Let’s Shift the Focus of 2021: Learning and Gratitude

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By Sarah Fowler

As we approach the one-year mark since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s time to look back at the blur of last year in 2020 hindsight, get it?

The 2020 roller coaster was filled with unexpected twists and turns, corkscrews, loop-de-loops, some ups, but mostly downs. The wind from the ride blew off our rose-colored glasses and opened our eyes. We’ve been forced to find peace in isolation, to search within in the absence of “out.” We’ve had to adjust to a completely new way of life, scrap our old routines, and start fresh. We’ve lost loved ones, lost touch with loved ones, and/or had strain with the loved ones that we’re “stuck” with.

But did anything good come from the pandemic?

When you’re swarmed by chaos, it is difficult to see from another perspective. Fear, doubt, and loneliness are kicking and screaming while your tiny little voice of wisdom is fainter than a mouse. But looking back in hindsight gives us a new view to reflect on. The inner voice grows louder as the intensity of emotions softens. When we have the mental and emotional capacity to listen, we can recount and assess what we learned or how we grew from our struggles.

One Foot In Front Of The Other Santa GIF - OneFootInFrontOfTheOther Santa  Christmas - Discover & Share GIFs

While the pandemic is persisting into 2021, we have the opportunity to reflect on 2020 in a different lens. We can look through a learning lens and reflect on what we learned from 2020. We can foster empathy by listening to other people’s stories and learn that many of the challenges we faced in 2020, other’s have been facing for a lifetime. We can also look through a lens of gratitude. At the very least, be grateful that you made it through each and everyday that you thought you wouldn’t or couldn’t. Appreciate yourself for marching into 2021, even if you feel like your feet are dragging. It may not seem like much, but the fact that 2020 is over means that millions of people made it through days, weeks, and months they feared they wouldn’t survive by simply putting one foot in front of the other and walking blindly into the face of fear.

Put one foot in front of the other
And soon you’ll be walking ‘cross the floor
You put one foot in front of the other
And soon you’ll be walking out the door

You never will get where you’re going
If ya never get up on your feet
Come on, there’s a good tail wind blowin’
A fast walking man is hard to beat

If you want to change your direction
If your time of life is at hand
Well, don’t be the rule; Be the exception
A good way to start is to stand

Put One Foot in Front of the Other” 1970 Rankin/Bass Christmas special Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.

Lens of Learning


The pandemic has opened up access to jobs, education, events, concerts, family reunions, and more to people with disabilities. Jobs that were previously inaccessible to people with disabilities are now accessible. This gives new meaning, purpose, and hope to those who have been isolated due to their disability.

Doctor’s appointments, therapy services, tutors, and lessons are now available to people with disabilities and people in remote locations.

In addition, students with disabilities now have the opportunity to attend classes in the comfort of their home whether that be at the primary, secondary, university, or graduate level. Research related to the pandemic and our adapted education system shows that online learning and teaching are effective if students have access to the internet and to computers if teachers receive appropriate training and supports. [2]

Lastly, many times people with disabilities or chronic illness are unable to attend events or concerts. However, the pandemic began the age of live-streamed concerts, allowing those with disabilities to attend from the comfort of their home. [1]


People have a better understanding of how difficult home-schooling is. We have gained a massive amount of respect for teachers, finally giving them the praise they’ve always deserved. The pandemic has also given us a lens that a parent or student with a disability may look through. If you don’t have a child with a disability, the main point here is that learning doesn’t stop at school. On top of classroom homework, students with disabilities may also have speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, and/or tutoring carryover work that a parent is required to participate in or supervise. Now that neurotypical children require similar parental involvement given the lost learning time, we can foster empathy for those parents and children that have been doing this all along. [2]

The pandemic also revealed an exacerbated low-income student opportunity gap. This forces us to look at how, even outside of a pandemic, low-income families have disadvantages compared to their peers and again, foster a sense of empathy for those who this gap affected prior to COVID-19. [2]

We have the chance to reflect on our education system and make changes as necessary. Many are calling for more standardized tests and placement tests after the pandemic to reduce the learning gap and meet students where they are. But is this really the best solution? Richard TenEyck wrote a blog, More Students Than Ever got F’s First Term… which addresses the growing concern of a learning gap as a result of distance learning during the pandemic. Some people are calling for more testing to gain further information about how the pandemic has affected education. However, Mr. TenEyck suggests the opposite. He poses the question, “Why in the face of the most emotional and disruptive times we have experienced in our lives, do we persist in needing to give students grades?” Using a letter-based grading system appeared in the 1930s and ’40s after enrollment in public school grew dramatically. The system began out of adult convenience. It was much easier to plop a letter grade down than to write an individual narrative for each child that emphasized the kind of standardization that served the growing need for equally trained workers. Yet to this day we have a grading system that is based on recall that has little to recommend it beyond the maintenance of a system we grew up with. When will we change a system that has little to no benefit for measuring success rates in schools? [3]

