Research: Children grow up “happier” if they are grateful

A growing body of research shows that teaching children true gratitude can have beneficial health effects, while also leading to stronger relationships with others.

While parents have long pressed their children to say “thank you” as a sign of good manners, researchers contend that when kids show gratitude and actually mean it, the practice can lower stress, battle depression, improve impulse control, and lead to a more optimistic and positive outlook, Business Insider reports.

Research by Sara Algoe, Ph.D., of the University of North Carolina, explains one of the most significant keys to well-being is being able to acquire and maintain relationships. Gratitude is the glue that can bring people together as well as creating happiness from the inside out,” according to the news site.

“In her study, she calls it, ‘Find, Remind and Bind,’ citing the process of being sincere in thanks, and then getting a positive response in return, creates a stronger relationship bond with lasting side effects.”

Other research shows the benefits are both physical and mental, and include reduced depression, better impulse control for things like spending, eating, and drinking; a more optimistic and positive outlook; a stronger immune system; lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol; and lower blood pressure.

“. . . Researchers at the SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities conducted a study focused solely on gratitude interventions in treating depression and found that practices such as keeping a gratitude journal, writing a letter of gratitude, counting blessings and gratitude visits all had a powerful effect, with journals being the most effective,” Business Insider reports.

The benefits of gratitude, however, rely on sincerity.

Researchers with UNC, Duke, and NC State pointed out that children as young as six years old know the difference between genuine gratitude, and simply saying “thank you.”

“Many of the children we talked to had a lovely phrase for telling the difference between the two,” the North Carolina psychologists wrote. “They’d say: ‘She said thank you, but she didn’t mean it.’ So even at that age they are getting it—but they lack the perspective, the experience of it.”

Business Insider offered several ways parents can help youngsters develop the habit of sincere gratitude to propel them toward a happy and healthy life.

The news site suggests parents and other adults model the behavior they want kids to display, with a focus on presenting an example of sincere gratitude. Adults can also talk with children about the concept of gratitude, and explain how developing the skill within themselves can positively impact health and happiness.

Children can also develop true gratitude when the adults in their lives encourage volunteer work or other activities that illustrate why they should be grateful, such as working in a soup kitchen or helping needy families.

The research outlined by Business Insider affirms the benefits of gratitude cited by Robert H. Frank in The Hedgehog Review, a publication of the Institute of Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.

Frank notes there is a “large body of research by academic psychologists who have studied how the emotion of gratitude affects people’s behavior.

“The general finding is that gratitude makes people not only happier and healthier but also more generous toward others,” he wrote in “Just Desserts: Why We Tend to Exaggerate Merit—and Pay for Doing So.”

Frank also pointed to evidence that people who believe gratitude is not entirely their own making are often more grateful, and more likely to show their appreciation.

“Subjects who’d been asked to recall a good event and come up with external causes—many of whom mentioned luck explicitly, or cited factors like supportive spouses, thoughtful teachers, and financial aid—gave more than 25 percent larger donations than those who’d been asked to offer internal causes to explain the good event,” Frank wrote.

Texas teen fights expulsion for sitting out the Pledge of Allegiance

A Texas high schooler is fighting to reverse an expulsion decision for refusing to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, an act of defiance she argues is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

“I don’t think that the flag is what it says it’s for, for liberty and justice and all that,” Windfern High School senior India Landry said last year after she was sent home. “It’s not obviously what’s going on in America today.”

Kizzy Landry, the now 18-year-old student’s mother, contends school officials initially would not provide details about why the girl was expelled last year, though a principal later said “she can’t come to my school if she won’t stand for the pledge,” USA Today reports.

India told KHOU she sat through the pledge on previous occasions without issue, despite state law that requires a parent’s signature to do so. The situation prompted the Landrys to file a federal lawsuit against the Cy-Fair Independent School District, and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton intervened in the lawsuit late last month to defend the expulsion.

“Schoolchildren cannot unilaterally refuse to participate in the pledge,” Paxton said in a statement, which also noted Texas is one of 26 states that require a parent’s signature. “Requiring the pledge to be recited at the start of every school day has the laudable result of fostering respect for our flag and a patriotic love of our country.”

