Service Learning Counseling Intervention Project

Justin Vacula

Marywood University


I describe an intervention tailored to elementary school students which can especially benefit a

population within a school-based behavioral health program. Themes discussed in the writings of Stoic

Philosophers from Ancient Greece and Rome, such as gratitude discussed in this paper, can help

students better cope with everyday stressors and cultivate a psychologically healthy mindset. A vast

body of literature shows a positive correlation between feelings of gratitude and human flourishing.

People of all ages and demographics can benefit from improving their coping skills by

identifying and modifying maladaptive cognitions; recognizing and changing patterns of behavior

which may be counter-productive to contentment; and implementing a virtues-based or values-based

framework to strengthen one's mindset.

The tradition of Stoic Philosophy, dating back to Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome –

popularized by thinkers including Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca – is undergoing a modern

revival which provides an accessible positive philosophy of life people can use to apply wisdom to

everyday living. Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck drew upon Stoic Philosophy in their theoretical

foundations as explained in Donald Robertson's book The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural

Therapy (CBT): Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy (Robertson, 2010).

Elementary school students -- especially those who are in a school-based behavioral health

(SBBH) program and struggling with implementing age-appropriate coping skills on a weekly or daily

basis -- can benefit from interventions, tailored to their age, inspired by writings from Stoic

Philosophers which include participation in discussions; interactive presentations; and small group


Agency X has a dedicated room for their SBBH program in Y Elementary School offered by Z

school district which serves as a meeting room, office, and space students can utilize for breaks and

short therapy sessions. Staff include mental health professionals and licensed social workers with

Master's degrees certified in safe crisis management training who work closely with guidance

counselors and teachers employed by Z school district. The room has several desks for students and

staff; tables with laptops for staff and classroom materials for students; cabinets with materials for play

and rewards students can earn; and storage areas containing client information and paperwork. The

walls are decorated with positive messages, posters, and art students have created. Students are

typically referred to SBBH by school staff and must complete a thorough process after initial screening,

through the cooperation of their guardians, to become a part of the SBBH program.

Agency X holds weekly team meetings to discuss individual students and plan how to address

pressing concerns. Potential incoming clients are also discussed. Throughout the school day, team

members intervene in crisis situations typically following notifications from teachers; observe students

in the classroom; provide short therapy sessions in the SBBH room; schedule meetings with students'

guardians to update treatment plans, assess for mental health concerns, and participate in meetings with

a psychiatrist for students' medication management or implementation.

Agency X's SBBH program seems to be a great asset to Y Elementary School and its students.

Teachers, especially those lacking training in social work and counseling, may struggle with meeting

the needs of their students which are met by the SBBH program. Students -- if they were not attended

to by the SBBH program -- might not be able to function well in mainstream classrooms, bounce back

following periods of extreme stress, or maintain a good record of attendance because they may face a

high amount of suspensions due to disruptive behavior. I think the agency is quite effective in helping

students and can benefit from additional interventions focusing on topics discussed in the writings of

Stoic Philosophers.

Reflecting on common themes within Stoic Philosophy such as acceptance, gratitude,

moderation, resilience, focusing on what is in one's control, mindfulness, orientation to the present, and

reducing one's desires can help students better cope with stressors. For purposes of this paper, I'll

explore an intervention using the topic of gratitude, but the intervention described here can be altered to

include other topics depending on needs for an organization and/or the population which is being


Someone who is looking to apply an intervention to a group of students in a school-based

behavioral health program can ask staff who work on a regular basis with the students for information

pertaining to areas of concern for students so that an activity facilitator could select a topic for

discussion. Clients may also self-disclose and explain areas in which they would like to improve –

perhaps they mention having a difficult time thinking positively, controlling their anger, experiencing

high degrees of anxiety, or feeling excessively guilty or ashamed about past events.

An activity facilitator can select the theme of gratitude for one intervention and start an activity

by asking students for their thoughts on the topic. Perhaps students have ideas about what gratitude is

and can provide a definition, share a personal experience, or think of similar words. This opening

activity should generate valuable discussion. Throughout this activity, the activity facilitator can utilize

a tool such as a chalkboard, whiteboard, or smartboard to jot ideas shared by students and offer verbal

praise when students participate.

