Gratitude feels good. In this episode of The Conscious Classroom, Amy Edelstein will talk about building a culture of thanks. As we lean into the Thanksgiving season, it’s a time where we can begin to bring in awareness of the things that we’re grateful for and start helping our students appreciate so much around them. Specific gratitude practices, questions, and meditations will help you build a culture of thanks in your classroom.Support the show
Building a Culture of Thanks & Gratitude
with Amy Edelstein
Hello and welcome to the Conscious Classroom Webinar. Today we’re going to speak about gratitude, about building a culture of thanks. As we lean into the Thanksgiving season, it’s a time where we can begin to bring in awareness of the things that we’re grateful for and start helping our students appreciate so much around them.
Oftentimes in classrooms, we’re focused on what isn’t working, the students that aren’t behaving, the supplies that didn’t come in, the support from the administration that didn’t come and yet we all know that feeling grateful and expressing gratitude is good for us and it’s also good for the teens that we work with.
There are reasons that gratitude feels good and is good for us. We’re going to go into those a little bit later in the webcast. I wanted all of us to turn our attention towards those moments when a teen expresses authentic, spontaneous, un-self-conscious appreciation for something that we did for them.
See if you can remember a small moment with your own teenager or a niece or nephew or in a class that you teach where a teen just turned around and smiled that smile of appreciation and warmth and thanks. We all know those moments. Those moments are like sunny days. Those moments at the end of a really tough class where there are so many issues and challenges and even unruly behavior or just stubborn or unmotivated teens.
When a teen turns around and gives you that smile of warmth and appreciation, that’s when as teachers we know it’s all worthwhile. We know that there’s somebody on the other end paying attention and we know that we matter. It’s the same for teens. When we express our appreciation and warmth towards them, for what they do, for the effort they make, for their creativity, for their warmth and liveliness, our own smiles of appreciation go a long way towards making kids feel accepted, welcome, at home and at ease.
Feeling that climate of gratitude and appreciation in the classroom helps everyone settle down and focus on learning. When that environment of thanks is extended throughout the day, all the time throughout the year, then moments of discipline and correction fall in a context of appreciation and mutual support.
It’s hard when we’re struggling every day to meet deadlines, to grade papers, to get kids on track, to deal with disruptions, unexpected in-service days, unexpected school assemblies, pep rallies and everything else that interrupts the day.
So how do we bring moments of appreciation into our classroom? Let’s begin first by expanding our own muscles of care. The love and kindness exercise, the love and kindness mindful in this practice is like doing reps with dumbbells to strengthen our arm muscles.
We do those reps to strengthen our capacities for care, to strengthen our natural expressions of appreciation and affection and to strengthen our own muscles of care around ourselves, our perceived limitations or shortcomings, our sense of being critical of ourselves.
So what I would like you to do is take a seat where you can be comfortable even if you’re listening to this webcast on your break. Let yourself take just a long inhalation and exhalation.
Allow yourself to sit and be focused and now turn your attention towards someone you really care about, someone in your family, a beloved, elder or mentor or friend. Bring them to mind. And when you have a sense of them, express this wish and you can do it in your own words, but following the same sentiment, sending this wish, to someone you deeply care about. May you be happy. May you be peaceful. May you be appreciated and loved and may you experience well-being.
Again really send them that wish. May you be happy. May you be peaceful. May you be appreciated and loved and may you experience well-being.
Allow your heart to open and imagine that you could experience a flow of love and kindness from yourself towards this person you really care about.
Allowing a smile to come across your face. Allowing your shoulders and your jaw and your cheeks to relax, to soften as you send good wishes towards someone you really care about.
Now picture yourself and with the same ease, the same light-heartedness, the same appreciation, the same gratitude, extend good wishes to yourself. May I be happy. May I be filled with ease. May I be surrounded by affection. May I experience safety, health and well-being.
Use any words that you want that resonate with you, sending yourself those wishes and deeply knowing that caring for yourself is caring for others. The more we fill ourselves with love and kindness towards ourselves, the stronger, more steady, more available, more compassionate, more patient and more insightful we will be with others.