Laundry’s attorney, Randall Kallinen, shrugged off Paxton’s involvement as a political ploy, and noted the punishment came one week after President Trump criticized NFL players kneeling during the national anthem.

“We are confident that, based upon the law, that Ms. Landry will prevail and she will once again be able to sit for the pledge of allegiance,” he told KHOU.

An informal survey by KHOU found roughly 85 percent of viewers online agreed with the effort to require students to stand for the Pledge, while only 15 percent believe students have the right to choose.

That’s seemingly consistent with a 2016 survey by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture outlined in “The Vanishing Center of American Democracy.”

The study found:

“Eight of ten (81%) (of respondents) … agree that ‘America is an exceptional nation with a special responsibility to lead the world.’ Overwhelmingly (93%), they also describe themselves as patriotic.”

The American Civil Liberties Union offers resources for students and teachers that outline free speech rights in public schools, covering topics from silent protests, to walkouts, to political clothing in the classroom.

“If you’re a public school student, you don’t check your constitutional rights at the schoolhouse doors,” according to the ACLU website. “But whether schools can punish you for speaking out depends on when, where, and how you decide to express yourself.”


Parents complain about student survey about bullying, violence and sex assault

Efforts in a South Carolina school to broach sexual assault and other sensitive subjects with students is meeting resistance from some parents who believe the discussions are better left at home.

Jennifer McAteer, mother of a Lancaster High School student, told WCNC she was disappointed when her son texted her about a school sex survey he was asked to complete in class last week.

“You know, if they want to do a survey, that’s fine do a survey, do it online with your mom and dad, mail it, whatever, but this isn’t something to go in the classroom and be presented with before parents know and before we can talk about it with our minor children,” she said.

“I hope that this does not start the conversation, which it has,” McAteer said. “I think this should be talked about with me and my children, not through children and my children. This should be talked about at home.”

Paul McKenzie, the district’s veteran research director, told the news site he crafted the survey as part of a broader effort to gauge teen perceptions of bullying, violence and sexual assault ahead of a new program called “Engaging Men and Boys.”

The survey includes questions such as: “You’re at a party and a girl there is drunk and passes out. Some boys decide to take her to a bedroom and take turns having sex with the young lady, what would you do?”

“It’s an effort to get young men that when bad things happen, they stand up and take a stance,” McKenzie said. “And so that’s what that question was, ‘What would you do? Would you call the police? Would You call a parent? Would you not know what to do at all?’”

“Engaging Men and Boys” is an elective course at the school run by the group “Palmetto Citizens Against Sexual Assault” using a curriculum developed in coordination with a local church. The class is designed to include church leaders, police and other community leaders to help serve as role models for students who don’t have a strong male influence at home.

The survey, McKenzie said, serves as a baseline for progress.

“The data that we collect is not only to identify problems but also to help us generate solutions and monitor to see if they’re working or not,” he said.

A year-long Associated Press investigation published last year uncovered roughly 17,000 reports of sex assaults by K-12 students between 2011 and 2015.

Researchers with the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia noted that some public high school teachers’ are reluctant to engage students in controversial issues like sexual assault and that this has potential to undermines character education.

They observed “this failure to provide a fully developed and broadly coherent moral message was partly due to public school teachers’ reluctance to opine on controversial issues,” Institute founder James Davison Hunter wrote in “The Content of Their Character,” a summary of character education in a wide variety of schools.

The situation means many often refrain from “providing serious direction on what is right and what is wrong,” Hunter wrote.

A 2010 study from the University of Newcastle takes a deeper look at “Teaching about, and dealing with, sensitive issues in schools,” particularly from the perspective of pre-service teachers.

“Teachers are developing an increasingly active role in the education of students in areas of sensitivity, including issues such as sexuality, mental health, grief and loss and child protection. There is a growing expectation for teachers to become competent not only in educating students in these areas but also in recognizing and dealing with such matters if and when they arise in the classroom,” according to the study.

