The Occupation of Gratitude: Using Positivity to Promote Mental Health with School-Aged Children

School districts, occupational therapists, and mental health experts take many lessons from the Covid pandemic — including the recognition that giving school-aged children access to positive mental health promotion can ensure they have coping skills before they need them. 

Carlow faculty, along with Carlow Master of Science in Occupational Therapy and Doctor of Occupational Therapy students, have been working with 8th graders from the Campus Laboratory School on a strengths-based curriculum centered around gratitude.

Covid Challenges

Covid left most of us feeling depleted of good feelings.  Many of us experienced fear, isolation, fatigue, and anxiety as we tried to navigate changes in our routines at home, work, and school. Children were not excluded from the psychological stressors associated with living through a worldwide pandemic. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Children’s Hospital Association in 2021 declared a National Emergency in Child and Adolescent Mental Health. Spencer et al. (2021) found a significant increase in symptoms of anxiety and depression as well as social risk taking among school-aged children living in urban areas during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic. Though the need for services has increased dramatically, the number of providers has not been able to mirror that growth.  

Creating a Multi-Tiered System of Support 

School Districts that invite Occupational Therapists to be part of the Multi-Tiered System of Support decision-making team open doors for Occupational Therapists to work with all children, rather than just the children with needs identified in an Individualized Education Plan.  According to Dr. Miranda Virone, Academic Fieldwork Coordinator for Carlow University and mental health advocate, all students, regardless of mental health status or diagnosis, can have access to programming that includes “emotional literacy, anxiety/stress management, healthy social participation, social inclusion, and technology safety and well-being.” 

How Occupational Therapy Develops Coping Skills in Students  

Dr. Virone is working to promote positive mental health in students at the Campus Laboratory School (CLS) on the campus of Carlow University. Dr. Virone, along with Carlow Master of Science in Occupational Therapy and Doctor of Occupational Therapy students, have been working with 8th graders to help them identify their strengths and start living a lifestyle of gratitude. Carlow OT students used the “Thanks! A Strengths-Based Gratitude Curriculum for Teens & Tweens” developed by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley to help students at the CLS identify positive traits in themselves and their peers and learn how to incorporate gratitude into their daily lives.  According to Virone, “It’s not enough to have an attitude of gratitude, students need to practice gratitude on a daily basis”. 

Carlow Occupational Therapy Program Helps Address Mental Health Needs

Carlow’s Occupational Therapy program is thankful to have Dr. Virone leading the way and providing solutions for schools that are struggling to address the mental health needs of their students. Carlow Occupational Therapy students will be among the first generation of therapists prepared to enter the workforce and provide innovative solutions to promote wellness among school-aged students.

Laura Huth is an Assistant Professor in the Occupational Therapy programs at Carlow University. She completed her doctoral research on ensuring the capacity of OT faculty to prepare future clinicians to promote positive mental health in school-aged children.

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