Thanksgiving, gratitude, empathy, Imagine This

Ah, Thanksgiving. That time of year when students celebrate life’s bounty by creating paper turkeys filled with colorful ‘gratitude’ feathers.

Meanwhile, older students may collect canned goods for the local food bank or gather coats for the homeless shelter.

As everyone buzzes with holiday anticipation, it’s pretty easy to feel grateful.

However, the holidays aren’t always rosy for everyone, including low-income students, students with disabilities, and those who live in negative or dangerous circumstances.

Even students with the greatest advantages can struggle with ingratitude, despite holiday activities that remind them to count their blessings. What’s the solution?

Exercise Empathy

According to Dr. Robert A. Emmons, a well-known psychologist who studies gratitude, those who regularly give thanks just plain feel better. Grateful people also feel more hope, optimism, and a desire to get along with others.

In fact, many social scientists view empathy and gratitude as sides of the same coin. Feeling down? Show gratitude to someone else and you’ll also build empathy for their point of view.

But first, you need to know what empathy is. Dr. Brené Brown explains:

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So, how do you exercise empathy in the classroom? Try these tips:

  • Role play– Choose a problem that the whole class has to solve. After dividing the class into two groups, assign each group a role (for example, the problem might be earning money for a class trip, and students may be assigned the role of the school principal or the bus driver). After 10 minutes of discussion in each group, have groups switch roles to build empathy for the other side.
  • Modeling – When facing a student who is upset about something, ask open-ended questions like “Right now you might be feeling X–is that right?” Or, offer a drop-down menu (“Are you really angry, fearful, or just tired?”) By modeling an empathetic attitude, you can help students own their feelings while showing them what empathy looks like. And above all–try not to fix. Just listen.
  • Understanding – As shown in the above video, understanding lies at the core of all empathy. To understand another,  you acknowledge what they’re feeling (“I get it–and I’d probably react the same way you’re reacting now”).
  • Mindfulness – Consider engaging in 5-minute meditations, guided by you or a mindfulness practitioner. If you choose to do these every day, students will learn how to accept their feelings, including the negative ones, without reinforcing undesirable behaviors.
  • No-Bullying – Let class members come up with ideas for a non-bullying classroom and school. What does this safe space look like? Let students role-play (see above) to better understand what’s behind bullying behavior. Then, incorporate their insights into a non-bullying policy.

Build a “Thank-You” Classroom Culturepraise, gratitude, thanks

For the ‘gratitude’ side of the coin, keep these tips in mind:

  • Journaling – There’s a reason why gratitude journals work! However, they come in multiple forms. Don’t want to use a hard copy? Download a gratitude journal app on phones and other electronic devices.
  • Praise – Research shows that while too much empty praise can create resentment and a sense of obligation, specific and targeted praise can foster gratitude and confidence. Don’t be afraid to give that kind of praise to students!
  • Nature – Today’s blended-learning environments help students in multiple ways–but when you need to unplug from technology, try a short walk. There’s nothing like a little time outdoors to refresh the mind and spirit.
  • Helping – Those restless students in the corner may benefit from a special project. Enlist their help to benefit someone else in the class, another teacher, or the wider community. Projects could include tutoring a struggling reader, creating a get-well package for someone who is sick, or writing anonymous thank-you notes to another class member.
  • Optimism – While bad days happen, each class can choose to see the positive. Train that optimism by taking time every day to see people and situations in their best light.


How do you build empathy and gratitude in your class? Share your ideas below.