Mental Health Awareness

Many of us around the world are experiencing mental illness as a result of the pandemic. This includes our children. Sadly, 4 in 10 adults in the U.S. have reported symptoms of anxiety or depression since the start of the pandemic, up from 1 in 10 prior to COVID-19. In addition, research has shown that COVID-19 has affected the mental health of children and adolescents with symptoms of anxiety and depression beginning during the pandemic [4]. 57% of people are experiencing greater anxiety, and 53% of us are more emotionally exhausted. These emotions tend to arise when we lose stability in our lives. [7]

The silver lining is that parents are now more concerned about their children’s emotional well-being than they were prior to the pandemic. COVID-19 has disproportionately affected the health of communities of color which makes the challenges they face accessing mental health care even more severe. Given that mental illnesses are more common since the pandemic, more people have the opportunity to, yet again, foster empathy for those who suffered from mental illness prior to the pandemic. [4]

Additionally, we have learned the power of resilience even though many of us don’t feel resilient… we feel flat. We don’t feel strong as resilience so often implies. Instead, we are struggling to get out of bed in the mornings, dragging our feet through the day, and staying up late at night ridden with anxiety for the day to come. But resilience doesn’t mean you are unaffected by what life throws at you. Resilience is more about flexibility. Can we let go of resistance and let in gentleness, ease, and compassion to ourselves in others? Now that’s resilience. [5]

The Power of Science and Modern Medicine

Because of the pandemic, we have watched science and modern medicine diligently work together in the search for a cure. We put our fate into the hands of scientists, researchers, healthcare providers, and boy was it worth it! Every day I am grateful for the amazing brains that have been put together to make the world a safer place for all of us. Take a moment to notice all the things that had to happen for the vaccine to be made. How many people do you think were involved in the development of the vaccines? How many healthcare workers risked their lives to help their patients? How might you feel if you were in their shoes?

Civil Rights 2020

While they both were prevalent before 2020, Black Lives Matter and Pride were reignited in 2020. Last year was an eye-opening year that put the disparities these communities face at the forefront. Many people felt like their voices were finally being heard and while the fight is nowhere close to being over, communities were able to unite through social media, amplifying their stories. We learned so much about institutional racism that many of us were unaware of. We now have a starting place to dismantle institutionalized racism and discrimination. We have shifted into an era of equity and equal representation and a call for diversity in the workforce, music, movies, shows, and children’s books has been made. Before 2020, many of us felt helpless but now we have the resources to fight systemic racism and discrimination. At the very least, we can listen to personal POC and LGBTQ+ stories with an open mind and an open heart. This is yet another place for us to foster empathy! Imagine yourself as a POC or a member of the LGBTQ+ community, how would you feel? Scared? Hurt? Angry? Fed up? What can we learn from their perspectives?

Symbol of the LGBT community, a fist in a rainbow circle. Symbols of the movement for freedom of black people. Black lives matter. Movement for freedom and equality. Flat vector illustration.

Lens of Gratitude

We have discussed the wisdom we’ve gained from 2020 including an increased awareness of what different populations (e.g. people with disabilities, students, teachers, those with mental illnesses, etc.) may have felt even before the pandemic. Noticing what we learned last year is the first step to practicing gratitude amidst the tribulations of 2020. But what exactly is gratitude… and why should we practice it?

What? Gratitude is all about noticing and actively appreciating the good things in your life. However, scientists argue that gratitude is more than feeling thankful. It is a deep appreciation for someone or something that produces longer-lasting positivity. Gratitude involves the recognition of the goodness in our lives, and how this goodness came to us. In doing so, we recognize the luck of everything that makes our lives and ourselves better. [6]

Uses? Acts of gratitude can be used to form new relationships and/or strengthen current ones. It can be used to apologize, make amends, and solve problems. [6] Looking through a lens of gratitude allows you to see the silver lining in the most tumultuous times.

Why? Gratitude is a selfless act. For example, if your child is sad and you write them a note of appreciation, you are not asking for anything in return. Instead, you are reminding them of their value and expressing gratitude for their existence alone. Most recently, psychology has expanded the important role gratitude plays in our lives. They have found that being grateful can lead to increased levels of well-being, deeper relationships, improved optimism, increased happiness, stronger self-control, better physical and mental health, an overall better life, stronger athleticism, and a stronger neurologically-based morality. [6]

Gratitude during the COVID-19 Pandemic

As we all know, the pandemic has increased stress and feelings of uncertainty. And while gratitude doesn’t address the root cause of this stress, it can help balance it out. [7]

When we experience gratitude, we shift our focus from what we don’t want to what we do and take time to appreciate the abundance in our lives. Imagine if your mind is a digestive system. What you put in it changes how you feel. If you are consistently feeding it negativity, worry, resentment, and self-criticism, it negatively impacts your mental health. Gratitude is like a workout / healthy eating diet for your brain! [7].

