How journaling, meditation and a spaceman can inspire pupils’ compassion and gratitude

A five-week programme of school-based activities promoting compassion and gratitude can have a noticeable effect on pupils’ attitudes and virtue literacy of two key virtues, according to a pilot study by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues.

Students’ scores on a well-known measure of gratitude increased after a targeted gratitude intervention, most markedly in girls, according to the pilot’s preliminary results (see Appendix 1).

A comparison of mind maps completed by these 11 and 12-year-olds both before and after the teaching sessions also showed a significantly enhanced virtue literacy, i.e. understanding of the key concepts.

Individual children’s initial knowledge of compassion and gratitude, as expressed in the mind maps, was enriched by the process, leading to more nuanced diagrammatic representations of the virtues, suggesting wider comprehension and learning.

Exercises were undertaken during a pilot study for the Gratitude and Related Character Virtues project, being conducted by researchers at the Jubilee Centre.

This empirical study is embedded within a wider project that is looking at the relationship between gratitude and the “other-regarding” virtues of compassion, humility, generosity and forgiveness. Research Fellow Dr Liz Gulliford is seeking to establish if teaching interventions designed to promote one of these virtues has the effect of increasing the others. The current empirical study focuses on compassion and gratitude within a secondary school setting.

The pilot shows gratitude scores increased in girls and boys who took part in the compassion intervention (Appendix 1). These students had not received any elements of the programme which targeted gratitude specifically, which suggests that these virtues are mutually enriching.

As with the pilot study, the main experimental study due to begin in the autumn will see two classes participating in either the gratitude or compassion intervention while a third will act as a control group in each school. As with the pilot study, teachers are provided with teaching handbooks, which focus on either promoting compassion or gratitude. These specially designed handbooks consist of short, engaging activities such as discussions, writing exercises (such as keeping a gratitude journal), drama and meditation or reflective periods designed to nurture caring and warmth.

In the gratitude intervention, one activity invites children to write a thank you letter. The letter is written to someone who has made a significant and “positive difference in their life,” ideally someone the pupil has not yet thanked for this important contribution. If they have time, the letter can be decorated to make it look special.

When distance permits and as part of homework, the pupil is encouraged to visit the recipient with a view to reading the letter out loud before giving it to them to keep. The teaching materials are simple – paper, coloured pencils/paper, envelopes and, in the case of letters being sent a long distance. A follow-up activity in a different lesson asks children to share their recipient’s reactions to the letter.

The activities in the compassion intervention include a comprehension exercise based on the story of the Good Samaritan. A light-hearted poem focuses on different people’s responses to a football fan who is injured at a match: a medic overlooks the stricken supporter, but a rival fan finally helps the victim. Pupils are invited to comment on the scenario from a range of perspectives.

In another exercise, children are asked to comment on a topical news item. In the pilot, one of the stories the pupils chose to highlight featured seven-year-old Japanese boy Yamato Tanooka, who went missing in a forest – and was subsequently rescued – having been apparently abandoned by his parents as a punishment. Children are asked to put themselves in the shoes of the people in these news stories and imagine how they would feel in that situation.

Before the intervention begins, classes are asked to complete an identical questionnaire that measures gratitude, empathy (as a proxy for compassion), perseverance and happiness. The questionnaire is repeated at the end of the five-week period and the results compared to gauge if there has been an increase in the virtue targeted by the intervention and in any of the other measures.

Perseverance is included because it is an “inward” looking virtue, a skill of self-control, rather than an “outward” looking and other-regarding virtue like gratitude and compassion. Will this virtue also show an increase as a result of the intervention? Additionally, could such interventions also promote wellbeing?

Dr Gulliford says: “The measure of happiness is included in the pre- and post-intervention questionnaires because both compassion and gratitude have been correlated with increased wellbeing. We are interested to see if scores on the happiness measure go up as a result of taking part in either intervention.”

Dr Gulliford has been pleased with the results of the pilot and is looking forward to the full-scale research project in the autumn. She says: “Preliminary data shows increasing complexity in young people’s understanding of the concepts of compassion and gratitude. The mind maps show conceptual richness emerging in the data and indicate that it is possible to influence the children’s conceptual understanding and virtue literacy of compassion and gratitude.

“We are encouraged by the early results which appear to show improvements in pupils’ virtue literacy. The pilot suggests the interventions are helping to build a vital bedrock of understanding among young people.”

In the compassion intervention, for example, one boy’s pre-intervention mind map featured five annotations including the words “loyal,” “friendly,” “romantic” and “funny”. When the pupil repeated the exercise at the end of the five-week programme, he contributed 10 words and phrases including “helping others,” “sacrificing things for others,” “kindness,” “empathy,” “forgiveness” and “understanding others [sic] feelings.”

Another pupil initially expressed three thoughts on their compassion mind map (“suffering,” “it shows your personality” and “buying food for the homeless”). However, the number of annotations quadrupled to 12 at the conclusion of the intervention. The post-intervention terms included “putting yourself in someone elses [sic] shoes,” “caring for others” and “improving lives.”

Dr Gulliford adds: “Similar results were seen in the mind maps completed by pupils following the gratitude intervention.”

WGD-3544Schools’ Reaction

Amesbury School, a mixed preparatory school in Hindhead, Surrey, was one of the three schools in the pilot.

Form tutor Sarah Page taught the gratitude component to a group of Year 7 pupils as part of PSHE, using the teachers’ handbook. The study has her overwhelming support.

Sarah says: “I would 100% recommend this project to schools. The tasks are brilliant. The way the project has been put together is very clear. The instructions are clear. The teaching handbook is very supportive and it doesn’t put you under pressure.”

Sarah reported dramatic improvements in pupils’ understanding of gratitude. For example, one girl’s mind map at the start of the intervention featured just the one word, “gratitude,” and her name. The work sheet was effectively blank even though the pupil was given encouragement and examples to consider.

“At the end of the project, the mind map was full,” says Sarah. “To see such a change in approach to that one word and to see her progress was really touching. It gave me a warm glow.”

The children engaged well with the “thank you” letters exercise. One boy chose to write a letter to his granny, prompting a positive emotional response from his relative.

Sarah describes sessions where children made “thank you” videos as a “huge success.”

The pupils were encouraged to express gratitude to an individual for a particular service. The children dedicated their short films to Anne Frank, British astronaut Tim Peake, Sir Winston Churchill and their teachers. Peake, the pioneering spaceman, was thanked for risking his life for “the good of human intelligence.”

Sarah says: “The children loved putting the films together and to see the way they talked about gratitude was powerful. I loved teaching the gratitude classes and the children really embraced it. ‘Thank you’ can be easy to say, but looking at the impact and the meaning has taught them a lot.

“Compassion and gratitude are very important for children to learn and they are an important part of all our lives.”

Kings Langley School, Hertfordshire, which also took part in the pilot, said pupils enjoyed the activities and engaged with the drama/acting, meditation tasks and the gratitude journals.

The journals gave the pupils “an opportunity to reflect on the good things others have done for/to them,” according to Melusi Moyo, school coordinator for Religious Studies and PSHE.

Melusi says: “Overall, this was a wonderful experience for our students. I am sure the data analysis would show that after delivering the lessons students’ understanding of gratitude and compassion has developed.

“During the second mind map sessions, the vocabulary used to describe compassion and gratitude was richer and students demonstrated a clear and good understanding of how they could express gratitude and compassion.”

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

  • If you are encouraged by the schools’ experience of the programmes and would be interested in taking part in this research project in autumn 2016, please get in touch with Liz Gulliford on 0121 414 4813 or



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