“However, a large proportion of teachers express discomfort in these areas, resulting in negative outcomes for both teachers and students.”

California school district works with nonprofit to fight ‘culture of go, go, go,’

The Newport-Mesa Unified School District is considering recommendations from a California nonprofit about how to de-stress students in an increasingly competitive academic environment.

Challenge Success, based in Stanford, helps more than 150 schools across the country strategize ways to reduce the burden on students and allow them to focus on other aspects of building a successful life, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“We’re fighting against a culture of go, go, go where schools are busier than we ever have been before,” Challenge Success program director Margaret Dunlap told Newport-Mesa school board members.

The Challenge Success website contends the “largely singular focus on academic achievement has resulted in a lack of attention to other components of a successful life – the ability to be independent, adaptable, ethical and engaged critical thinkers.”

“The overemphasis on grades, test scores and rote answers has stressed out some kids and marginalized many others,” according to the site.

Dunlap is working with several high schools in the Newport-Mesa district to collaborate with parents and students to develop their own plan of action to address the issue, through things like reduced homework policies, no homework nights, limits on time spent on sports, revised grading policies, and “dialogue nights” between students, parents and school officials, the Times reports.

“We don’t have a one-size-fits-all curriculum,” Dunlap said.

Other potential changes, such as an earlier start to the school year, will require district officials to negotiate with union leaders to modify the district’s collective bargaining agreement.

Teams of volunteers – eight to 10 parents of school faculty – will also attend Challenge Success conferences in the spring and fall to brainstorm ideas and craft action plans. In the meantime, district officials are distributing information from Challenge success about research on homework and cheating, with ideas about how to limit stress on students.

“Parents are anxious to learn – they have their own stress built in,” said Charlene Metoyer, vice president of the Newport-Mesa school board.

James Hunter at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture supports this sentiment: “One cannot understand character outside of culture, and culture matters decisively” (The Tragedy of Moral Education in America, p. 6). The question then becomes what is the shared vision of moral goods shared by a particular community.

Teachers and principals in thinking about whether academic studies override the school’s efforts to instill positive moral and character development in students can find useful information at the UK’s The Jubilee Centre by reading the Jubilee Centre’s document, Character Education: Evaluation for Schools.

Father complains school officials over-reacted to son’s sketches with guns, knives

A North Carolina middle school student was suspended for two days after he drew pictures in school that included guns and knives.

James Herring, father of a 13-year-old student at Roseboro Salemburg Middle School, told WRAL he was shocked by the two-day suspension school officials leveled against the boy for expressing himself with stick figure sketches.

The seventh-grader drew what appears to be a person with a rifle, as well as a car with the words “suped up mini-car” above it. Other images included a ninja turtle with swords, and a tower with what appears to be a crossbow.

“I see a guy in a race car souped-up. I see a tower that he built. I see him holding his gun, he’s a deer hunter. I see him with a magician and I see him as a Ninja Turtle … just expressing himself, nothing violent,” Herring said.

Herring told the news site his son is a hunter, but weapons at home are kept under lock and key. He also stressed that the boy isn’t violent, or suffering from emotional issues. Herring believes school officials over-reacted to the sketches, in part because of recent high-profile school shootings.

“When I see that, I see a normal 13-year-old boy,” Herring said. “I drew pictures like this, any other person of his age drew drawings like this. It’s nothing to get expelled from school for.”

Sampson County Schools Superintendent Eric Bracy refused to discuss the situation with WRAL, but said officials are simply following punishments outlined in the student handbook. He also referenced recent incidents of school violence.

“There are some things that list possible threats or things like that,” he said of the student handbook. “We’ve got category one, two, three and four, which sort of grades potential incidents and the level of seriousness.”

“Due to everything happening in the nation, we’re just being extra vigilant about all issues of safety,” Bracy said.

In a context of fear, it is easy for schools to fall back on a rigid application of rules. Researchers at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture advocate a concern for the broader moral ecology of the school. University of Boston educator Charles Glenn is quoted in The Content of Their Character as saying, “Formal education… presents pictures or maps of reality that reflect, unavoidably, particular choices about what is certain and what in question, what is significant and what unworthy of notice. No aspect of schooling can be truly neutral.” A school’s explicit or implicit moral framework and practices cannot help but influence the outlook and character of children.

