by Janet Zadina on 11/14/19

 happier student is more engaged and learns better.  A happier instructor creates a classroom more conducive to learning.  If there were a 3-minute technique that research has shown can rewire your brain or the brain of your students to be happier, would you do it?

There IS a technique that is so brief, so simple, and yet so powerful that it can even change lives.  That is the act of gratitude. 

Writing down 3 things that you are grateful for every day can literally rewire the brain to be happier.  How is that possible?  When you know that you “have” to write 3 gratitudes a day, whether you do it in the morning or evening, you begin to look for things to be grateful for during the day.  It changes what you pay attention to.  Attention drives plasticity.  If you don’t pay attention to it, it doesn’t change the brain, according to recent research.

Unfortunately, although we experience many positive moments during the day, they may not register in the brain. Research says that it takes 20 seconds of paying attention to actually have an effect on the brain. So, when someone pays you a compliment and you brush it off and keep talking, that positive experience did not affect the brain.  But if you sit down and recall it and handwrite it out, you are prolonging the experience.

The effect is two-fold.  Not only will you pay attention to more positive experiences, but those experiences will have a greater effect on the brain. Doing is stronger than thinking. 

Another way you can add more “doing” to your gratitude is by taking pictures.  A colleague creates a Facebook post every evening of her gratitudes.  She has one or more pictures to go along with it.  If there is no picture to represent what she is grateful for that day, she often uses a meme that simply says “Grateful”.  Very effective.

When I taught developmental ed at a community college before becoming a scientist, I had my students write 3 gratitudes every day in the back of their notebook.  Mind you, it wasn’t easy to find things to be grateful for in my student population.  I helped them with ideas.  “Did your legs work when you got up this morning?  Not everyone’s did.”  “Did someone make your day go a little easier yesterday?”  As a result, my classroom felt very warm and bonded and I think this really set the tone.

Start the semester with this practice in your classes and see for yourself how it changes the tone.  I never explained why.  I just asked them to do it and they did. ??

Want to create a happier family? This Thanksgiving when you go around the table and say what you are thankful for, you announce that your family is going to start a new practice of every night at dinner each person telling “one good thing” that happened that day.  Even in the very worst of times, if you look really hard, you can find one good thing. For example, even if you wreck your car, one good thing can be that no one was hurt.  It starts reframing your thoughts and that rewires your brain for positivity.

I have been talking about doing gratitudes in my presentations and I am seeing some very positive feedback from audience members who have implemented this practice. Here are a few examples:

I just wanted you to know how I have been starting my day off with 3 gratitudes and it has changed my brain!  ?? Instead of feeling tired before I even get to work…I think of my three gratitudes on my peaceful drive in and it has made such a difference.  I was getting burned out with work and our business and it really helps me to focus on the beauty in this world.  Thank you.

Marti Myers, EdS, Director Connect 2 Success, Title III Program, Craven Community College, New Bern, North Carolina

I first listened to you as a keynote speaker for Melmac 2 years ago. About 4 years before that I divorced my husband who was emotionally abusive and left with my then 6 year old son and 1 year old daughter. My son had an extremely difficult time. Leaving his Dad, starting a new school, moving in with my parents so instead of 1 person telling him what to do he had three. We had our ups and downs but I was so worried for him. His mantra seemed to be, "my life sucks." I left the session very much interested in trying to focus on gratefulness. So, Tyler and I would start telling each other what we were grateful for every night. I didn't notice much right away and wasn't sure if it had much of an impact on him. I thought he was just humoring me by saying something each night night I was super tired and I thought, we will just skip this for tonight. Tyler, when he realized I was saying good night and leaving said, "Hey mom, we haven't said our gratefulness yet." I had no idea the importance this had for him. I used to refer to him as my "glass is half empty child." I thought based on his personality he just always leaned towards pessimism. I desperately wanted that to change but I didn't know how. This simple act of verbalizing what we are grateful for has dramatically changed the course of his life. I see it in the relationship we now have, how he smiles and laughs, and how he is able to see the beauty in what is around him. Late this fall I heard him talking to himself outside admiring the sunset. "This is just the most incredible sunset I have ever seen. What a beautiful world. " Janet, I am eternally grateful for what you have given us and I just wanted to let you know. Thank you

Diana, guidance counselor from Maine.

