Gratitude Letters: A Meaningful SEL Activity
Updated: Jan 17
Research shows that practicing gratitude offers a multitude of benefits: it increases levels of happiness not only for the person on the receiving end, but also for the person expressing gratitude; it has been shown to decrease anxiety and depression, improve sleep and strengthen our immune system; and strengthens bonds between children, teachers, parents and the school community. There are many ways we can help children learn about and express gratitude and help it become a more daily practice in their lives. One such way, especially popular around the holiday time, is a letter/card writing activity that helps them express gratitude to someone in their life. While this activity isn't new to many teachers and parents, sharing the research with children (especially older kids) and using some of the resources below will add dimension and depth to this activity.
1) Find out what kids already know about gratitude. What is their starting point of understanding? This is a wonderful time to invite children to share their own specific cultural and/or religious practices as a family while modeling inclusion.
2) Explain to children that gratitude is more than just saying 'thank you'. It is a mindset that helps them focus on the good things in their lives and allows them to notice and appreciate the things that are often taken for granted. (See a list of books and video resources below.)
3) Introduce the card writing activity and let kids decide who they would like to express gratitude to. Encourage them to be specific and give examples. Remember to let children decide if they want to write a letter to a grandparent, a teacher, the mail carrier or their best friend.
4) Encourage them to talk about their ideas within a small group or with the class before they begin writing. Their ideas will help inspire others.
5) If you are a teacher or a parent who is homeschooling, you can easily integrate this activity into curriculum goals: for example, you might help them follow conventions of letter writing, including capitals, punctuation, an opening and closing.
6) Allow ample time for them to design and decorate their card if they wish.
7) For an extra layer to this activity, model sharing your gratitude letter with the person for whom it has been written. If you can't invite the person into your home or classroom because of COVID restrictions, give them a call and read what you wrote to them. According to one experiment, the act of reading a gratitude letter to the person you wrote it for increased happiness significantly.
**If you are a teacher, this is a great activity to partner with parents, who can send in materials for card writing including blank cards, thank-you cards, stationery, envelopes, stickers, collage materials and glue.
Finally, remember that the act of writing a gratitude letter and sharing it with that person is just one activity that is popular, especially at this time of year. For other ways to encourage gratitude habits, I encourage you to read this article for ideas to extend these practices throughout the year.
The following resources include books, videos and articles to help supplement this activity.
How Gratitude Changes You and Your Brain, Greater Good Magazine.
Greater Good Magazine, a collection of studies that illustrate the importance of gratitude
Giving Thanks Can Make You Happier, Harvard Health Publishing.
Greater Good in Action: Gratitude Letter for Students, This is an important resource which offers some ideas about language and sensitivity towards race, culture, religion and socioeconomic status.
How Cultural Differences Shape Your Gratitude, Greater Good Magazine. Another resource that allows us to think about gratitude in different cultures.