Teachers and principals interested in strengthen moral ecology of their school can access information and strategies at the UK’s Jubilee Centre.


Sixth grader launches nonprofit to serve up compassion for the homeless

Marlon Miller Jr. is a Georgia sixth-grader on a mission, and he recently launched a nonprofit to take it to the next level.

Miller first learned about severe poverty when he watched his father give food to a homeless man six years ago, an experience that sparked a passion in the young boy that hasn’t waned since.

“We answered his questions and explained to him why some people live on the streets,” Miller’s mother, Tawanda Miller, told the Henry Herald.

It wasn’t enough.

For years Miller constantly pleaded for money for snacks and toiletry supplies to pass out to the homeless, but his mother couldn’t keep up with the demands. “I told him he needed to find a way to raise money on his own to purchase items,” she said. So that’s exactly what he did.

Miller, now in sixth grade at Union Grove Middle School, launched his own nonprofit last year called Deuce Hands, and he has held his first fundraiser – an ugly Christmas sweater party – in December. He also posted fliers at local businesses to solicit donations, and set up social media accounts for Deuce Hands to get the word out online.

“I knew he was serious when he came home with a list of homeless shelters,” his mother Tawamda said.

The 11-year-old uses the money raised to buy toothpaste, a toothbrush, soap, deodorant, water and snacks that he packages in what he calls “compassion bags.” Miller also employs his six-year-old sister Madison to help hand out the bags and volunteering at two events for the homeless each month, according to the Herald.

“I feel I’m lucky to be where I am,” he said, adding that he’s learned valuable lessons from the folks he’s met on the streets. “Homeless people really need help.”

This heartening story shows the influence of a father, the importance in finding one’s passion, and applying it to practical action. It is not an isolated story in urban public schools today. Researchers at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture found that effective urban public schools emphasized for critical moral ideas: 1. self-actualization, 2. grit, 3. respect, and 4. compassion. They state, “The moral framework and language for each of these tended to be a combination of solidarity for teachers and individual self-expression for students.”[1]

“We shouldn’t judge the homeless because they are usually good people who ended up in a bad situation,” Miller said.

Teachers and principals interested in strengthening moral formation in their students will find strategies and resources at the UK’s Jubilee Centre.

[1] Hunter, James Davison and Ryan S. Olson. The Content of Their Character (Finstock & Tew Publishers, 2018), p. 28.

Private school officials discuss how faith shapes school culture, breeds academic success

St. Joseph Catholic School Principal Wade Laffey wants parents to know that the private religious school is more than a public school with a religion class.

“The faith and the catholicity of the school just appears throughout the day in the form of prayer, in the form of the type of uniform the students wear, to the morals and behaviors that are expected of the students and families,” Laffey told the Enid News & Eagle.

Laffey and other religious school leaders recently spoke with the news site about the benefits of a school culture steeped in strongly held religious beliefs, including ways it improves student discipline, engages parents, and encourages students to excel in academics.

Lois Nichols of St. Paul’s Lutheran School explained that the school’s focus on the love of God plays an important role, allowing misbehaving students to reflect on what Jesus would do and how their actions impact others.

“Most of the time they step up to the plate and change that behavior … it is very effective,” Nichols said.

At both St. Joseph and St. Paul’s, parents are also expected to invest in their child’s education through volunteer work, such as serving lunch, tutoring students, and helping with fundraising and school events.

“The students see that, they see the sacrifices that their parents are making for them,” Laffey told the News & Eagle. “That just helps to create that much more of an environment where students realize, ‘We must be worth caring about.’”

Small class sizes at many private religious schools also allows educators to provide more attention to each student than in other schools with large classes, Nichols said.

“The nicest thing about it is that each teacher works really hard with each individual student to make sure their needs are met,” he said.

