The Science of Grateful Learning: Uncovering the Impact

This article explores the direct connection between gratitude and improved learning outcomes. Rowell delves into the developmental stages of gratitude in students, highlighting its significant benefits, and explores how integrating gratitude into education enhances student engagement, motivation, and overall learning experiences.


“Practicing gratitude” sounds kind of touchy-feely—maybe even a little fluffy, right? Honestly, when I started researching and writing about gratitude in education, I was focused on promoting a positive school culture and prosocial behavior. 

We intuitively know that this leads to better learning environments, but a mentor and friend, George Couros, pushed me to find a direct link to learning and I’m thrilled to share that the evidence is there…practicing gratitude can improve learning! 


Gratitude at Every Age and Stage

The study of gratitude in kids is still relatively new, but research by Jeffrey J. Froh, PsyD, and Giacomo Bono, PhD, finds that the benefits of cultivating gratitude in students are significant. Here are considerations for the developmental stages of gratitude:

  • Infancy to age six: Nurture the development of foundational positive characteristics that later lead to deep and authentic gratitude.
  • Ages seven to ten: Kids start to reliably understand how to experience and express gratitude.
  • Ages eleven and older: Those who have developed a grateful disposition are happier, more optimistic, and get better grades compared to their peers who are less grateful. They also have stronger social relationships.


Grateful to Learn

As we can imagine, learners can be much more productive when they are grateful for the opportunity to learn and are awakened, a concept presented by Dr. Kerry Howells. In her talk at TEDxLaunceston, “How Thanking Awakens Our Thinking,” Dr. Howells shares three important things that she discovered in her research:

  • “Students by nature want to be awake, but they don’t really know how to be.”
  • “Teachers want to teach awake students, but they don’t necessarily see that as part of their role nor do they know really how to bring that awake state to them.”
  • “I believe in education, we’ve settled for far lower levels of awakeness in our students than what we should have.”

Dr. Howells goes on to explain that in her quest to understand the relationship between gratitude and the awake state, she discovered that if we thank while we think, we think in a more awake and engaged way. 

After many years of studying gratitude and awakeness in education, Dr. Howells found that it is crucial that we focus on what happens before we start teaching. By preparing our innermost attitude for the activities to come, we have a richer, more engaging learning experience.

Here are some specific examples of grateful learning:

  • Community Project: In a combined effort between social studies, science, and language arts, students can work on a community garden project. They learn about environmental science, local history, and use their writing skills to document the project. Expressing gratitude for the community and environment helps them see the interconnectedness of their learning.
  • Cultural Studies Festival: A collaborative project between language, art, and music classes to study and celebrate different cultures. Students could express gratitude for the diversity of experiences and perspectives they gain, deepening their appreciation for the subjects and their global connections.
  • Technology and Society: A joint project between computer science and social studies classes to explore the impact of technology on society. Students can show gratitude for technological advancements by creating presentations or digital art that reflect how technology has positively impacted their lives.


Thankful for Voice and Choice

Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which is based on neuroscience, is a research-based framework to optimize teaching and learning based on the three brain networks:

  • Recognition (the what of learning)
  • Strategic (the how of learning)
  • Affective (the why of learning)

Practicing gratitude is directly connected to our affective networks, the part of the brain that manages interest, effort, persistence, and self-regulation. In other words, what we care about and our priorities. 

Learners are unique and dynamic in the ways they can be engaged or motivated to learn. We can offer multiple means of engagement and empower learners to bring their identities and interests into the learning. 

By planning activities with voice and choice, we strengthen relationships and develop expert learners who make connections between things they love and what we are learning. A simple example would be studying poetry and inviting learners to listen to their favorite songs, analyze the lyrics they find most interesting, and identify the rhyme schemes, or lack thereof.

By offering multiple means of engagement, learners can be grateful for the opportunity to learn and, to use Dr. Howells’s words, they are awakened. Everything we are teaching should have a connection to the real world, so let’s ignite the affective networks of the brain by starting with gratitude for the purpose and value of what we are learning. 


Call to Action

Could gratitude, combined with learner-driven practices, be the catalyst for positive transformation in our learning communities and the worldwide community at large? I believe it is.




About the Author:

Lainie Rowell is an educator, author, podcaster, TEDx speaker, and international keynote speaker and consultant. She has authored several books including Evolving with Gratitude, Evolving Learner, and Because of a Teacher. Her latest book Bold Gratitude: The Journal Designed for You & by You is an innovative and interactive gratitude journal that empowers individuals of all ages to embrace their unique preferences and express gratitude in their own way. During her more than 25 years in education, Lainie has taught elementary, secondary, and higher education. She also served in a district-level leadership position supporting 22,000 students and 1,200 teachers at 33 schools. You can follow Lainie on Instagram and Twitter.



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