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Help Students Work Smarter with Positivity and Gratitude

Throughout the year, Upper School counselor Ms. Sam Straub sends a newsletter titled One Small Thing to teachers with insights and strategies to help students thrive. Each newsletter addresses a different issue that our students may face on or off campus. Ms. Straub creates these as a supportive tool for teachers, but her tips can be useful outside of the classroom as well. In this One Small Thing, Ms. Straub shares research-based suggestions to harness the power of gratitude and positive emotions.

Positivity, Gratitude and Readiness to Learn

This One Small Thing is inspired by a fantastic Ted Talk by Shawn Achor, a leading mind in the field of positive psychology. His talk is called “The Happy Secret to Better Work.” In the spirit of the holidays, this edition will focus on how the purposeful practice of gratitude can have lasting effects on a person’s well being. And in the spirit of mid-term exams, this edition will also explore the influence that positive emotions have on a person's readiness to learn. Readiness to learn increases academic performance and reduces anxiety — both wonderful gifts during this holiday and exam-prep season.

Achor opens his very amusing 12-minute talk with joke after joke. In fact, he doesn’t get to the meat of his message until around minute 8.5. Why does he spend over half of his precious "Ted Time" warming the audience up with jokes that are only loosely related to his eventual message? My guess is because positive emotions prime us to learn. Achor wants his audience to better remember what he tells them. He also infuses his talk with personal stories, an additional strategy to increases people’s ability to connect to material.

Seek Out Positivity in the Process

At about minute 9, Achor begins to discuss the relative positions that happiness and success hold in our culture:
“Most companies and schools follow a formula for success which is this, ‘If I work harder, I’ll be more successful. And if I’m more successful, then I’ll be happier.' That undergirds most of our parenting styles, our managing styles, the way that we motivate behavior.

That is scientifically broken and backwards for two reasons. First, every time your brain has a success, you’ve just changed the goalpost of what success looks like. You got good grades; now you have to get better grades. You got into a good school; now you have to get into a better school. And if happiness is on the opposite side of success, your brain never gets there. What we’ve done is we’ve pushed happiness over the cognitive horizon as a society. And that’s because we think we need to be successful first, then we’ll be happier.”
Consider how Achor’s points about the pursuit of happiness might relate to the crunch our students feel as they prepare for midterms. How likely is that some of our students are telling themselves, “I just have to get through these exams, then I can relax.”? Or worse, “Then I’ll be happy.” What if it were possible to maintain higher levels of positivity during crunch time? The principles of positive psychology suggest that increased positivity will actually lead to increased productivity during such times.

Achor continues,
“The real problem is our brains work in the opposite order. If you can raise somebody’s level of positivity in the present, then their brain experiences what we now call a ‘happiness advantage.' Your brain at positive performs significantly better than it does at negative, neutral, or stressed. Your intelligence rises, your creativity rises, your energy levels rise...Dopamine, which floods into your system when you’re positive, has two functions. Not only does it make you happier, it turns on all the learning centers in your brain allowing you to adapt to the world in a different way.

Suggestions You Can Try At Home

So what does dopamine production have to do with midterms? And what about that gratitude piece I mentioned above? In discussing research-based strategies for increasing well-being, Achor mentions gratitude, the practice of which is a fast track for well-being. He notes that, “In just a two minute span of time, done for twenty one days in a row, [gratitude practice] can actually rewire your brain, allowing your brain to work more optimistically and successfully.”

For example, when people keep a journal of three things for which they are grateful each day, their brains start to “retain a pattern of scanning the world, not for the negative, but for the positive," Achor states.

In this season of thanks, giving and midterms, here are a few suggestions to help focus on positivity and gratitude. These strategies are great for adults too:
  • Try prompting a discussion about recent good things that have happened before your child begins working on homework. If your teenager will find this practice too hokey, consider a dinner time conversation that focuses on lows AND highs. And refrain from trying to “fix” the lows. Just listen. The positive feelings come from sharing the highs but also from just feeling heard.
  • Suggest that your child precede homework with something brief that makes them feel genuinely good like a physical activity, a quick call or text to a friend to offer a compliment, a favorite snack, or moment of mindfulness.
  • Laugh with your children. As much as you can and as often as possible.
  • Share old family stories or stories from when your children were younger. Even teens love hearing about how cute and funny they were when they were little.
  • Consider starting a gratitude practice for your family — take a few minutes each day to think about or write down things for which you are grateful.
  • Share your own mistakes. This one might feel counterintuitive. How can sharing missteps create positive feelings? When kids understand that the people they look up to also make mistakes, it gives children and teens permission to be their wonderfully imperfect and perfectly messy selves. That’s pretty validating.


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