The Ripple Effects of Classroom Compassion and Gratitude

Cultivating good character among school children is widely regarded, at the very least, as a worthwhile goal.

We want young people to take decisions, in their public and private lives, for the right reasons. We want them to go out into the world and live flourishing lives that champion the virtues, not vices.

In many respects, the odds are stacked against both pupils and the education professionals tasked with helping to provide them with the skills they need. Our largely individualistic culture, accompanied by the erosion of social bonds, has left many people feeling disconnected, isolated and lonely. It is often said we inhabit an increasingly narcissistic age where the focus is inward not outward, self-regarding rather than caring for others.

But what if a teacher’s lesson plan promoting one virtue could have the effect of producing an incremental increase in a different virtue?

New research being undertaken by the Jubilee Centre is seeking to establish just that, looking at the links between compassion and gratitude.

In the first empirical examination of its type, we will be seeking to find out if a programme of classroom activities promoting compassion has the side effect of increasing gratitude and vice versa. In this respect, we will be breaking new ground.

The study, an extension of the Jubilee Centre’s An Attitude for Gratitude project, published in 2015, will involve Year 7 and Year 8 pupils (11 to 13-year-olds). A pilot study is underway and the full-scale project is scheduled for launch in September 2016.

A series of five-week teaching programmes, or interventions, will be completed in each participating school. One class will focus on activities promoting gratitude, one will target compassion and there will be a third control group.

The classroom tasks include short, form-time activities of 10-15 minutes’ duration including discussions, mind maps, simple writing exercises and periods of reflection designed to encourage caring and warmth. Longer tasks involving story workbooks and letter writing require more time and are ideal for PHSE lessons, English or drama.

Pupils will complete a questionnaire both before and after the teaching programmes. One element of the questionnaire includes the ground-breaking Multiple-Component Gratitude Measure, which measures people’s grateful feelings, their thoughts about gratitude and their self-reported grateful behaviours. This measure has yet to be trialled on a youth population.

The questionnaire will also tap into elements of empathy (the psychological capacity thought to underlie the virtue of compassion), student well-being and persistence.

By comparing the responses, we hope to find out if the virtues of gratitude and compassion are mutually sustaining and, more specifically, does promoting compassion in lessons create a ripple effect for gratitude, and is the same true of gratitude’s effect on compassion?

It should be stressed that the questionnaire is effectively a “thermometer” to gauge children’s reactions to the classroom activities and it is most definitely not an assessment of skill or a test. We want the pupils to enjoy the programme, not feel like they are sitting an exam.

We hope the research builds up our common human life by promoting reflection on the virtues that connect us to other people. Through gratitude we are able to appreciate the contribution other people make to our lives, building social bonds and stimulating us to contribute to the lives of others. Similarly, by promoting compassion in schools we will help to create responsible, caring and connected citizens.

The project meets a growing need for a greater sense of community in our society and will make an impact individually and collectively. A greater sense of connection to and responsibility for others will ultimately foster better mental health and wellbeing and a means of rediscovering ways we can help others.

Educators are in a privileged position to encourage and help foster virtues in others. I was most proud of the school report I received aged eight in which Mr Metcalf said my sense of fair play was “exemplary.” It has stuck with me in a way marks out of 10 never did.

Education should not be purely about achievement. It should also encompass nurturing important personal qualities and strengths, like compassion and gratitude. At the end of the day, our research findings are important, but the main point is that we want children to become better citizens.

Dr Liz Gulliford, Research Fellow, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

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