Teaching Gratitude Across the Levels

Written by Emily Peters, Lower Elementary Lead Teacher, and Cecilia Fernandez, Primary Lead Teacher
Edited by Lucy Bennett

For generations, humans have pondered the meaning and importance of gratitude. In the 1800s, Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”

This time of year inspires us to reflect on gratitude, on how fortunate we are for our community. At Arbor Montessori School, generosity and gratitude are woven into the curriculum at every level. From a very young age, children learn to take responsibility for the materials in the classroom, to care for their environment and their belongings, and how to be generous to each other through their words and actions. 

The Toddler Community

Gratitude, generosity, and empathy are difficult concepts to teach young children, due to their abstract nature. In their first years of life, children are developmentally egocentric; they learn best by using concrete examples in their everyday routines.

A toddler’s capacity for gratitude begins with imitation, and eventually grows into real emotional empathy and compassion. Nurturing empathy begins with simple games of imitation and progresses into asking open-ended questions and reflecting on feelings. Parents can model this by narrating emotional responses, such as, “you must have felt very sad when that happened.”

Our toddlers may not express gratitude in words, but we see it in their actions. They are grateful for the opportunity to walk up and down steps all by themselves—we see it in their confident smiles. They appreciate our trust in them as they develop strength, coordination, and independence. These are the foundations for further understanding. 

The Primary Community

Lessons in Grace and Courtesy at the Toddler level extend into the Primary level, as the concepts of giving and empathy take time to develop. Once children recognize how their actions affect others, they begin extending kindness to others in their community.

Primary teachers model kindness and generosity in their lesson, giving the children in their care step-by-step demonstrations such as how to tie a bow or pour a large basin of soapy water into a bucket.

The children appreciate the adults’ patience and friendly attitudes toward error as they practice. Children are also grateful for our willingness to show them how to take care of mistakes they have made. For example, providing a child-sized mop to clean up spilled water.

Books are another helpful resource when teaching the importance of giving. They facilitate conversations, ideas, and plans. Some of the classic options: 

  • The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
  • It’s Mine! by Leo Lionni
  • The Gift of Nothing by Patrick McDonnell
  • The Man in the Clouds by Koos Meinderts
  • The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig

Through constant daily practice, Primary children learn to interact politely with others. They greet others with care, wait their turn to speak or work with materials, and learn to resolve conflicts peacefully.

The Elementary Community

Elementary children begin learning about the common needs of humans, the different types of needs around their community, and how everyone can help. They are humbled by imagining how little time we have been on Earth in comparison to all time before us and how small the Earth is in comparison to the sun and our universe. They are grateful for humans who came before us and invented or discovered things that make our lives easier, from tools to aqueducts to electricity.

Children are grateful that at Arbor Montessori School, they can engage in what interests them, build their skills, and take part in a community where they can discover how they might contribute to the world and make it a better place for others. 

In Arbor’s Elementary community, expressions of gratitude come in the form of service work. This work grows from the child’s desire to make a difference in the world: to help humans and all living things prosper. Students discuss and agree upon what makes a community. They research the ways they can support their community, within the classroom and outside of it. 

The Adolescent Community

Adolescents want to see their own role in everything: they are active doers, not passive watchers or listeners. Being generous in their community is part of this important work.

The presence of our oldest students is felt in every classroom—on Pizza Days, through Market sales and Coffee Corners, reading to our Primary students, and more. 

All of this work has purpose. It orients our adolescents in the world around them, and in their community of family and friends. It is inspiring to watch our oldest students engage in this work. We love to watch them grow into remarkable people who fully embody Arbor’s mission.

Modeling A Spirit of Giving

Even though volunteering might seem more appropriate for the elementary or adolescent-aged child, there are opportunities to “plant the seed” of giving at every stage of development by modeling it ourselves.

Notes on Family Gratitude

by former Arbor Parent Kate Breslin

  • Share what you are thankful for with your family and friends. 
  • Develop a thankfulness routine – every day or once a week. Express what you are thankful for on the drive to school in the morning, at the dinner table at night or before bed.
  • Remember that “it’s the thought that counts.” Appreciate the thought behind gifts you receive or services people provide you – how someone noticed your need and acted on it.  
  • Appreciate that someone else gave something up for you. When someone is helpful, that person usually sacrifices time or effort to provide the help. (I like to emphasize this at restaurants, extending my gratitude to the wait staff.)
  • Write a thank you note to someone in your life who you are grateful for.  

Pebble Tossers is a local resource organization offering volunteer opportunities for children and families of every age and ability level. From kitten cuddler, helping to socialize cats for future adopters, to delivering sandwiches to homeless citizens. Setting the model of giving and empathy throughout the year is the most powerful gift we can give our children.

All children, no matter the age, are grateful to have adults in their lives who love them unconditionally and support them as they develop. They are grateful to have you, parents, who encourage their resilience by allowing them room to make mistakes, learn who they are and how they learn, and forge their own paths in the world.

“The child who has felt a strong love for his surroundings and for all living creatures, who has discovered joy and enthusiasm in work, gives us reason to hope that humanity can develop in a new direction.”

Maria Montessori

We are grateful for you, our Arbor community, every day.