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Teaching Strategies to Cultivate Gratitude, Optimism

Janelle Cox

It seems cliché to write about gratitude and optimism when I’ve been a pessimist for most of my life. It wasn’t until I reached adulthood that I realized the effect that negative thinking can have on a person’s overall well-being. I think maybe that’s why I found researching mindfulness, gratitude, and positivity so intriguing. Throughout my years of research, I’ve come to the notion that being grateful and staying positive can have a real impact on your mental health. In my search for optimism, I’ve learned many things. For instance, the more optimistic you are and savor each moment, the more satisfied you are with your life. Also, having a sense of purpose makes you not only feel more successful, but actually makes you more successful. In fact, when you’re more optimistic, it’s easier to achieve your goals and create a more satisfying, happier life.

If these practices can benefit me in adulthood, then imagine what they can do for an adolescent when started young. If you take all of the research on gratitude and positivity, you will see the evidence that can transform today’s students. Struggling students will be able to learn how to cope better and have less stress, while pessimistic students will learn how to be more positive, which can help to increase the likelihood of a having a more successful life.

Here are a few teaching strategies that can help foster a more appreciative, optimistic outlook in students.

Enhance Well-being through a Positivity Journal

It’s been well documented that positive thinking contributes to a person’s overall well-being. Invariably, studies have found the most effective way to enhance well-being is to share positive experiences through writing. The University of California Berkeley conducted a study of about 600 8-11 year olds. The goal was for students to write three good things for one week in a journal. The study found that students not only reported feeling happier after writing, but they were still happier up to three months later compared to those who wrote in a journal daily.

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To help set the tone of positivity in your classroom, have students write down three positive things that happen to them each day. The students’ goal is to not only figure out what these three things are, but to also think about how they did it and why it happened to them. Encourage students to really think deeply about these things, then ask them to share what they’ve come up with. Sharing with peers is a great way to reinforce positive thinking.

Teach Students How to Savor a Moment or a Memory

Savoring a moment or even a memory has been known to reduce stress as well as boost optimism. The idea behind savoring is to let a pleasurable experience linger for as long as you can. When you take the time to prolong a positive experience and really take it all in, you’ll be happier, so say experts.

There are a few ways that you can do this. The first way is to savor a past moment. Ask students to take a moment and think about a time where they were really happy. What were they doing? How did they feel at that moment? Talk about how they can go back to the moment at any time by just thinking about it and thinking about how they felt that day (reminiscing). Another way to savor is to appreciate the moment that you are in. For example, students can concentrate on the meaning of the activity they are currently doing in class by practicing mindfulness. Lastly, students can savor their future through positive anticipation. They can think about what they want to happen in the future.

Turn Negative Thoughts into Positive Thoughts

Study after study shows that the more optimistic that you are, the better your life will be. For me, thinking negatively has always been something that I struggled with. I thought that this was something that I was born with, but have since learned that it’s a learned behavior. The best way to turn a pessimistic behavior around, is to play the “Turn around” game. Every time that you have a negative thought, you turn it around into a positive one. For example, “I’m not good at math.” This statement can be turned around into, “The more I work hard and study in math, the better I will become at it.” Students can try this activity by listing a variety of negative statements on the board and turning the negative statements around into more positive statements. The more that students learn to change their negative thinking into positive, the more they will become an optimist.

Try a Gratitude Journal

Neuroscientists agree that we are not hard-wired into always dwelling on negative experiences like we thought, and we can in fact change our brains for the better, to be happier. In just 5-10 minutes a day for a few weeks, a gratitude journal can help transform your students into being more positive by simply writing down a list of things they are grateful for. Over time, listing these things can help shift a student’s perspective towards the positive.

Teach Students How to be Hopeful

Having a sense of purpose and being hopeful is yet another way of “Looking on the bright side” and being optimistic in life. The more hopeful you are about the future, the more attainable your goals will become. To teach students to be more hopeful, you can have them make a list of attainable goals they have for themselves. Every time they achieve a new goal, they’ll be happy and satisfied with themselves. This will teach them when you aspire, have hope, and are optimistic about life, you can do anything. 

Cultivating a sense of gratitude and optimism in school is attainable, and students aren’t the only ones that can benefit from these practices, teachers can too. Making a list of the positive things in your life, changing the way you think, savoring the moment, and being hopeful and positive are all ways that you can foster a positive outlook on life.

Are you a pessimist or an optimist? Please share with us your thoughts and teaching strategies on this topic in the comment section below, we’d love to hear from you.


Janelle Cox is an education writer who uses her experience and knowledge to provide creative and original writing in the field of education. Janelle holds Masters of Science in Education from the State University of New York College at Buffalo. She is a contributing writer to TeachHUB.com, TeachHUB Magazine, and Hey Teach. She was also the Elementary Education Expert for About.com for five years. You can follow her on Twitter @empoweringed, on Facebook at Empowering K12 Educators, or contact her at Janellecox78@yahoo.com.