A Gratitude Case Study
This was originally a poster presentation by Frederika Roberts at the 5th IPPA (International Positive Psychology Association) World Congress in Montréal in July 2017. You can view and download the full poster in PDF format here.
Background Information & Methodology
‘RWS | Resilience Wellbeing Success’ (RWS) is a school programme founded on principles of Positive Psychology and Character Education. As part of the programme, children are taught the importance of gratitude and are introduced to keeping a gratitude diary, based on the ‘3 good things’ experiment (Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005). In one of the UK schools that ran the programme with two ‘Year 5’ groups (children aged 9-10), the teacher continued to provide opportunities for pupils to write in their gratitude diaries beyond the initial 7 days in September 2016, when they first did the activity as part of the programme. In June 2017, towards the end of the academic year in which the gratitude diaries were started, RWS Co-Founder Frederika Roberts re-visited the school to find out more about how these were used and the impact they were having.
From each class, two groups of 3 children were selected from volunteers to carry out brief group interviews in a semi-structured format.
The key questions asked were:
- What has writing down gratitudes done for you?
- Do you still do it every day?
- Has your experience of doing this changed over time? For example, is it easier / harder, more enjoyable / less enjoyable etc?
- Is there anything you don't like about writing down gratitudes?
- Do you think you will continue doing this outside of school after you finish Year 5?
Additionally, all children in both classes were asked:
“What has writing down gratitudes done for you? Either write down your answer in words, or draw it as a picture.”
7 girls and 5 boys were interviewed. The mean age of interviewed children was 9.75 years. 25 children submitted drawings and/or written comments (13 girls, 12 boys). The mean age for these was 9.64 years.
Consent was obtained explicitly from the school’s headteacher and the class teachers. Additionally, implied consent letters were sent to parents, asking parents to notify the school if they didn’t wish their children to participate. Full anonymity for the children was assured; none of the data gathered contains any names. No parents withheld consent, but some had not received the letter in time, so their children were not interviewed and their children’s drawings were not collected.
This was not intended as a structured piece of research, but rather a case study promoting the benefits of gratitude interventions. The initial data gathered as part of this case study has limitations (see ‘further comments’ section) but aims to spark ideas as a starting point for future research.
Quotes from Children's Interviews
“It’s hard to, like, think of ideas, but then a couple of minutes later I’m, like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve done this and I’m grateful for that’.” Girl, 10
“It made me feel happy.” Boy, 10
“It helps me because I used to, like, think I had nobody by my side, and when we started doing the gratitude diary, it helped me think that I did.” Girl, 10
“Sometimes when I’m in my room and I’m a bit sad, I just think ‘oh, I should just do a bit of writing and I have a gratitude diary’ and I do that.” Boy, 9
“I think I would carry on because when you would do that, someone else might do that, and then someone else, so it could help everybody, like, in their feelings and everything. It could help.” Girl, 9
Additional Information / Further Comments
- Overall, the children’s feedback and responses to the gratitude diaries seemed positive. The majority of children said they would be likely to continue to write in a gratitude diary once they finish the current school year.
- From the interviews, it was apparent that one key positive element for the children was the ability to look back over past gratitudes during difficult times, to remind themselves of the things in life they can be grateful for.
- One child mentioned it would be great to pass on knowledge about gratitude diaries to younger siblings, and another described a potential ripple effect spreading from one person keeping a gratitude diary.
- From the interviews and the drawings / writing, however, it was also apparent that not all children fully understood the concept of the gratitude diary, with a few mentioning that they often wrote ‘sad’ things in their diaries. This would indicate that these children used the gratitude diary more as a general diary, which in itself seemed to have a beneficial effect in allowing them to express their feelings.
- A number of children expressed that they found it difficult to think of gratitudes and that they found the activity repetitive after a while. The class teacher confirmed that giving children occasional breaks from the activity seemed more beneficial.
- One child had only recently joined the school and therefore hadn’t taken part in the RWS programme before being asked to begin writing in her gratitude diary. She struggled significantly with this activity. It raises an interesting question regarding how much the impact of the gratitude diaries is influenced by the inspirational stories told by the RWS team members, and the contextualisation of the diaries within the programme as a whole. This would make interesting further research.
- Research with children is always more of a challenge than with adults, but there is a need for more research in this area so that teachers, parents and other educators can confidently use Positive Psychology interventions such as gratitude in schools, knowing they work with younger age groups and within the educational setting.
Gratitude Diary Entry Examples
Examples of Drawings and Writing in Response to the Case Study Question
Interview with Mr R, Year 5 Teacher -Key Points
- The key teachings of the RWS programme (see ‘Contact / Further Information, below) are integral to the school’s ethos and to Mr R’s philosophy.
- Although Mr R continued the use of gratitude diaries, for some time after the programme ended, eventually this stopped. After a while, he noticed that the classroom atmosphere had become a little negative, so he returned to using the diaries in short bursts, as needed (continuous use turned it into a chore for some children). The positive effects last for a while and then taper off, whereas the negativity is lifted almost instantly when gratitude diaries are re-introduced.
- To fit with the school’s timetable, Mr R sets a time limit on diary writing activities in class. He also encourages children to use their creativity to draw their gratitudes.
- The children struggled a little with describing how gratitude diaries made them feel. They use complex language to describe feelings, but wouldn’t necessarily label what they’re doing as talking about ‘feelings’ or ‘emotions’.
Interview Keywords - Girls
Interview Keywords - Boys
Interview Keywords - All Children
Frederika Roberts would like to thank her colleague and friend, RWS Co-Founder Elizabeth Wright, for her help in the planning and data gathering for, and sanity-checking of, this poster. Additionally, this fascinating exercise would not have been possible without the fantastic work of the class teachers at this school in the North East of England. Their dedication to the children’s well-being is admirable and tireless. Last but not least, a big debt of gratitude goes to the headteacher, as well as the parents and, of course, the children in the two 2016/17 Year 5 classes, for allowing this case study to be produced. The name of the school has been withheld to ensure children’s anonymity.
Seligman, M. E., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005).Positive psychology progress: empirical validation of interventions. American psychologist, 60(5), 410. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.60.5.410