Teaching gratitude to our future generations

When teaching gratitude to our children, we must understand that gratitude comes in many forms. It can be as simple as “thank you” or more specifically addressing the strengths of the person you are grateful for. Strength-based parenting is a way of raising children that shows appreciation and gratitude for who they are and models how to appreciate the strengths in others too. By modeling gratitude during daily life, your child learns appreciation in action [8].

Many parenting websites focus on teaching children to say thank you as a form of gratitude. This is a great place to start but gratitude has four parts: noticing the things you have to be grateful for, thinking about why you’ve been given those things, feeling the emotions you experience as a result of the things you’ve been given, and doing e.g., the way you express appreciation. [8]

So how can we teach future generations how gratitude works?

Younger Children:

  • Ask questions. Pose questions about the four parts of gratitude mentioned above. This could be at a time when your child receives a physical gift or if someone shows kindness to them:
    • Notice – What do you have in your life to be grateful for? Are there things to be grateful for beyond the actual gifts someone has given you? Are you grateful for any people in your life? [8]
    • Think – What do you think about this present? Do you think you should give something to the person who gave it to you? Do you think you earned the gift? Do you think the person gave you a gift because they thought they had to or because they wanted to? [8]
    • Feel – Does it make you feel happy to get this gift? What does it feel like inside? What about this gift makes you feel happy? [8]
    • Do – Is there a way to show how you feel about this gift? Does the feeling you have about this gift make you want to share this feeling by giving to someone else? [8]
  • Perform acts of kindness. Make it clear that there are many ways to show people you are grateful for them. [8]
  • Model gratitude. Say, “thank you” often, talking about gratidude and what you’re grateful for. Even if you’re having an off day, point out what you still have to be grateful for. [8]
  • Create a family gratitude project: Make a bulletin board where everyone can add notes about what they are thankful for. You could also start a gratitude jar that everyone contributes to once a day. [8]
  • Start a gratitude ritual: find a time of day to regularly express gratitdue whether that’s during family dinner time, bedtime, on the way to/from school, sunday nights or saturday mornings! A gratitude ritual could also come in the form of a gratitude journal in which your child writes what they are grateful for in their journal before bed. [8]
  • Look for the silver lining. As we mentioned above, while the overall negativity of the pandemic prevails, you can still find silver linings even in the worst storm imaginable. [8]

Teens and Adolescents

This gratitude exercise from https://hbr.org/2020/10/use-gratitude-to-counter-stress-and-uncertainty is aimed more towards teens, adolescents and adults.

“When you find yourself stuck in a constant state of worry, or hyper focused on what is not working around you, try to pause for a second and ask yourself one or two of the following questions.

  1. What have I gotten to learn recently that has helped me grow?
  2. What opportunities do I currently have that I am grateful for?
  3. What physical abilities do I have but take for granted?
  4. What did I see today or over the last month that was beautiful?
  5. Who at work am I happy to see each day and why?
  6. Who is a person that I don’t speak to often, but, if I lost them tomorrow, it would be devastating? (Take this as a cue to reach out today!)
  7. What am I better at today than I was a year ago?
  8. What material object do I use every day that I am thankful for having?
  9. What has someone done for me recently that I am grateful for?
  10. What are the three things I am grateful for right now?

By taking time to write down our answers, we consciously redirect our attention to that which we are grateful for. It’s also a great way to look back and realize what we may have thought of as insignificant was actually the things that brought us joy.”

Final thoughts

If COVID did anything positive for society it offered us the opportunity to learn what life is like in other people’s shoes, whether that’s people with disabilities, students, teachers, those with mental illnesses, POC, LBGTQ+ community, etc. We now have the ability to feel some of what they are feeling and have felt in the past. And that is the first step to change. Most importantly, however, we have learned to appreciate and express gratitude for what we have, recognizing that others may not have the same resources or opportunities. If you are a parent, I encourage you to sit down with your children and brainstorm what you can be grateful for in 2020. If you are not a parent, think about all the things you yourself are grateful for from 2020. Maybe you could start up a conversation with a family member or friend to list things you are grateful for! Let’s shift our focus in 2021 and look through a lens of learning and gratitude!

Additional resources


  1. 2020 Flipped: 11 Good Things That Have Come Out of a Pandemic Year
  2. The Consequences of the COVID-19 Pandemic for Education Performance and Equity
  3. More Students Than Ever got F’s First Term…
  4. The Implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use
  5. Psychological Hibernation and Resilience
  6. Gratitude Appreciation
  7. Use Gratitude to Counter Stress and Uncertainty
  8. Why Gratitude is the Best Gift we Can Give Our Children
  9. How to Teach Children Gratitude