Ash Manuel knows all too well that life-changing inspiration can come from the unlikeliest of sources. The creator of the celebrated Growing With Gratitude program for school- age children, Ash was a primary school teacher in Adelaide in South Australia when his world suddenly opened up.
About 10 years ago, he was looking at doing some property investment and started researching secrets of success in that industry. What he discovered had less to do with interest rates and curb appeal. Instead, what he learned from investors was that happiness was fundamental to their success. He was startled to hear that it could be an acquired skill, with practicing gratitude as a first step in the process.
I was enjoying teaching but I was looking for a way to live life more on my own terms. I had to be at school at a certain time, eat lunch at a certain time and leave at a certain time. So that is why I began looking at property investing. Many of the investors were talking about how gratitude led to happiness and how happiness led to mindfulness and then ultimately to success. I started getting interested into this idea of being happy as a practice. I had never known that growing up. I immersed myself in it, reading a whole lot of material and listening to podcasts.
When I discovered mindfulness and how we can consciously practice gratitude, I started to do that on a daily basis. It wasn’t hours and hours, just short little periods across the day. And before long, it had a massive impact on me in a positive way.
One day, I was just getting some exercise walking on the street when I stopped and thought to myself, “I wish I had learned this when I was a kid.”
Then I said, “Hold on, I want to live on my own terms, do what I want when I want, maybe this is the way to make that happen. What if I created a primary school program which makes it easy for teachers to teach mindfulness and gratitude in the classroom?”
For the next year, I worked on creating this program on the side of my day job teaching. I would get up early, go to the gym and then sit in a café and work on the program an hour before school. At home in the evenings and a bit at weekends, I worked on it more. Just as I worked to learn and practice the skills of mindfulness incrementally each day, I did the same in putting together this approach. I committed to work on it every day and see at the end of the year where it went. By end of that period, we had a full program, a website and good partnerships in place, including with Adelaide Crows (the local Australian Rules football team). After about 2 years of doing the program, I was able to leave teaching and do it full time.
Getting children to sit still and concentrate and focus can be challenging in the best of circumstances. I knew that the task had to be short, packaged in 2-10 minute periods, perhaps one to start the day or between lessons where students need a brain break and for perhaps another at the end of the day.
To keep things interesting, the other key is variety, coming up with different activities to engage the students rather than doing the same thing over and over again. They might write what they’re grateful for on a paper leaf where they could stick it on a large paper tree on the wall. Or drop the piece of paper in a jar full of things children are grateful for.
We also had a Stop, Think & Appreciate activity where the students can put a little dot sticker on something they’re grateful for in the classroom. It reminds them that we’re really lucky that we’ve got laptop computers to work from and even pencils and pens. One other key is to actually explain to the students why we’re doing the activity. Even if they’re as young as 5 years old, you can still do that. It plants the seed.
One other technique I use to get the children on board is to explain it in a way they can truly understand. “How many of you play a sport or a musical instrument?” Many hands go up. “The first time you practiced, were you very good?” A chorus of no’s. “Think forward to now, have you got better?” Yeah! “It’s because you practiced. It’s exactly the same thing with gratitude and mindfulness. It takes consistent practice.”
Getting teachers to buy in can be equally daunting. You’ve probably got 20% of the teachers who say, “Yup, we’re all over this, we’re all in!” Then there’s another 20% who say, “Get away from me, I don’t want to know anything about it.” In the middle are the 60% who are not sure but are okay with it. I tell the teachers, “This is being designed by a teacher who understands that you get a lot of things added to your daily schedule and not much taken away.” The 60% in the middle really perk up when I tell them that they don’t have to do anything but download the resources and put the program up on the television or the smart board. They also quickly find out that there’s also something in it for them. It’s engaging them in the practice as they’re teaching the kids. If they get angry or frustrated when a child is not behaving appropriately, the teacher can put the same mindfulness strategies into effect by taking a couple of deep breaths, being aware of the thoughts and handling the situation in a more rational way.
In the end, what matters most is results. We did a study 2 years ago with the University of South Australia to test the Growing with Gratitude program in schools. The subjects did a practice of mindfulness and gratitude habits at least 3-4 times a week over the span of 10 weeks. I’ll never forget one boy who was interviewed at the end and asked what gratitude meant to him and how did he use it. He said, “I’ve actually come to realize how lucky I am that I get a chance to go to school. When I’m working, I feel like I’m able to concentrate a bit better.”
The father of an 8 or 9-year-old boy who also participated in the study came to the teacher in the classroom and asked, “What have you done to my son?” They were immigrants from Eastern Europe and were pretty new to the school. The teacher thought, “Oh, no, what’s happened?” The father said, “He’s starting to come home and say a lot more thank you’s. He’s more grateful for things. He’s asking to do things around the house.” So what this child did in the classroom, he also incorporated into his home life.
Before learning this for myself, I could get angry and frustrated if challenges came up for me and something didn’t go my way. In the old days, I could get so furious and lay awake all night. But now, my thinking speeds up. I’m more aware. I can reframe things to put the matter into a more positive perspective a lot quicker. I tell myself that I still have a roof over my head and food on the table to eat. Things are not really so bad. Gratitude is a skill for life.
For info on the Growing With Gratitude program, visit www.growingwithgratitude.com