Gratitude, Thankfulness & Early Learning

By Jen Lindbeck

‘Tis the season to be thankful. Let’s be honest, sometimes it is hard to see the good when you are buried in bills, laundry, and the day to day challenges of parenting.

Thankfulness amid difficulty can look something like:

I am thankful for coffee.

I am thankful that no one barfed today.

I am thankful that zombies do not exist even though I currently feel like one.

We are adults with fully (mostly) formed brains and years of experience behind us and thankfulness is challenging for US, now imagine being three years old with a brain that is still developing, and it really isn’t a mystery why it is difficult for these tiny humans to appreciate and be thankful for what they have. They often don’t even have the words to verbalize their thankfulness. But a mind towards gratitude and thankfulness are some of the building blocks of healthy social emotional development. Let me explain…

Studies have found that gratitude begins when there is an understanding of emotions. Awareness of not only how they feel, but how others feel, and empathy for those feelings is the foundation for a child’s understanding of gratitude. Left to their own devices, a very young child will not be able to regulate and manage their emotions on their own. Tiny humans become tiny terrors in the blink of an eye without the help and guidance of a caring adult. They need adults to not only model appropriate behavior and responses, but also to help guide them when their emotions take over. Further, researchers have discovered that more advanced parts of the brain are associated with gratitude, specifically the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the area behind the forehead where emotion is regulated, feelings are managed, and attention is focused. So when we teach our kids to be thankful, we are also helping them activate the prefrontal cortex. The brain is like muscle – the more it is engaged, the stronger it becomes.

Here are some tips for mindful gratitude that can happen 365 days a year and not just during the month of November:

1. Lay the foundation.

Talk to your kids about how they are feeling. Help them name their emotions both in turbulence and in calm and encourage them to see the emotions in others. Books are a great way for kids to identify emotions. As you are reading, ask your child “How do you think they feel? How do you know they feel that way?”

2. Ask the right questions.

I recently asked a group of spunky two-year-old kids what they were thankful for and in response I got dead silence, blank stares, and one kid just wandered off. I didn’t ask the question in a way that was appropriate for them. Start the conversation in a way that fits your kiddo. Coming at it from a different angle could perhaps have elicited the responses I was looking for: What makes you laugh? What does your mom do that makes you feel loved? What is your favorite thing?

3. Model gratitude and words of thankfulness.

If you see your child laughing or enjoying something – point it out and model using words of thankfulness. “I saw you playing with Sam on the playground today. I am so thankful that you have a nice friend to play with.” A good friend of mine would mention to her sweet grandma someone that she admired, and her grandma would say, “Did you tell them? You gotta tell them!”  If you are thankful for someone or admire their work, their tenacity, their kindness – tell them. It isn’t just beneficial to express gratitude, but it is a lovely thing to receive gratitude. Be specific! In other words, don’t just say thanks, but say thanks while reinforcing the behavior that inspired the gratitude: “Thank you for cleaning your room. I like the way you arranged your stuffed animals in the basket.” Or “I am so grateful for how you show kindness to your brother, when you read with him it makes him so happy – his smile is huge.”

4. Write it down.

If on any given day the only thing you and your kiddos can be thankful for is that zombies don’t exist, write it down. Pinterest has 14 million different adorable ways you can document thankfulness. If Pinterest feels like a confusing and complicated black hole, a simple way to record thankfulness is a “thankfulness box” (in our house we called it the blessing box because alliteration is always fun). It can also be a mason jar (see image). When you think of something you are thankful for, write it on a piece of paper and put it in the box. Pull the papers out every so often and read them – it is a great reminder that even when life is difficult there are things to be thankful for.

By teaching gratitude, we draw the child’s attention away from themselves for a moment and out to the world beyond. Mistakes will be made, difficulties will come, but each day provides something new to be thankful for. Gratitude requires intentionality and practice especially during life’s most challenging moments. This mindfulness practice isn’t just good for your kids, but it is good for the whole family.




Jen Lindbeck has a M.Ed., Early Childhood Education, Curriculum and Instruction from Arizona State University and is the Early Learning Resource Coordinator for United Way of Skagit County.


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