So send yourself that wish again. May I be happy. May I be filled with ease. May I experience affection and appreciation and may I be safe, healthy and filled with well-being.
Now I want you to picture one of your students, a teen who’s a little bit difficult. Without excusing any wrongdoing or rudeness, still send them this wish with a full heart. May you be happy. May you be calm. May you find ease and care. May you experience love and kindness.
It may be a little hard to wish somebody well, a child, a teen who’s being difficult. Keep allowing yourself to send those good wishes, knowing that you’re not excusing wrong behavior. But as you increase your own capacity to care, you will increase your strength and steadiness and ability to respond, holding firm boundaries with kindness and self-protection.
Extend that wish again towards some teen who’s being difficult. May you be happy. May you find calm. May you be safe and free from worry and may you experience love and kindness.
You can begin to bring your attention back, allowing yourself to notice the softening. Notice the appreciation that arises. Notice the spaciousness as we take care of ourselves, as we fill ourselves with gratitude and love and kindness.
We create a positive self-definition and self-protective skin around ourselves, that self-protective sense that allows us to be strong and kind and caring without taking on a lot of the troubles that people express around us and even towards us when we’re educators.
As we cultivate and strengthen our muscles of care, what we find is that we become very gentle but very stable and that gentleness and stability does provide ease in the classroom.
You can do a short love and kindness practice like the one that we just did with your students. I would only recommend that you not ask them to think about somebody they’re irritated with until they’re used to doing this more.
Have them picture someone they care about or everyone they care about in a whole group. Have them bring them all to mind. Sometimes it’s easier for kids to picture a group than to find a single individual whom they love and don’t have some kind of conflicting experience with and make sure you encourage them to send love and kindness towards themselves. As they send love and kindness towards themselves, they are often more generous towards you as their teacher and the authority towards other students, towards their parents and creating that sense of love and kindness towards themselves really helps support positive classroom culture.
If you can, bring in a love and kindness practice either at the beginning of the class or at the end of class. If you can’t do it every day, at least a couple of times a week.
Kids will start doing this on their own at home. You can encourage them to do it before bed. It helps them ease their minds so they’re going to bed with their mind in a more wholesome bent rather than focused on negative rumination.
This has a very supportive effect over time and then it allows for the times around Thanksgiving to be more open and more attuned to expression, more expressions of gratitude and thanks.
I have some of my teens keep gratitude journals. It’s part of their mindfulness practice journal. In their mindfulness practice journal, I have them write down three things that they’re grateful for every day. Maybe it’s somebody picked up a pencil for them when they dropped it in the hall. Maybe somebody explained the homework to them because they didn’t understand what to do. Maybe somebody gave them something to eat or it was a sunny day or their sports team won or someone did their hair for them.
Turn their attention towards the small things that they appreciate, getting them to till the soil of themselves, so that they’re more open to receive the fertilization and the hydration that comes to their inner selves from the experiences of kindness.
There are always small things to be grateful for and for kids who are experiencing a particularly challenging time, which holidays can often be, focusing on the gratitude is very important.
As I like to say about meditation practice, a little glimpse of infinity is still infinity. So even if a kid has a tiny glimpse of something they felt grateful for, the first snow or a bright blue sky or a mischievous squirrel that made them smile or a sparrow is eating a pizza crust or the feel of a basketball or their favorite song, those small things that make them happy can help them realize that their entire experience is not one of gloom. It can give them resilience and a sense of hope and positivity.
The experience that we have feeling better when we’re grateful is not just projected. It’s not just that we’re seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. As more and more sophisticated neuroscientific studies have been enacted around gratitude and seeing the effects of gratitude on the brain, how the brain is functioning, and on different health – physical health conditions and mental health conditions, there does seem to be a strong correlation between the practice of gratitude, improved affect and improved physiology.
So it’s very interesting. So helping create a classroom of thanks is something that we’re going to benefit from on a daily basis just creating more ease and well-being and happiness. It’s also instilling both in us and in our students positive habits that can have long term health benefits.
