Butterfly effect: Schools embrace gratitude

St Brigid's Marrickville Gratitude Project

Living gratitude: St Brigid’s Marrickville Family Educator Paige Bullen, Parish Priest Father John Pearce, Principal Lynnette Sandford and students with butterflies from the Gratitude Project. Photo: Kitty Beale

With butterflies and flowers as its symbols, the Gratitude Project has taken flight at Sydney Catholic primary schools and is growing an attitude of thankfulness in playground and parish each day.

The program has roots in positive psychology and scripture, drawing on the parable of the ten lepers (only one thanked Jesus after he was healed) and the research of academics including Dr Christine Carter. The senior fellow at the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Centre produced the six-minute video blog on gratitude that was the seed for the project.  St Brigid’s Catholic Primary Marrickville, St Patrick’s Catholic Primary Sutherland, St Kevin’s Catholic Primary Eastwood, St Vincent’s Catholic Primary Ashfield and Fr John Therry Catholic Primary Balmain have all introduced the Gratitude Project, which is delivered by family educators in partnership with school principals and parish priests.

Dr Carter said the benefits of consciously practicing gratitude were great and, when part of a school’s culture, could create a more positive and connected school environment.

“In general, gratitude helps kids develop supportive relationships, and to feel connected to a caring community,” she said. “Grateful adolescents (ages 11-13) tend to be happier and more optimistic … and give more emotional support to others. Grateful teens (ages 14-19) … use their strengths to better their community, are more engaged in their schoolwork and hobbies, have higher grades, and are less envious, depressed, and materialistic.”

The real knack to daily gratitude is finding those things to be grateful for that are seen as more ordinary.

– Paige Bullen

At St Brigid’s, students from Kindergarten to Year 6 wrote on sunny yellow cardboard butterflies all the things they were grateful for. The initiative was launched at Easter and the school community returned 1450 butterflies. “We chose the butterfly because of this idea that gratitude changes people and changes lives,” said family educator Paige Bullen. “It’s transformative and also linked to the themes of Easter. The gold colour symbolises renewal.”

“It’s quite moving when you read them because some are at those honest, bottom-line sort of reasons. One of the key things we tried to focus on at St Brigid’s was building an awareness of noticing the everyday. It’s really easy to feel spontaneously grateful when big things happen – the birth of a baby, a new job, a big holiday. The real knack to daily gratitude is finding those things to be grateful for that are seen as more ordinary.”

A public speaking event in August asked students in each grade to answer ‘What am I grateful for? Some named family, ants and smiles, while others explored more deeply, citing refugees and people with disabilities as inspirational for showing gratitude even in far from ideal circumstances. Students also received ‘A Place for Grace’ place mat with about 40 different prayers to express gratitude for food, while a TEDx talk by Austrian Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast on gratitude also fed interest in the project.

Parent at St Patrick’s Catholic Primary Sutherland Gemma Andrews played the YouTube clip of Steindl-Rast’s talk to her children – Judd in Year 5, Ivy in Year 4, and Layla in Kindergarten – at home after seeing it at a Stop, Pray and Reflect (SPaR) session with the school’s family educator Mouna Roche.

“It was all about the simple things that we forget in life – running water, and the warm breeze and smells of flowers – and makes you really take a step back and think about what is important instead of all the superficial things,” Mrs Andrews said.

“My dearest son was being a bit difficult that day and I said to him ‘I think you’re missing in your life gratitude. You think that everything is about Xbox games and what you want and you’re missing the big picture’.

“I played him the YouTube clip and it really touched him. He and the girls said they were going to watch it every night before they went to bed and just try to ground themselves. I played it for my husband and for my friends too.”

St Patrick’s chose to ‘Spring into gratitude’, the project now in full bloom and cardboard flowers of positive statements written by students, parents and staff a focal point in the school gardens.  Mrs Roche described gratitude as the opposite of entitlement, an antidote of sorts.

“A lot of parents have said to me that this is so needed,” she said. “Through the season of spring and leading up Advent  this will be a lovely time of thanksgiving, and change the thinking around what gratefulness actually is – that it’s an attitude, it’s not just a word.”

St Vincent’s Catholic Primary Ashfield family educator Sinead Kent facilitated the Gratitude Project over a full year at the school.  English is a second language for many members of the diverse community which includes Mandarin, Vietnamese, Nepalese, Hindi, Polish, and Malay speakers. The project translated well through a gratitude jar for each classroom – a place to put their butterflies with grateful statements – and gratitude journals that students took home.

“The children say how thankful they are for their education and that they are safe,” Mrs Kent said. “They’ve gone past ‘I’m really grateful my Mum made me a lovely lunch’ and they are actually just grateful. It’s lovely. Their growth in their own spirituality and prayer and their ability to express that has come, I believe, because it has been a year-long process. We’ve all been on a journey of gratitude.”


What staff say about the Gratitude Project:

“From the start we thought this had possibilities for driving a sense of communion between the school and parish. I Googled gratitude prayers and we put a few into the newsletters straight away, like the TSP or ‘teaspoon’ prayer – Thank you, Sorry, Please. It’s simple and when you repeat it in a homily people sit up and go ‘Oh yeah’.”

Father John Pearce, St Brigid’s Marrickville Parish Priest

 “I see gratitude being centred around wellbeing. When student and community wellbeing comes first, everything else will flow from that in terms of good teaching and learning. My flower is on my office door. It’s a high traffic area and is a visual reminder not only to me, but to others of how much I appreciate them and the broader community at St Patrick’s.”

Lauren Oliver, St Patrick’s Assistant Principal

 “It’s a wonderful expression of people being more in touch with their appreciation of their God-given gifts. It also brings about a healthy, positive outlook on life, some deepening of the wonderful gift that God is.”

Fr John Knight, St Patrick’s Parish Priest

“Another strength of the project is that it is so simple. We can all have that conversation about the things we are grateful for. The first step is to notice.”

 Angela Mills, Fr John Therry  Family Educator

Some things students were grateful for:

Classmates that make them smile, Xbox, unicorns, their teachers, family, friends, nature, trees, the world and its creatures, yummy food, sport, colour, relatives being well after illness, parents who love them.


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