The combination of factors – a school culture centered on religious beliefs, led by adults with a shared set of values, along with small classes that help teachers focus on each student’s needs – produces students who excel in academics and life.

Researchers at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture agree that the holistic approach being adopted by these schools is what makes them uniquely effective in character formation. Values when influential are not generic. Professor James Davison Hunter writes, “No one has ever believed in kindness or honesty without understanding them in the concrete circumstances of a moral culture embedded in a moral community.”  Only the particularity of moral community, such as those that these religious schools provide, can bind empathy with right behavior. This is further explained in the brief monograph, The Tragedy of Moral Education in America, which is itself a shortened version of Hunter’s The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil. Creating a moral culture embedded in community is key.

St. Joseph serves students through fifth grade, while St. Paul offers instruction through eighth grade. And it’s when students move on to high school that some of the biggest benefits of a religious education come into focus, Laffey and Nichols said.

“Every other school in town wants the St. Joe’s kids,” Laffey said. “More often than not, they’re placed in honors classes and advanced curriculum.”

“We have kids that score higher above most public schools because of the small classrooms and individualized attention,” Nichols added.

Principals and other education leaders interested in strengthening Roman Catholic teachers in their schools can turn to the National Catholic Education Association for support.


Parent survey points to school climate and culture

A recent survey at Goetz Middle School in New Jersey shows parents are looking for improved communications with teachers, feedback that underscores the important connection between home and school.

Jackson School District Assistant Superintendent Nicole Pormilli explained to the Asbury Park Press that officials use parental surveys to gain insight into strengths and weaknesses in individual schools, and a recent poll at Goetz suggested ways to improve.

“Most recently, Pormilli said, the input gained from a survey showed parents were seeking more opportunities for communication with teachers and administrators, and a way to improve ‘climate and culture in the school,’” according to the news site.

The feedback prompted school officials to offer parent-teacher conferences at night, better promote back-to-school nights, and expand email contacts. Other survey results prompted an emphasis on “character education—social and emotional learning,” Pormilli said.

A strong connection between schools and parents is critical for not only students’ academic performance, but also their character formation. It may also relate to parental satisfaction.

The Asbury Park Press points to Parental Satisfaction Surveys conducted by Gallup every other year that show three-quarters of parents were “broadly satisfied” with the education of their oldest child in 2016, while about 36% were “completely satisfied.”

Those figures, which have remained fairly stable, include an interesting trend: 28% of public school parents were completely satisfied, compared to 62% of private school parents.

Gallup contends the difference is likely because “private school parents have made a deliberate decision about what school their child attends, and they are free to change it if they aren’t satisfied.”

“It may also reflect something unique about private schools, whether that be a high quality of education, smaller class size, more parent involvement or greater symmetry between the parents’ and school’s values,” according to Gallup.

James Davison Hunter, founder of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, at the University of Virginia noted in The Tragedy of Moral Education in America:

Moral education can work where the community, and schools and other institutions within it, share a moral culture that is integrated and mutually reinforcing; where social networks of adult authority are strong, unified, and consistent in articulating moral ideals and their attending virtues; and where adults maintain a ‘caring watchfulness’ over all aspects of a young person’s maturation.

Family engagement will continue to be of central importance to schools, whether or not parents reflect it in surveys. The Virtual Lab School offers a family engagement framework for teachers and administrators that includes communication strategies and suggestions for working with military families, or those with special needs students and other challenges.

Maryland schools combat fights with conversations

Six student fights this school year, and three in the last week, prompted Wilde Lake High School Principal Rick Wilson to start a conversation with parents.

In the early December letter to parents, Wilson discussed “a very visible fight” a few days prior and explained how many of the recent altercations spawned from conflicts in the community, often involving students from other schools, The Baltimore Sun reports.

He asked parents to have a conversation with their kids.

“I kindly ask that you take some time . . . to speak with your children and remind them that the adults in their lives are here to provide for their safety and to guide them through difficult situations,” Wilson said in the letter. “We have trained personnel throughout the building if he or she feels the need to talk to a trusted adult.”

