Each year in November, we take time as a middle level school to emphasize the importance of gratitude. While we are an international school, we build off the American holiday of Thanksgiving as a foundation for celebrating recognition and thanks. Abundant research connects gratitude with a sense of purpose and happiness, and focusing on gratitude is an important way to help meet students’ social-emotional needs.

Our work with gratitude gets folded into our advisory program, but it also permeates into other classes and includes active involvement by our teachers. The premise of our work with students is based on the message presented in a 12-minute Ted Talk by author Shawn Achor: “The Happiness Advantage: Linking Positive Brains to Performance”. In this talk, Achor challenges viewers to engage in a 21-day “rewire” to support changing the way our brain looks at the world, with gratitude as a key part of his ultimate goal of happiness. As he says, “…it’s not necessarily the reality that shapes us, but the lens through which your brain views the world that shapes your reality.”

Achor’s 21-day rewire consists of the following activities to create lasting positive change:

  • Three expressions of gratitude each day
  • Journaling about a positive experience from the last 24 hours
  • Exercise
  • Meditation
  • Random/conscious acts of kindness

Here’s how we have supported our school’s 21-day rewire for gratitude for the month of November in past years. We scaffolded our work from the individual/self (privately writing things we are grateful for in our life), to expanding gratitude to share with someone else (a letter of thanks to someone we care about), to spreading appreciation in our community (placing notes on a gratitude tree).

International School of Kenya Middle School students hang leaves with their gratitudes on the Gratitude Tree. Photo credit: Alexa P. Schmid

In week one, we introduced gratitude journals to students and continued this daily practice for 21 days. We kicked off with an assembly for all middle level students, which included a student-friendly video linking gratitude and happiness. In week two, we continued daily gratitudes and expanded the work to include students writing a letter of gratitude to someone they care about. In week three, we continued daily gratitudes in the journals, and then students wrote a message of thanks related to our community on paper leaves, which were hung on a Gratitude Tree in our common space. Throughout the month, teachers shared videos, read passages from books, and generated conversations to actively share these gratitudes.

Over the course of the month, we also shared articles with faculty to deepen how we practice and model gratitude for our students. Two great articles that share the research of how being grateful leads to deeper happiness are “Choose to Be Grateful. It Will Make You Happier” and “The Neuroscience of Gratitude.” Here is a link to additional resources to support gratitude work, including several articles, videos, and images that capture the essence of gratitude.

A high-quality education is about so much more than rigorous academics. It is also about developing character and teaching students the skills and dispositions to successfully engage in a changing world. With anxiety and depression on the rise, it is essential for schools to consider the needs of the whole child. Focusing on gratitude is one way to accomplish this goal.

Education is about so much more than just teaching a rigorous academic curriculum. Supporting a culture of gratitude will also support a culture of love, happiness, and purpose. When we engage in gratitude work, we support a community that can meet its potential and maximize the learning that is possible at school.


“In daily life we must see that it is not happiness that makes us grateful, but gratefulness that makes us happy.”

—Brother David Steindl-Rast


“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”

—John F. Kennedy


Alexa P. Schmid is the middle level principal at the International School of Kenya and the 2019 U.S. Department of State Office of Overseas Schools Principal of the Year. She is currently working on her doctorate in education from Plymouth State University, where she is studying cultural competency leadership in international schools. She was a Peace Corps volunteer in Zambia, and has worked in international schools in Egypt, India, and Kenya.

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