The facilitator can provide examples of times people may feel a sense of gratitude if students do

not share personal stories. The facilitator can also talk about why gratitude can be important and that

being grateful for the positive elements of our lives can help people better cope with challenges and

have a more balanced picture of life which is not primarily negative. Students can be encouraged to list

things they are grateful for and explain why the focus of their gratitude is important. The activity

facilitator can also add ideas to a list if students are not participating or struggle to think of reasons to

be grateful.

Students may become aware that they take many things for granted and can come to understand

that there are many reasons to be grateful. The activity facilitator can encourage students to consider

many positive elements of their lives when they may be feeling anger, lacking self-esteem,

experiencing a setback, or complaining when things do not go their way. Students can also feel a sense

of gratitude for being able to overcome challenges and cope in situations they may find difficult to


The activity facilitator can draw upon quotes from Stoic texts by introducing them -- providing

some background about the selected quote and how it can relate to modern living -- and reading the

passages with some modification so that the language is more easily understood especially when

considering the age of students. Following the reading, the activity facilitator can elaborate on the

message from the passage, ask students questions, and respond to inquiries from students.

One passage touching on gratitude from Marcus Aurelius, found in Book V of his Meditations,

reads, “Revere which is the best in yourself” (Aurelius, 1997, p. 33). The activity facilitator can

introduce this quote by saying something like, “One way to help us get through difficult times is to

know our strengths, what we are good at, what is good about us, and to be thankful for our good

qualities. Rather than being so hard on ourselves or thinking we are no good, we can remember what's

good about us and use these qualities to help us have good days.” Students can then list positive

qualities about themselves and others for an exercise which could lead to more self-knowledge and

increased feelings of self-esteem.

Another passage which touches on the topic of gratitude is found in Seneca's letter titled On

Consolation to the Bereaved which states, “many men fail to count up how manifold their gains have

been, how great their rejoicings” (Seneca, 2016, p. 355). The activity facilitator can introduce this

quote stating that people can often forget about or take for granted really positive parts of their lives.

Students may think that because some parts of life aren't going so well, everything is going or has gone

poorly. The facilitator can encourage students to take a big-picture approach of life and think about

really good events in the past.

Seneca's letter On Benefits has a good deal of commentary on gratitude. In one passage he

writes, “Do you ask what it is that makes us forget benefits received? It is our extreme greed for

receiving others. We consider not what we have obtained, but what we are to seek” (Seneca, 2016, p.

235). The activity facilitator can introduce this quote by explaining that we can have really high

expectations or wants and be upset when we don't get what we want and even not think about what we

have received from others or what is going well for us. Students can be encouraged to think about and

perhaps revise their expectations and be grateful for the kindness and help they have received from


By the end of the gratitude intervention, each client should be able to demonstrate a better

understanding of gratitude through definitions, examples, and reasons why they can feel a sense of

gratitude. Clients can improve their coping skills through increased awareness of gratitude in their lives

which can lead to higher self-efficacy. Self-report measures following the intervention can aid the

facilitator in gauging the intervention's effectiveness. Tests administered before and after the

intervention such as The Gratitude Questionnaire-Six Item Form (GQ-6) and the Gratitude Resentment

and Appreciation Test (GRAT) can also help the SBBH team determine whether the intervention was


During or after an activity session, students can be encouraged to maintain a gratitude journal in

which they can compose daily or weekly entries. Students can start their first passage during an activity

session and be asked to complete other passages outside the interventions. Students can also be

encouraged to read passages when they are having a difficult time coping or share information from the

journal with family members.

Sansone and Sansone (2010) link feelings of gratitude with increased levels of life satisfaction

and psychological fitness; they mention the GQ-6 assessment that measures gratitude which “is

positively linked to optimism, life satisfaction, hope, spirituality/religiousness, forgiveness, empathy,

and prosocial behavior” (p. 21). Authors also list ideas for increasing a sense of gratitude including

sending a letter to a person one is grateful for; writing thank-you notes; and engaging in rehearsals of

genuinely expressing verbal thanks. The facilitator of the gratitude activity can implement exercises

these authors mention with the goal of increasing students' levels of gratitude.