The call for communication reflects the Howard County school district’s shifting approach to student discipline and other school issues that’s moving away from punishments toward “restorative justice” practices focused on repairing relationships.

According to the Sun:

To prevent recurring acts of violence, Kevin Gilbert, director of diversity, equity and inclusion, said his office is working to expand relationship-building skills, known as restorative justice practices, and train staff at more schools. These practices teach students how to create and maintain healthy relationships with their peers, focusing on social and emotional development.

Since 2012, 34 schools have been in the process of implementing restorative practices, mostly at the middle and high school level. The process to fully implement and change culture in all county schools could take three to five years, Gilbert said.

Behavioral support specialist Rosanne Wilson explained how it works.

“A lot of times, schools want training on the discipline part of restorative practices [and] want to know how to facilitate a circle that brings the victim and the offender together, so that both can tell their story,” she said. “Then, they come up with a means for some kind of an agreement to say this is how we’re going to move forward so that this doesn’t happen again.”

The district is working with the Howard County Education Association teachers union and the Community Justice for Youth Institute in Chicago to train educators on restorative practices like talking circles, which allow students to resolve conflicts through discussions to prevent or resolve incidents.

“The emphasis in the training was on how the implementation of peace circles can build trust, promote social and emotional well-being and facilitate harmonious relationships,” said HCEA President Colleen Morris. “Just like teaching academic subjects requires planning, preparation and knowledge of students, peace circle implementation relies on well-trained facilitators to insure a safe learning environment is created.”

District spokesman Brian Bassett noted “The most effective way to prevent a physical altercation before it happens is through conversation.”

Joseph E. Davis, scholar at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and publisher of The Hedgehog Review, quotes Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sherry Turkle on the critical importance of conversation:

But it is in this type of conversation—where we learn to make eye contact, to become aware of another person’s posture and tone, to comfort one another and respectfully challenge one another—that empathy and intimacy flourish. In these conversations, we learn who we are.

Howard County schools are trying to rebuild this sort of conversation through restorative circles in which students deal honestly with each other and repair the damage caused by a slight or a fight.

‘State of the Kid’ report: kids looking to parents as role models

A national survey of youngsters conducted by Highlights magazine suggests kids are looking for more from parents and other adults as role models, and it’s serving as a call to action.

The popular children’s magazine polled 2,000 kids ages 6-12 from across the country about their perceptions of kindness and other issues.

“We asked kids—the world’s most important people: What messages are they hearing from their parents and other adults in their lives about the importance of kindness?” according to the magazine’s “The State of the Kid 2017” report.

“Are they learning that adults value caring behaviors? Do kids witness their parents or other adults behaving rudely, and, if so, how does it make them feel? Does our next generation understand what it means to be empathetic?”

The results speak volumes.

The majority of children polled (68%) said they have watched their parents or other adults acting unkindly or saying mean things, mostly in the car (36%), on the phone (27%), and watching TV (24%).

Of those respondents, a total of 93 percent said they had negative reactions to the experience. Roughly half said they felt uncomfortable, while 43 percent were sad, 33 percent were scared, and just over a quarter were confused. Others were surprised, or angry, while small percentages were entertained, or felt safe or proud.

Highlights also asked students whether their parents think being happy, doing well in school, or being a kind person is most important. Forty-four percent of kids said their parents most want them to be happy, 33 percent said their parents want them to excel at school, while only 23 percent reported kindness as the top priority.

The data suggest that parents and other adults, the lead role models, could do better.

Research from the Institute of Advanced Studies in Culture makes it clear there’s a lot at stake, as family and the surrounding community play a crucial role in the lives and character development of children.

The Institute’s “Culture of American Families” report concluded:

In formation, it is the culture and the community that gives shape and expression to it that is the key. Healthy formation is impossible without a healthy culture embedded within the warp and woof of family and community.

The healthy formation requires parents and other adults to take responsibility for their failures, to encourage children to live up to the same high standards they hold for themselves.

Harvard University’s Making Caring Common Project offers an excellent starting point, with a list of parenting tips that can help parents take action to rebuild a healthy culture in their family and community.