Here is what educator  Barbara Ihns did.  

I was in attendance at your workshop on 7/31 in Lake Mary, FL. I’ve read much of and been excited by your book, and ideas presented in and promoted by the workshop have rocked my teaching world. In trying to figure out adding affirmations and gratitude to the spectrum of writing we do, I reached out to a local company that make beautiful books and stationery. They came through with a donation and I have incorporated these into most of my classes.

Here is a letter she wrote about this. It is very moving.

Dear Shelby and Rifle Paper Co.,

This letter has been many weeks in coming, and I apologize for the length as well as the lateness!

Students today seem to have more stresses than ever.  In my own classroom, students are dealing with death, deportation, disease, poverty, and separation from family, alongside other issues typical of high schoolers, including peer pressure and self-esteem.

I was prompted recently by an inspiring lecture to incorporate scientifically proven techniques of stress reduction in my classroom.  The presentation by Dr. Janet Zadina focused on what brain-based research tells us about trauma and its’ effects on learning.  This workshop and her book, Multiple Pathways to the Student Brain, have given me an array of tools to use with my students.

One technique of Dr. Zadina’s to support student wellness is writing affirmations.  I wanted to try this with my 9th through 12th grade ELLs, English Language Learners, who already write daily in colored folders that remain in the classroom.  I wanted the affirmations to be different.  I use a Rifle Paper Co. notebook for my own journaling and know firsthand the benefits of special paper and books for personal writing.  Thus, I turned to Rifle Paper Co. with a request to support this effort by allowing me a discount for pocket notebooks to use for this project.  You, of course, went a huge step further, donating 130 books for my students in a thoughtful variety of five different covers.

Students’ faces lit up when presented with these beautiful ‘libretitas’, and they carefully inspected all five styles before making their choices.  Once given the books, my only requirement was to write their names on an inside cover.  Other than that, it’s simple: “You do you. No one else will read what you write.”  We started with a prompt on gratitude, writing five things we were grateful for, and after a discussion of gratitude, they took off.  A few weeks into it and we are doing this writing most days. I write along with them and have sometimes modeled my thought process, pretty much to show them that anything goes.

The affirmations are part of a larger effort to incorporate techniques for mindfulness and stress-reduction in my classes this year.  Students took a ‘mindfulness pre-test’ last month and will take it again at the end of the school year, which should provide me with more than anecdotal evidence of its benefits.

My students are over 95 % free and reduced lunch, meaning they are in lower socioeconomic levels.  I am certain that these books are their first journals and possibly the first time they’ve used writing explicitly as a therapeutic tool of self-expression. The students’ joy in these books has impacted me greatly, and I am excited to see where affirmations will take them.

I have Rifle Paper Co. to thank for making this segment of my mindfulness curriculum very, very special.  If you like, I will share my results with you in the spring.  It would be my pleasure to provide you with anything further.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.  In gratitude,

                        Barbara Ihns

                        Barbara Ihns, MA TESOL

                        National Board Certified Teacher

                        Teacher of English to Speakers of Other Languages 9 - 12

                        Lyman Rowing Association Faculty Sponsor

                        Lyman High School

                        Longwood, FL

So whether you do 3 gratitudes or “one good thing”, experiment with the power of gratitude and discover how it can enhance your well-being.  I would love to hear from you about your experiences with it.

with Dr. Janet Zadina
Copyright 2013 Janet Zadina, Ph.D. All rights reserved
Janet N. Zadina, Ph.D
Brain Research and Instruction

Science and Strategies
Janet N. Zadina, Ph.D
Brain Research and Instruction
Bridging Neuroscience and Education​

"Science and Strategies"
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