I wanted to share with you a little bit about a few of the ways that our gratitude practice can support healthy brain functioning and healthy physiological functioning.
What some scientists have discovered in some recent studies is that they’ve shown that when acts of gratitude are practiced on a regular basis, whether it’s expressing thanks, donating money out of an experience of gratitude rather than pity or obligation, what they’ve shown is they’ve shown that the prefrontal cortex and specifically the medial prefrontal cortex has developed a greater neural sensitivity, greater neural activity.
What’s interesting about this part of the brain is that it’s not just the part of the brain that’s associated with relatedness and a good sense of love and connection. It’s also the part of the brain that’s associated with learning and decision-making.
So when we teach our teens to consciously express gratitude or to pay it forward, if somebody does something nice for you, do something nice in turn for someone else or do something nice for someone else first without waiting.
We’re also helping support healthy functioning in their learning and decision-making lobes of the brain.
Another thing that happens in the brain is that when we feel good and feeling grateful gives rise to good feeling, it also gives rise to the production of dopamine and dopamine is a neurotransmitter which is usually nicknamed the “feel good drug” or the reward brain drug.
What’s interesting about dopamine also is that it helps us do things. When we feel good, when we feel rewarded, when we feel met, when we feel appreciated, we’re willing to do things. It’s always easier to exercise when you’re happy and feeling bright and sunny and – than when you feel like, “Oh, I’ve just gained five pounds with my holiday eating and I know I should go to the gym but I don’t really want to.”
Same with kids. Trying to get them to do homework is much easier when they’re stimulated and curious and happy and feeling good. They’re much more inclined to explore.
So encouraging them to practice gratitude, to feel appreciation, to express appreciation will also help support them in initiating other actions and activities related to learning that might have been challenging for them.
Dopamine also interestingly helps reinforce what we do and same with teens. So the more they act grateful, the more they will experience that little bit of positivity from that neurotransmitter and the more that little bit of positivity that they’re experiencing from that neurotransmitter, the more inclined they are to keep cultivating more gratitude and expressing more gratitude.
It’s often called the virtuous cycle, virtuous brain cycle that the brain reinforces positivity. Now I know in the post-modern culture, it has become much more hip and cool to express negativity or to criticize or to deconstruct. If we can start supporting our teens and teaching our teens the benefits experientially of caring, of really cultivating a culture of thanks, then we will start developing the new habits of our next phase out of this post-modern critical deconstructionist way of seeing and into a more connected and positive and appreciative lens on the world.
Another part of the brain that has been shown to react positively when we focus on gratitude and express cultures of gratitude is a part of our brain that might be a little bit unexpected. It’s the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus regulates bodily functions like appetite, sleep, metabolism, growth.
I’m not really exactly sure why gratitude helps stimulate positive activity in the hypothalamus. But what’s interesting is when we express kindness towards ourselves and towards others, it helps those very basic bodily functions of eating and sleeping, metabolizing, nutrition.
It helps those functions work better. Now for many teens who struggle with a positive relationship towards food, eating too much or eating too little, so many teens feel so much anxiety and have difficulty sleeping. This side effect of gratitude can really help support their basic functioning and then of course their learning.
We all know that if we’re with a group of teens who has had a good night’s sleep, we’re going to have a much better day in class.
The effects of gratitude really do extend quite far in our sense of well-being. There are studies done in hospitals that show that we experience a decrease in physical pain when we feel happy.
It shows a reducing of cortisol, the stress hormone in our bodies. It can decrease heart rate variability, which often comes as a result of stress and nervousness.
When we start making even small, tiny changes in our physiology in this way, the experience of well-being can really flood us with a sense that life is OK and we know that for our teens, they’re inclined to feel concerned. They’re inclined to feel anxious, self-conscious, worried about the future, worried about self-acceptance. They often misread situations.
Creating this foundation of good feeling is just so very important for their mental health, for their academic health, for their emotional health and as we’ve seen, for their physical health.
