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Beyond Saying Thank You

gratitude grace and courtesy

Beyond Saying Thank You

As a Montessori school, we believe deeply in educating the whole child: their academic, psychological, critical-thinking, moral, and social-emotional selves. In addition to the academic lessons and works your children are engaged in daily, our teachers and staff are also guiding your child through other very important lessons to help them with their moral and social-emotional development. For example, teachers give explicit lessons related to grace and courtesy, facilitate discussions at the peace table, and encourage collaborative work and play daily.

And, it turns out, research from our School confirms that we are doing this pretty well …

The Gratitude Project

We recently worked with Professor Jonathan Tudge and his team from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (“UNCG”) to study the development of gratitude as a virtue. As a virtue, gratitude goes beyond a positive feeling when something good happens. Virtuous gratitude is a disposition to act gratefully when someone else does something nice for you. Dr. Tudge explained it to me this way: “Saying ‘thank you’ is polite, but hardly a virtue. What makes gratitude a virtue is when beneficiaries of good deeds or significant help want to do something back for their benefactor if they have the chance to do so. That first act of generosity, followed by grateful reciprocity, leads to building or strengthening connections among people.”

In previous cross-cultural research, Dr. Tudge and his team found that most children develop this type of gratitude between the ages of 9 and 13, although the age differed depending on the cultural context. In their study, children in the United States developed virtuous gratitude at later ages than other cultures. Keeping this in mind, Dr. Tudge decided to target a new intervention designed to encourage the development of gratitude within adolescents.

Dr. Tudge and his team came to our School to explore this intervention. After working with our Upper School students, they stumbled upon a ‘good’ problem with their research: far more Greensboro Montessori School students exhibited virtuous gratitude than they expected. Our Upper Elementary and Junior High students expressed gratitude at much higher rates (67%) than did children in non-Montessori settings in the United States (46%). In addition, our students were almost twice as likely to express autonomous moral obligation (79%) than were children in non-Montessori schools (44%). Defined originally by Jean Piaget, autonomous moral obligation is a decision-making framework whereby moral decisions are made based on intrinsic motivations to do the right thing.

Dr. Tudge and his team were puzzled by these anomalous findings. Why did our students score higher than other American children, even when compared to other well-regarded private schools in the Greensboro area? And how are these findings related to Montessori pedagogy and culture?

Gratitude in the Montessori Classroom

In our discussions with Dr. Tudge, we discussed the way Montessori teachers prepare the environment to communicate honor, respect, and gratitude to the child. We also described the ways in which our teachers model gratitude and respect when they speak and interact with their students. In time, this becomes our students’ definition of “how it’s supposed to be.”  In addition, we delineated how our grace and courtesy curriculum creates both a framework for community interactions and a schoolwide culture of character.

In collaboration with Dr. Tudge and his team, I presented the results from our Upper School students’ involvement with Dr. Tudge’s gratitude study at the Association for Moral Education’s annual conference in Seattle, Washington.

In the presentation, we hypothesized that our students’ high rates of gratitude could be due to several specific tenets of Montessori philosophy:

  • Specific lessons about grace and courtesy provide explicit guidance on character development from a young age.
  • Daily practice of grace and courtesy increase opportunities for proximal processes related to virtue development.
  • Mixed age groupings of children may expose younger children to older children are further along in virtue development.
  • Peer interactions encouraged from toddlerhood may increase opportunities for the development of mutual respect.

Dr. Tudge and his team also did some work with our Lower Elementary students. Tudge’s team again noted that so many of even these younger children (aged 6 to 9) expressed virtuous gratitude. Dr. Tudge reflected: “We think that this must say something about the character-based focus of the general Montessori curriculum, because a far greater proportion of Greensboro Montessori School children expressed gratitude than elsewhere.”

gratitude study

Dr. Jonathan Tudge and his team from UNCG discuss gratitude with Lower Elementary students from Greensboro Montessori School Students.

Character Education at Greensboro Montessori School

Overall, the results suggest that a Montessori environment is conducive to developing virtuous gratitude and autonomous moral obligation. These results – while surprising and interesting to the UNCG team and other researchers and educators at the Association for Moral Education conference – are not really that surprising to us. Focusing on strong character education is a key tenet of Greensboro Montessori School. A deep respect towards classmates and other people is so integral to our culture that it’s not that surprising our Elementary and Junior High students authentically take their sense of gratitude to a level beyond just saying “thank you.”