How I taught gratitude


Teaching students what it means to be thankful can be a challenge.  Today, kids seem to have so much, and it seems like the minute they (we) want something, POOF it appears.  (Thanks Amazon.)  So, if you work in a special education setting, teaching what it means to be thankful can seem like an impossible task.  But, again, all the other teachers and classrooms are doing it, so of course I was not going to be left our or left behind.  Here are some ways I chose to teach about gratitude.  HINT:  I saved the best for last!!

1.  The Giving Tree

First, I LOVE my books.  So, I focusing on The Giving Tree as my story selection for this unit was an easy choice.  It had the added benefit of talking about how the leaves fall off of a tree during the fall season, so how could I resist?  The theme of selflessness that is present in this story was definitely over the head of most all of my students.  So, I chose to focus on all the things the boy was thankful for and the things the tree was thankful for.   I know there is a lot deeper meaning to this story, but it worked for my class, and they got to experience a book many of their classmates had gotten a chance to read.

(By the way, there is a great animated version on YouTube, that you can see here.)

We then did an activity with leaves and a tree template to show what we were thankful for.  You can get this template by clicking the button below.

2.  Thankful collage

This was an easy one.  I would give students a bunch of magazines and advertisements and have them cut/tear out pictures of things they were thankful for.  It was challenging getting them to understand that this was NOT a wish list, but rather things that they already had and loved.  We would glue them all down onto a class-sized collage.

3.  Social Scripts

So if you have run any social groups, then you have likely used social scripts.  They are simple phrases that students can repeat to practice appropriate responses in social situations.  Most of my students had very limited verbal ability, and many used communication devices.  So, depending on their personal mode of communication, we would practice (OVER and OVER), I am thankful for….).  This meant I often had to pre-program devices, or get some visual cues ready ahead of time.  This also worked really well with a pocket chart and sentence strips.  I would put one sentence strip per student (I am thankful for…) in the chart ahead of time.  Then we would go around and each student would “verbalize” what they were thankful for.  We would put either the word or picture they referenced at the end of the strip to finish the sentence.  We could then go around and practice reading the entire chart.  Again, sometimes I had to record myself reading it ahead of time so those who used devices could still participate by pushing a button when it was their turn. The repetition of this activity was VERY powerful.  If nothing else, by the end of the week, most of my kiddos were parroting, “I am thankful.”  Not such a bad thing to go around saying!!

4.  Delivering thank you notes

My students needed lots of practice navigating the school as well as socially interacting with all types of people.  So, one thing we did every November, was to write thank you notes to the various teachers and staff in the school.  Often, I would write the card, and the kids would decorate them.  You always have to think, “what is the goal of this activity?”  In this case, the goal was NOT saying what they were thankful for, or even saying thank you.  The goal was to:

  1. Deliver a piece of mail to the right person
  2. Behave appropriately in the hallway while taking our notes
  3. Using eye contact or a smile when handing over the card.  (Bonus points if they used the staff member’s name!!)

I LOVED this activity and it worked out so well.

5.  The Gratitude Dance (MY FAVORITE)

So, here it is.  My number 1 favorite activity for teaching MY students about gratitude.  My kids loved to move.  Most of them also loved music.  One day, I came across this amazing video on YouTube called the Gratitude Dance.  I can’t explain why, but it affected me deeply.  I knew I had to share it with others.  As I have mentioned before, I worked with an amazing team of special ed teachers in North Carolina.  We often planned activities together, which benefited us AND our students.  This Gratitude Dance was one of those collaborative efforts.  We all gathered in one place.  We watched the (short) video.  Then, we danced.  It sounds so simple.  But, it often brought many of us teachers to tears.  Such a simple and authentic way to show gratitude.  Move your body.  Move your body to music.  Display gratitude.  Perfect.

So that is it.  I am thankful for every single student who passed through my doors.  You made me a better teacher, a better, wife, a better mother, and a better human.  Gratitude.





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