So what are some other ways that we can cultivate this sense of well-being? You can challenge your students to have a kindness challenge. Have them think of creative ways, small ways to express kindness towards others in seen or secret ways.
You can have them commit, create a kindness wall with envelopes and have them commit to choosing one of those envelopes once a week and doing that act and make sure you put in those – inside those envelopes little acts of kindness that would be easy for even the most painfully shy student to do.
You can also have an assignment where they write letters of appreciation and gratitude. Now that can be towards somebody they know. It could be – if you’re an English teacher, it could be towards an author, writing to an author for their beautiful inspiration in a book they loved or a scientist, writing to the scientist who discovered a new element and what that did.
You can weave gratitude into any subject matter. History to acknowledge a great act done by a historian or heroic figure. They can write songs to their favorite artist or actor for creating a song that they love and that they sing and dance to over and over again.
Gratitude letters have a powerful effect. They don’t necessarily need to be sent. But they could be. You could have a gratitude social media contest on your school’s social media feed and everyone post and then vote on the most creative post.
So many ways to build in fun around gratitude and weave it into your lessons. Again every time you teach, what did you appreciate about this? Not just what did you learn, what did you get right. What did you appreciate about it? What did you appreciate knowing? You start stimulating their curiosity and building them in them that sense that there’s a lot to be grateful for.
The more that we can really allow our students to feel that kindness, softness, appreciation takes strength to express, the more likely they will be to start working with it.
Teens like to feel like that they’re growing in self-confidence, that they’re growing in strength, that they’re growing in maturity, that they’re growing in self-reliance, that they’re growing in independence.
Gratitude does that. It doesn’t make us weak. It makes us soft but strong. You can challenge them and ask them questions. Is it easier to be mad or to be appreciative in hard circumstances? And if it’s easier to be mad, then it must take more strength to be appreciative.
You can pull out historical figures and role models who showed steadiness and appreciation and vision and challenges.
Really helping your students see that, notice it and cultivate that over time will begin to shift their sense of what’s important and it will empower them.
The basic breath meditation and the open awareness meditation also help cultivate that feeling of gratitude. It helps teens experience that sense of gratitude and bring that feeling of gratitude forward.
We’re going to do a short open awareness practice now and as we do that open awareness practice, the guidance that I will give is towards cultivating that feeling of fullness and appreciation.
So again sit with your back straight, your feet flat on the floor. Notice your weight on the chair. Notice the temperature. And allow your attention to shift from your thoughts and feelings, from the things that you think about all the time, even the things that we talked about today, to that part of yourself that is simply paying attention, that part of yourself that notices things.
Pay attention to that part of yourself that is awake and aware without effort. If you’re used to feeling strained, just let yourself sit back ever so slightly. As you put your attention on that quality of being awake and aware, allow yourself to consciously let go of anything that’s still prickling you, frustration, anger, stress around time, worry about a student.
Let yourself dissolve into a pool of good feeling. Just for these moments. It won’t last forever. It won’t take away the things you need to solve and respond to. Just for the short few minutes that we’re doing this exercise, let yourself dissolve into a pool of ease and well-being.
On your next breath, consciously release tension in your muscles, in your face. Imagine that you could just sit back just ever so slightly into yourself and imagine that a universe of space and time opened up that could help you take care of everything you need to with ease and simplicity.
Now extend your appreciation for having this little bit of peace, this little bit of ease and send this wish to everyone you know, to all the people in your circle, in your family, in your classes, that wish that everyone could experience just a little bit of ease.
As we draw this exercise to a close, appreciate yourself for taking the time to focus on this. Allow yourself to trust that you will bring some of these tools into the classroom, helping your students and yourself create a culture of thanks, a culture of appreciation and a culture of support for one another.
Thank you so much and I wish you all a very wonderful Thanksgiving and if you have questions after this webcast, you can feel free to post them on the page and I will continue to respond. Happy holidays.
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Transcription by Prexie Magallanes as Trans-Expert at Fiverr.com