocates and CELA members Kathy Phipps (Director of Narooma Preschool) and Ying Bean (Director of The Ridge Preschool and Childcare Centre)." />

By CELA on 9 Aug, 2022

The Cambridge Dictionary defines gratitude as “a strong feeling of appreciation to someone or something for what the person has done to help you”.  

Kathy Phipps, Director of Narooma Preschool, believes that gratitude is not just a feeling but an action that needs to be practiced. Gratitude differs from happiness in that happiness can be fleeting or tied to a particular achievement or goal. Ying Bean, a trained yoga teacher and ECEC Director, firmly agrees. She tells us that happiness comes from “being at peace within yourself” and that practising gratitude can help you achieve contentment and peace no matter what is happening in your life. 

With roots in our evolutionary experience, gratitude has been shown by research in neuroscience1 to be an intrinsic component of the human experience and an inherent part of our interactions with others.  

In recent decades, psychological interventions and support have expanded to include practices such as gratitude that promote well-being and resilience. This is now known as “positive psychology”. Alongside this, we have also seen a paradigm shift in education with well-being and resilience included in primary education and the Early Years Learning Framework outlining well-being outcomes in early childhood settings. 

The term “positive education” was coined to describe concepts stemming from positive psychology that were introduced into educational settings, such as gratitude, resilience, hope, mindfulness, growth mindset, optimism, empathy, and character strengths. 

What are the benefits of gratitude? 

Research2 shows that gratitude is consistently associated with greater happiness, and studies have shown that it can also lead to improved physical and mental health. 

From her observations, Kathy tells us it fosters kindness, compassion, and positive relationships with others and can lead to joy, respect, calm, and feelings of security. Regular gratitude practise can also enhance our capacity for feeling gratitude, which in turn allows us to experience more benefits.  

Ying recommends making time for gratitude each day like we do with personal care activities such as showering or brushing our teeth. 

Should we be teaching gratitude to the under fives, or are they too young? 

Studies3 have shown that children have the capacity for gratitude from early on in development and that cultural and environmental factors will influence how it is experienced and expressed. 

During many years an an ECEC director, Kathy has observed that young children are skilled at being in the moment, which lends itself to practising gratitude. "While children can be very energetic, they are also very purposeful about their play," she says. "This translates to them being really good at paying attention to some of the smaller details because they're right there in the moment all the time."

Ying's experience in early childhood settings and as a yoga teacher has shown her that children are already naturally primed to observe and identify things they feel grateful for. She says it is easy to simplify gratitude for the early childhood audience by asking questions such as, “What are you laughing at just now? What makes you happy?”. 

Ying suggests that it is possible to engage children in simple discussions about gratitude as soon as they are able to speak. Gratitude can be modelled for children who are not yet talking through positive verbal feedback and a smiling face. 

How do you go about teaching gratitude? 

According to Kathy, an ideal environment for cultivating gratitude is one that is non-judgmental, offers a connection with others, and promotes mindfulness. To strengthen their own practice and foster well-being, educators should consider their values and form genuine connections with one another, she says. 

Educators can being to teach gratitude by modelling it in day to day situations. This could include saying thanks in front of the children for something that another educator has done, or telling the children why you are grateful to them for something they have done. Always make eye contact when expressing gratitude and project a positive energy by sitting/standing up straight and holding your head high.

Activities designed to foster gratitude at Barden Ridge Preschool and Daycare Centre include: 

  • Inviting children to sit in a cirlce. A ball with a happy face on it is passed around so that the happy face is facing the group. Each child takes a turn sharing something they feel grateful for. 

  • Each child places a hand on their heart, thinks of someone they love, and sends thoughts of love to them. 

Activities at Narooma Preschool include: 

  • Singing Hearts and Hands, a song written at the centre, the children acknowledge the traditional lands on which they stand and express gratitude for the activities they can take part in locally. This promotes shared responsibility and being part of something bigger than themselves. 

  • Sharing short stories and visualisations that promote emotional regulation, mindfulness, and calm (examples can be found on the Peace Out podcast).  

Kathy also suggests tapping into “sustained shared thinking” moments that come up throughout the day. For example, lunchtime conversations can lead to thinking about the food the children have been given, appreciating it as a valuable resource and discussing ways of reducing food wastage. 

In Ying’s experience, preschool children are most likely to say they are grateful for the people around them or a positive experience they have just had like going to the park, the food they like eating, or something they are looking forward to, such as a birthday coming up, rather than material possessions. 

What if children are reluctant to take gratitude on board? 

While most children will take to introductory activities, some may just go through the motions. If their heart doesn't seem in it, there’s no need to give up. The practice of gratitude is like exercising, says Kathy, with children developing their "muscles" through practice and educator modelling. Ying also offers encouragement to persevere, explaining that once you start consciously acknowledging things to be grateful for, you will find yourself noticing more, and it can grow in that way. 

Does gratitude practice have a place during times of difficulty, such as the impact of childhood trauma or natural disaster? 

Gratitude during times of recovery is beneficial in providing skills to navigate difficulties. While specialist psychological guidance is recommended in times of trauma, Ying tells us that gratitude can help navigate highs and lows more evenly. She says it can help children connect with their feelings and start understanding them.  

Kathy tells us that 2020 was a difficult year for Narooma due to devastating bushfires, which were immediately followed by the outbreak of the pandemic. As a result of these experiences, Kathy and her team decided to place a greater focus on gratitude in the program. There were benefits for children as well as educators. The focus on gratitude enabled educators to feel more connected and hopeful, which in turn enabled them to provide a place of safety and calm for the children.  

“Gratitude was fundamental to the resilience of our community,” says Kathy. We are now in a good place where gratitude is woven through our program daily.” 

References:  

1 C M Smith, W E I Moore et al (2017) “The Cultivation of Pure Altruism via Gratitude: A functional MRI Study of Change with Gratitude Practice. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience”, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 

2 R Emmons and M McCullough (2003) “Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2003, Vol 84, No 2: 377-389. 

3 Baumgarten-Tramer, F, “Gratefulness in Children and Young People”, Pedagogical Seminary and Journal of Genetic Psychology 1938,53(1), 53–66.  

Further reading: 

S MacLaughlin and R Parlakian (2020) “Nurturing Gratitude”, Zero to Three, accessed 8 August, 2022.  

L Rocker (2022) “Children and Gratitude”, Quirky Kid, accessed 8 August, 2022 

First Things First (1 November 2021) Teaching young kids about gratitude, First Things First, accessed 8 August, 2022. 

V Parachin (8 November 2022) Seven Buddhist Lessons in Gratitude, Spirituality & Health, accessed 8 August, 2022. 

About CELA

Community Early Learning Australia is a not for profit organisation with a focus on amplifying the value of early learning for every child across Australia - representing our members and uniting our sector as a force for quality education and care.

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