Rusk, Vella-Broderick, and Waters (2016) -- drawing upon findings of other researchers -- link

increased feelings of gratitude with prosocial behavior, positive emotions, increased motivation, a

willingness to exercise more regularly, reduced feelings of envy, and fewer materialistic desires. An

intervention designed to explore and cultivate gratitude should complement existing aims of the SBBH

program because it helps individuals be more psychologically healthy.

Dickens and DeSteno (2016) found a positive correlation between high levels of gratitude with

self-control and patience following an experiment testing whether individuals could forsake short-term

gratification to make more lucrative long-term financial decisions. Authors believe that individuals who

score high in feelings of gratitude will be more likely to make better decisions “in other areas in which

self-control failures often play a problematic role” (p. 424). Students in the SBBH program may be

prone to make poor impulsive decisions. Perhaps increased levels of gratitude and the benefits to well-

being gratitude can foster will help students make better choices in everyday living and better cope

with adversity.

Petrocchi and Couyoumdjian (2016) state that individuals with high levels of gratitude are

associated with a decreased likelihood to exhibit symptoms of anxiety and depression; engage in

unhealthy coping behaviors; and engage in self-deprecation through excessive self-blame and self-

criticism. They also note that “being grateful renders individuals more prone to show kindness,

comprehension, support and compassion towards themselves when setbacks and frustrations occur” (p.

200). Students in the SBBH program, especially those struggling with symptoms of anxiety and

depression, can benefit from a gratitude intervention.

Lin (2015) found that gratitude is positively correlated with social support, positive coping

skills, positive emotions, and life satisfaction. She associates gratitude with “feelings of being loved,

cared for, and valued, as well as prosocial behaviors, which further strengthen self-esteem” (p. 501).

Some students in the SBBH program -- staff have explained -- struggle with acceptable age-appropriate

social interactions; have turbulent home lives and/or a history of traumatic experiences which may

interfere with life satisfaction; and have low self-esteem. A gratitude intervention can increase the

well-being of students in the SBBH program.

The activity facilitator -- drawing upon research which correlates feelings of gratitude with

improved psychological health -- can tailor an intervention or interventions to elementary school

students in a SBBH program with relatively low-cost (some classroom materials are needed) and

options for how much time is spent depending on students' availability. The activity facilitator can

prepare for a series of interventions or just one intervention lasting fifteen minutes including exercises

previously listed in this paper including open discussion about what gratitude means; creating a list of

things students are grateful for; starting and maintaining a gratitude journal; discussion about Stoic

passages; gratitude assessments; writing letters and thank-you notes; and rehearsals of expressing



Aurelius, M. (1997). Meditations. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

Dickens, L., & DeSteno, D. (2016). The grateful are patient: Heightened daily gratitude is associated

with attenuated temporal discounting. Emotion, 16(4), 421-425. doi:10.1037/emo0000176

Lin, C. (2015). Impact of gratitude on resource development and emotional well-being. Social

Behavior And Personality, 43(3), 493-504. doi:10.2224/sbp.2015.43.3.493

Petrocchi, N., & Couyoumdjian, A. (2016). The impact of gratitude on depression and anxiety: The

mediating role of criticizing, attacking, and reassuring the self. Self And Identity, 15(2), 191-

205. doi:10.1080/15298868.2015.1095794

Robertson, D. (2010). The philosophy of cognitive-behavioural Therapy (CBT): Stoic philosophy as

rational and cognitive psychotherapy. London: Karnac Books Ltd.

Rusk, R. D., Vella-Brodrick, D. A., & Waters, L. (2016). Gratitude or gratefulness? A conceptual

review and proposal of the system of appreciative functioning. Journal Of Happiness Studies,

17(5), 2191-2212. doi:10.1007/s10902-015-9675-z

Sansone, R. A., & Sansone, L. A. (2010). Gratitude and well-being: The benefits of appreciation.

Psychiatry (Edgmont), 7(11), 18–22.

Seneca, L. A. (2016). Seneca’s Letters from a stoic. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc.